Israeli athlete Pascale Bercovitch will compete in her third Paralympics at Rio 2016, in her third different sport. A journalist and filmmaker by profession, she has seen the Paralympic Games develop from outside and in, but still hopes to be around the movement for some time to come.
By Eoin Connolly
Every athlete at Rio 2016 will have a story and, in the Paralympics, some of those stories will be truly extraordinary. Pascale Bercovitch is no exception.
At 48, she will be competing in her third Paralympic Games – in a third sport. Bercovitch made her debut for Israel at Beijing 2008, where she competed in rowing. Four years later she returned in London as a hand-cyclist. In Rio, she is back in the kayak.
The late start to Bercovitch’s Paralympic career is part of another story. Born in the French town of Angers, she was a gymnast through her teenage years until her life was transformed forever one morning in 1984. Bercovitch was 17, and rushing to school, when she was involved in an accident with a train and was trapped beneath it. She lost both her legs.
The incident spurred another change in her life. She moved to Israel, where she still lives in Tel-Aviv, and volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces. Her early attempts to revive her sporting career were thwarted by a lack of funds. At that point, other people’s stories became her life’s work. She spent the next two decades as a journalist and made Three Hunredths of a Second, a documentary film about – fittingly enough – the Israeli team at the Sydney 2000 Paralympics.
But Bercovitch’s own story would continue – she now tells it around the world as a motivational speaker – and there are more chapters to come.
What drove you to pursue this challenge of competing in a third Paralympics in a third different sport?
It’s just because I love it. I just love to push my limits always a little bit further. I’m always trying to be better in what I do. And, actually, life: I didn’t want so much to change sport, it just happened this way for many reasons. Sometimes for financial reasons – that’s why I dropped the hand-biking, because it was so, so expensive I couldn’t afford it.
So that’s why I changed sports. Because I was a rower in Beijing for 2008, and then when I came back from Beijing I understood after some months that they were closing the team so I didn’t have any place to train. So I switched to hand-biking but then after being in London – I finished sixth there – I understood it would be very, very expensive for me to do four more years with a new bike, and all the stuff you have to buy. It’s really very, very expensive so I understood that I wouldn’t have the economic or financial support for that. So I decided to switch to kayak, which is a very, very nice sport but very much cheaper – you can be at the highest level without having to change a wheel every week and a chain every three days, and stuff like that.
"I began a Paralympic career aged 40, which is unusual. I think it’s a Guinness world record."
This is why I changed sport so much, but I’m always trying to do my best. This is my philosophy, it’s very easy. My mantra is: ‘Slowly, slowly… fast, fast!’ You know? I do everything slowly, my way, trying to do my best every day in training, every paddle, every stroke, and then we’ll see what happens. And I’m always lucky. So far I’ve been very lucky to get my qualification for Rio and to improve. And actually, what is giving me a lot of strength is all the people that are following me and supporting me on Facebook and on my internet site, being in touch with me and telling me I’m giving them a lot of power. I’m a motivational speaker so I’m on stage and explaining to people what I’m doing and why, and it gives everybody a lot of power because it means that everything is possible, you know?
I began a Paralympic career aged 40, which is unusual. I think it’s a Guinness world record. And then I got my qualification for a third Paralympics in a row in a third sport, and I always succeeded in getting the qualification – which is a dream, because everybody wants it and it’s very hard to get it. You have to really prove yourself and be among the best. They are not picking athletes to be at the Olympics, just the times. You have to be the fastest and that’s all. It’s not something that you can influence or anything. You just have to be the best.
How much are aspects like funding a factor in a Paralympic athlete’s life?
Actually, it really depends from country to country. The status and the life of a Paralympian is very different from country to country. Here in Israel, we have an average support. It’s not like in Africa, where they don’t give anything, and it’s not like in Great Britain, where the athletes get a salary and all the facilities they can dream about. We are somewhere in the middle and we get a little support.
For my kayak adventure, until now, I didn’t get a penny – I didn’t get help – until I got my qualification. Meaning that two or three weeks ago I got my qualification so now I’m getting a little bit more support but, still, everything is on my shoulders.
I had to buy, for myself, a kayak, a paddle; I had to finance a coach; I had to finance my nutritional supplements, my chiropractor, my acupuncture… my everything, you know? And now they’re giving me a little support but it’s really… maybe it will give me enough money to pay for my nutritional supplements, and maybe part of my masseur’s work – because I need a sport massage at least once a week. So it will pay part of it, and that’s all, so the rest I have to pay from my pocket and I have to find financial support for that. So that’s why it’s so important for me to get sponsorship, and I have this very generous and nice sponsorship from Matomy which is an internet advertising company here in Israel and everywhere in the world. And they are helping. They’re paying half of my expenses, which is very nice, for all the year. It helps a lot.
