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In 2012 Belgian athlete Marieke Vervoort took gold in the 100m T52 wheelchair class at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Unbeknownst to the crowds who cheered her on to victory, Vervoort had already made the decision that would bring her to worldwide attention again four years later. Just prior to the Rio games she announced that when the pain caused by the degenerative spinal condition that had put her in a wheelchair became unendurable, she would end her life by euthanasia.
Vervoort, who has died aged 40, was born in Diest to Jos and Odette Vervoort. She was 14 when she first noticed the symptoms of what would be diagnosed seven years later as reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a degenerative condition of the spine and muscles. A keen sportswoman who excelled at basketball and loved diving, she suddenly found herself able only to walk using crutches.
Soon Vervoort had lost the use of her legs altogether, but she was determined not to let disability keep her from the sports field. She played wheelchair basketball and competed in triathlons. In 2006 and 2007 she was paratriathlon world champion. As her condition continued to deteriorate, Vervoort was no longer able to compete as a triathlete, so turned her attention instead to blokarting and wheelchair racing.
Vervoort’s determination soon had her back at the top of her field. At the 2012 Paralympics, she set a European record time for the T52 100 m wheelchair race of 19.68 seconds, beating Canadian Michelle Stilwell. She also took home silver in the T52 200m. A year later, she set a European T52 200m wheelchair race record, which was followed by world records in the T52 400m and the T52 800m. Her unstoppable success earned her the nickname “the Beast from Diest”.
Vervoort’s 2013 record-breaking roll met an abrupt end when she badly injured her shoulder in a collision with her Paralympic rival Stilwell during a race at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon. She was warned that she should not expect to race at such a high level again, but Vervoort defied the medical advice and came back to compete at the Para Athletics IPC Grand Prix in Switzerland less than a year later. There she took gold in the 200m and set new world records in the 1,500m and the 5,000m. In 2015, at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, she took three more golds and was crowned world champion.
In 2016 at the Rio games, Vervoort won two medals, a silver and a bronze, despite having spent the day prior to winning silver in the T52 400m on a rehydrating drip after she was struck down with vomiting bug. But she knew that Rio would probably mark the end of her competitive career.
Prior to the games, Vervoort had publicly revealed for the first time that she was considering euthanasia. Assisted suicide has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and it was in 2008 that Vervoort signed the papers that would allow her to make the choice when then time came.
Vervoort said it was a liberating decision that actually made it easier for her to carry on, knowing she could end her life on her own terms. In an interview three months after her success at Rio, she told Radio 5’s Eleanor Oldroyd: “If I didn’t have those papers, I wouldn’t have been able to go into the Paralympics. I was a very depressed person – I was thinking about how I was going to kill myself … It’s thanks to those papers that I’m still living … With euthanasia, you’re sure that you will have a soft, beautiful death.”
Having given up wheelchair racing, Vervoort took up indoor skydiving. An assistance Labrador named Zenn helped her to maintain a level of independence at home. In addition to helping Vervoort dress and fetching items she needed, Zenn was also able to sense when an epileptic seizure was imminent – sometimes up to an hour before it happened – and warn Vervoort to find a safe space to lie down. But by 2017 Vervoort was spending much of her time in hospital. Her eyesight had deteriorated, sleep was elusive, and she was in constant pain.
Vervoort planned her funeral in meticulous detail. She told Eleanor Oldroyd, “I wrote to every person who’s in my heart … I wrote texts that they had to read. I want that everybody takes a glass of cava [and toasts me] because she had a really good life. She had a really bad disease but thanks to that disease, she was able to do things that people can only dream about … I want people to remember that Marieke was somebody living day by day and enjoying every little moment.”
Marieke Vervoort, Paralympic athlete, born 10 May 1979, died 22 October 2019