The London Marathon started today, and has finished for some. The winners and runners-up are rejoicing or grieving, depending on their ambitions, and many others are still running, walking, hopping, skipping, jumping and generally progressing around the course in whatever mode and manner they have chosen. It’s a great event, and the sun has been shining down kindly on the participants for once.
Among the wheelchair racers was a former neighbour of mine. Four years ago, she won the London Marathon women’s wheelchair race and managed to set a record in doing so. Today she came seventh, still with a good time, and an excellent achievement. Sandra Graf, from Gais, Appenzell, is a fighter, with not only medals and trophies from major city marathons such as London, Paris, New York and Berlin, but also from the Paralympics in Sydney and Beijing (she had problems in Athens in 2004, when a screw came loose on one of her wheels, otherwise no doubt she would also have done well there).
Sandra doesn’t know me (at least, I don’t think she does) although we lived within a radius of 200 m from one another for about 15 years. But I knew her, as one of our local celebrities, and have narrowly avoided running her over on more than one occasion since she has to practise and train alongside the traffic on the village roads.
She first came to my attention in the early ‘nineties, when construction work suddenly stopped on an attractive new house just down the road from where I was living. Being nosy, I asked why and learnt that the house was being built for a young couple, but the bride had suffered a tragic accident which had left her wheelchair-bound.
It’s impossible to have a really private life in a Swiss village, where everyone knows everyone and their ancestors to the fourth and fifth generations. (I once overheard a young man being roundly condemned by an elderly lady, who maintained that his father and grandfather before him had been good-for-nothings, so he didn’t stand a chance.) So we all knew about Sandra’s accident. What we also knew was that she had guts, determination and a supportive family. So it came as no surprise when construction work resumed, the house was finished (with appropriate adaptations for her needs) and the Grafs moved in.
Like her parents and husband, she had always been heavily involved in sport, and in fact it was while performing on the rings in a gym that she had fallen and broken her back at the age of 21. Sandra believes we are able to shape our own destiny. She couldn’t envisage a life without sporting activity of some kind and says: “ I decided there was no use looking back; I had to make the best of today and tomorrow,” and a year after the accident she was learning to steer her first racing wheelchair. This was a sport she could practise without outside help and which benefitted both her physical and mental health.
Always happy to face a challenge, she ran her first international marathon in 1995, and after the birth of her second daughter in 1997 she began intensive training with the objective of participating in the Paralympics. She achieved this goal and came 5th in the Sydney Paralympics in 2000, following this up by winning the Berlin marathon in the same year. Since then, she has gone from triumph to triumph and trophy to trophy, remaining the same cheerful, modest person. Hers is a tale of true grit, and she is an inspiration to those who are facing tough challenges in their lives.