Hackney’s Olympic Ambassador Dervis Konuralp: Paralympics are like a “fairytale”
Paralympian swimming champion Dervis Konuralp had mixed feelings as he prepared to watch the London 2012 Games.
It was the first time the Hackney born and bred partially-sighted swimmer would be watching an international competition instead of taking part since his first performance at Atlanta in 1996 at the age of 15.
Disappointingly Dervis, who over the course of his career has won 35 major international medals including 14 golds, did not make the qualifiers in May.
However, he is philosophical that, in athletic terms at the age of 31, he is too old to take on younger rivals.
“I always said if I was to go, I would go to win and not to just make up the numbers.
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“Unfortunately it’s a decision you have to make. I was in a position to make that decision as opposed to having it made for me. Some people get injured or don’t get the opportunity to realise their full potential.”
Of the Paralympics, he said: “Until I’m sat on the other side of the fence which I’ve never been before it will be inspirational or heart- wrenching or even a combination of the two.
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“But I’m looking forward to it and supporting all those people I’ve been on the journey with, like Liz Johnson – we’ve shared highs and lows.
“Being part of the international team for so long I’m seen as a bit of an old dog when it comes to the swimming world. You get to know people personally, where they’ve come from to get where they have come to now. They’ve made the sacrifices, done the training, constantly striving to be the best in their given event, not many people can understand that.”
After the Olympics, the Paralympics is the world’s second largest sporting event, featuring elite performers who train just as hard as their Olympic counterparts.
Not only that, they have overcome great adversity.
“The Paralympics for me demonstrate what human s are truly capable of,” said Dervis.
“The Olympics shows what the human body in its true form can achieve, but the Paralympics shows what the mind can achieve and it’s about taking life to its absolute extreme.
“People can still realise their abilities, their dreams and their successes because too often people are resigned to the fact they have a disability and don’t try to fulfil their true potential.”
In Dervis’s case he has overcome Macular Dystrophy Startgarts, a life-changing condition he was diagnosed with aged nine.
“It meant I had a blind spot in both eyes that would grow in time. Where it would stop no one ever knew.
“It was just a kind of uncertainty - would it be just a visual impairment or would it progress to total blindness? It was an unknown time not just for me but for my family, and people need to realise a disability is something a family goes through.”
It was with the backing of his family – including his Turkish Cypriot father, English mother and five siblings – that he’s been able to ensure that his disability would not stand in the way of him reaching his full potential.
Not long after his diagnosis, Dervis began swimming at London Fields Primary School.
“Everyone has something they take to and swimming was that for me. I enjoyed the sensation of being in the water,” he said.
His natural talent was identified and encouraged by coach Michelle Weltman who stuck by him from the ages of 11 to 28 and whom he regards as a big sister.
Though Dervis’ eyesight has deteriorated over the years, it is impossible to identify the disability when you meet him, and he still has good peripheral vision so finds he is able to “function to a degree”.
He said: “Basically I can see everything but with no detail, that’s the crux of it. It’s like a very subtly smudged picture.
“I’ve learned over the years to disguise it, to fit in and not be different. You learn to be like everyone else so I manage to put people within the blind spot. It’s a little tactic I’ve learned to deal with it.”
However, in the pool he does feel comfortable and relaxed, as years of swimming thousands of lengths means swimming is an instinctive thing.
“I can do it with my eyes closed, as they say. It’s very much everything surrounding the water which causes complications. At night I go to places I’m familiar with because a lot of my mobility is based on memory. If places are well-lit it’s not a problem, but many a lamp post has been hit,” he said.
The precision training, focusing on his weaknesses, meant dedicating four hours a day, six days a week to swimming and he found it had knock-on effects.
For most people swimming a mile represents a strenuous workout but for Dervis it was just a warm-up.
“The perfect race is the race where you have ten out of ten points you need to hit and you hit them all as perfectly as possible.
“I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect race, there’s always something you could do better.”
The knock-on effect is general fatigue in the rest of life, and Dervis, who now has two children aged two and three months, is happy he is able to devote more time to them.
“It’s very much a team effort. When you go to a competition it’s not only you who’s made the sacrifice to be there, it’s your family, coaches, and even your children.
“Everyone is focused on you to make sure you are in the best possible position – are you eating the right stuff and getting enough rest? – so it does have an impact.
“You need to work out whether your priorities are in the right place. Now my priorities have changed and I’m able to do a lot more things because swimming is extremely time-consuming.”
Now he’s no longer competing he’s relishing his role as London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Ambassador handed to him by Hackney Council to share his story and inspire people to take up sport.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for sport,” he said.
“It’s given me confidence, introduced me to different environments and people, it’s tested my character – it’s made me have to grow up.”
Does he think the Paralympics will represent a turning point in the way the public looks at disabilities?
“I always say it’s not only a showcase but it’s an incredible educational tool because it’s a subtle way of dealing with disability awareness.
“The Games coming to London, emotionally, it was something I never thought possible but it happened. For them to come to London from where they originated, it’s a fairytale and I can’t imagine what those athletes are feeling.”