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Ileana Rodriguez, who will be leading the Refugee Paralympic Team at the Tokyo Games, is excited that refugee para athletes will be able to provide a much-needed message of hope in difficult times come next summer.

Rodriguez, a former refugee who represented the United States in swimming at the 2012 London Paralympics, told Kyodo News in a recent interview that she hopes to see the Refugee Paralympic Team use sport as a means to contribute to a more inclusive world.

“The best message we can send from refugee athletes is that the team goes beyond nationalities,” she said.

The 35-year-old, who works as an architect and accessibility specialist, says she wants to give voice to the voiceless and remind the almost 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide they are not forgotten, even during a global pandemic.

She also wants those who flee their countries to know they are capable of achieving great things.

“It’s a huge message for people who are in camps when things seem to be impossible. Being a refugee having a disability and on top of that, being an elite athlete is definitely a huge accomplishment and big message of hope for all the refugees for sure,” she said.

Last month, the International Paralympic Committee announced plans to create and support a refugee team consisting of up to six athletes for next year’s delayed Tokyo Games. As chef de mission for the RPT, Rodriguez will work with the IPC to select the refugee team.

Ileana Rodriguez participates in the swimming competition of the London Paralympics in September 2012. | GETTY / VIA KYODO
Ileana Rodriguez participates in the swimming competition of the London Paralympics in September 2012. | GETTY / VIA KYODO

The IPC, along with the help of corporate sponsors, will be involved in every aspect of supporting the RPT, helping athletes have the funding and coaching to qualify and train properly for the games.

A team of refugee-and-asylee athletes took part for the first time at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, when two men originally from Syria and Iran made up the Independent Paralympic Athletes Team.

Rodriguez believes her own experience as a refugee and as a Paralympian will come in handy in her new role, understanding the value of having a Refugee Paralympic Team at a time when conflicts are flaring up in many parts of the world.

Born and raised in Cuba, Rodriguez left for Miami in 2000 when she was 15 years old to seek better treatment for a spinal cord malfunction.

She once aspired to become a ballet dancer, but a stroke she suffered left her unable to walk, and she has been in a wheelchair since the age of 13.

“When I moved to the United States, the whole new door opened… because I could join the regular (sport) team in high school,” Rodriguez said.

“The inclusion that I experienced in the U.S., I had never experienced before. Since then, I started swimming and my career kind of started from there,” she said.

She began competitive swimming at age 21 in 2007 and five years later she competed at the London Paralympic Games and made the final in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke SB5.

Looking back on how she adjusted to her disability while living in a foreign country, Rodriguez, who is a native Spanish speaker, said learning a new language was the hardest part.

“The good thing is that we had opportunities to do it, and we are very grateful for the opportunity that the United States gave both me and my family,” Rodriguez said.

Today, she sits on the executive board of the Americas Paralympic Committee as its athlete representative. She has also founded a design and accessibility consultancy for clients that see inclusion and accessibility at the core of their business.

She continues to serve in communities promoting inclusive sports, and sees the Aug. 24-Sept. 5 Tokyo Paralympics as a platform to raise awareness around the refugee crisis.

The games are about inclusivity and not just medals, but that is not to say she does not have hopes the RPT will win a medal in Tokyo.

“I’ll do whatever is in my hand to support the (refugee) athletes and make them feel that they are part of the games like any other teams in the games,” she said.

“I would love for them to win the medals.”

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