Walking under water

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THE NUMBER ON HIS SPEEDOMETER didn’t matter at times like these. The wind was sweeping cool, refreshing air over his hands, around his jacket, and through his hair. He felt infinite racing his motorcycle around the continuous sharp turns on the sacred roads of the Huelva mountains with his two best friends. Watching the green and brown shades of nature blurring together, time didn’t exist.

BUT IN THE FEW SECONDS AFTER he saw the Audi A3 rounding the bend, trees closely hugging either side, timing was everything. There was no screeching or honking. The collision seemed swift and silent, but because of a few seconds, his life would be changed forever.

ON JUNE 28, 2008, 22-year-old Pablo Tovar crashed headfirst on his motorcycle into the oncoming Audi. When he woke up he was laying on the paved track in shock and unable to move. An emergency helicopter loudly whirred above him, kicking up dust and stray leaves as it made its descent.

SEVERAL HOURS LATER, which to him felt like it could have been either a million years or just
a minute, he lay waiting in a stale washed-out room in Seville’s Virgen del Rocío Hospital. The nurse came to deliver the news. He had broken two vertebrates, causing a lesion of the spinal cord. Paralyzed from the torso down, he would not be able to walk again.

PABLO, NOW 28, pauses for a moment to reflect.

“I grew up loving to play outside, more than any of my four siblings,” he says. “I remember my dad would take me to the park almost every day to ride bikes, play soccer, and just run around.” Those are Pablo’s favorite childhood memories.

BY AGE 13 he had practiced taekwondo, volleyball, paddle tennis, and was on his school’s soccer team. He later made some of his closest friends through motocross. “We would go to the circuit and hang out on our motorcycles for three or four hours, having a blast. It was great,” Álvaro de Pro Álvarez, one of Pablo’s classmates and motorcycling buddies, says.

“BUT EVERYTHING CAN CHANGE in an instant,” Pablo states with conviction. At first he thought the collision had slammed the door on any possibility of a successful life. In the days following his accident, he felt that he had lost everything and that he couldn’t move forward. “Everything seemed duller than before, less important and less alive,” he says.

LITTLE BY LITTLE LIFE CONTINUED, and with time he did move on. He accepted the reality that he would have to do everything without moving his legs, and he began to search for something to give meaning to this new phase of his life. “I wanted to change as little as possible. I wanted to keep doing what I had always loved doing, and for me that meant staying active and outdoors,” Pablo explains. “The definition of ‘sport’ doesn’t give it justice. For me, it’s a way of feeling alive, free, and happy whether playing along or with others. Sports have been a consistent source of joy for me.”

SPORTS, and the sense of camaraderie associated with it, have helped Pablo overcome his injury in a way that nothing else could. “I have received an impressive amount of help from people, some I didn’t even know,” he says. “What surprises me is how others are willing to go out of their way to accommodate me. It’s humbling.”

BUT IT WASN’T ALWAYS SO EASY. Playing soccer or volleyball with his friends was out of the picture, and even paddle tennis posed a myriad of obstacles. He has overcome most of them. Now, he practices paddle tennis every Monday and Wednesday. He has river kayaked. He swims and water skis in the summer, and mountain skis during the winter. Last spring he tried paragliding for the first time and has recently taken up sea diving.

UNDER WATER he doesn’t look different than anyone else. Down there he doesn’t depend on any kind of chair. He uses the same tools as every scuba diver, just fins, a mask, and an oxygen tank. When he is submerged in the water, or in any sport, an irreplaceable peacefulness overcomes him. It is a common language understood by every athlete, a language that doesn’t require words.

“STOPPING IN THE MIDDLE OF A MOUNTAIN, when it’s just me and the mountain, without feeling my ski sliding, to enjoy this moment and nothing more. That is when I feel most alive. It’s the best way to get to know yourself, whoever you are,” believes Pablo. In these terms, he has gotten to know himself very well.

LAST YEAR HE COMPETED in the Andalucía Ski Championships, and this winter he will participate in the national competition. His aspirations aren’t set on dominating the slopes, winning this upcoming meet, or getting to the next level. His hope is simply to seek new experiences and enjoy everything nature has to offer him.

MANY PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES inspire us with their strength and determination, but Pablo doesn’t compete to be the next Bethany Hamilton or Jason Lester. He is not blinded by ambition, and does not consider himself to be a competitive person. For him sports are simply a basic necessity to live.

“HE HAS DONE MORE THAN I EVER HAVE,” his friend Álvaro says in reference to Pablo’s athletic endeavors since becoming a paraplegic. “Yeah, he has definitely lived,” Alvaro smiles.

“THE THING THAT AMAZES ME THE MOST about Pablo is his enthusiasm and energy to set out on new challenges and achieve his goals,” his best friend Antonio Rabasco, says. “For me, every day I consider myself lucky to have him at my side,” he continues. Pablo has turned tragedy into a source of inspiration and pride for himself, his friends, and his family.

“NOW,” PABLO PROCLAIMS. “It seems like the best thing that could have happened to me.” He explains that the things that limit us, also give us more strength to fight. “Now, I have the satisfaction of knowing that something like this can’t overcome me,” he says. Pablo also noted how he has been lucky enough to see the world for a second time from a different vantage point.

PABLO DOES NOT DENY that his day-to-day life is much more complicated now, but with a grin spreading across his face, he says that the only difference is that before he rode his bike and now he gets around by car.

PABLO SMILES OFTEN. He smiles every day with a bring-it-on type of attitude for any challenge he may encounter. His hopes are set optimistically on the present. When asked what his dreams are for the future he responds, “When you talk about ‘dreams,’ I am living mine.”