And also, actually, it’s more than that, because it’s like being part of a family. The workers of Matomy are following me and supporting me, and sending me messages and questions, so it’s more than financial support – it’s also psychological support.
How did that partnership with Matomy come about?
They invited me to speak at a conference. They asked me to make a speech for the workers here in Israel. And after the speech, they saw the difference it made to the employees. They all said, “Wow, it’s so cool!” And there was plenty of power and thanks after my speech, so they said, “Maybe we can collaborate more? Maybe we can do something more?” So I said, “Yes, of course: you can sponsor me and then we’ll continue to work together. You’ll be supporting me and I will be part of your company.” And actually, this is a very, very big success because the employees came to me and said, “We are proud to be Matomy now!” Because, you know, a company that is supporting an athlete like me… I’m a crazy athlete, you know? I’m not a typical athlete. I’m not young. I’m not very, very strong. I’m not very, very tall. I’m not very, very blonde! But I get good results and I love life, and I love sport, and I’m always happy, and actually it’s a very, very big success for everybody.
We did a short movie – like an inspirational movie. We did quite a lot of communication work, just to explain what I’m doing. And I’m in connection with the employees all the time. I have a hotline on Facebook – I can always answer their questions – and I’m part of the wellbeing programme for the employees at Matomy. Actually, they’re getting points by running or swimming or riding a bike, and they get paid for that. Suddenly, they opened their eyes and they saw that sport could be fun and sport could be something different from what they thought before, so now they have questions about food and sleep and way of life, and choosing your life and stuff like that. I’m very proud of it.
How did your Paralympic journey begin? What made you decide this was something you wanted to go for?
Actually, you know, I’ve been an athlete since age ten. I was a gymnast when I was very, very young, back in France. I was a gymnast and I didn’t have the right body to be a gymnast – I was a bit fat, I was short. I wasn’t the typecast of a gymnast but I made a lot of effort and I succeeded in getting some results in regional championships in France. This is something that was like a stone on my way, you know, saying, “OK, even if it doesn’t show, and even if people tell you that you don’t have a specific potential for anything, you don’t care. You just do your way. If you like something, you do it, and you’ll see.”
So it began very early for me and afterwards, when I had my accident at age 17 – I had a train accident in France on my way to high school – I had this dream of coming to Israel and being an Israeli and I decided that this was a good moment to do it: “If everything’s already changed for me and I’m not the Pascale I was before, a regular kid running everywhere, now I’m sitting in a wheelchair and I’m going to fulfil all my dreams.” So it was a big decision I took, being really on the spot after my accident. I said to myself, “OK. Life is very short. I am alive. I am lucky. So now I’m going to enjoy it.” So it gave me a lot of strength.
And when I arrived in Israel, six months after my injury, I was in the army being a volunteer soldier, sitting in a wheelchair, and people told me there, “You know, people here who are disabled are doing sport because it’s very good for your health, it’s very good for your mind, and you have to go back to sport. Disabled people, that’s what they do in Israel.” So I thought, yeah, why not?
I began to swim, and I became part of the national team, and this is how I came back to sport at a high level – an international level. But then I was very young, and I was too poor to be an athlete. I had to work and earn some money for a living. So I had to quit. It was in ’92. I wanted to go to the Barcelona Paralympic Games in ’92, but I wasn’t able to do it because I didn’t have a penny. I had to work. That’s how I became a journalist.
"I’m preparing for the Rio Games in two months. After that, I’m also preparing from next year for Tokyo in 2020 because I really intend to be on the podium in Tokyo, too."
I quit sport then. But aged 40, people from the Paralympic committee came to me and asked me if I wanted to try and begin some rowing. Actually, I didn’t know what rowing was, but they invited me to try and when I sat in the boat, rowing for the first time, I couldn’t believe it. I said, “No, it’s so cool! I have to continue!” and I love it so much, I just began to train every day and began to be better and faster, and I got my qualification for Beijing in 2008. It all came very, very quickly and I was really lucky and this is how I came back to a Paralympic career at age 40 after dreaming about it at age 20. I couldn’t do it but then at age 40 it came back as a present, as a big dream. It was crazy.
And you know, I feel so lucky waking up every morning and feeling my body is healthy and strong and I can cope with it, and I can go further. And I say, “OK, I’m doing it for all the people that can’t.” I have no legs but I have good arms, I have a very good back, my belly is strong and my mind is strong. And also, I’m getting support from my husband and my daughters. They are really behind me, very proud of me, and very happy that Mum is not a couch potato, Mum is not an old cripple sitting in a wheelchair, but she’s faster than everybody and she’s strong and she’s smiling all the time.
So, you know, I have a good life. It’s very hard to quit when you’re succeeding so well, and I have absolutely no intention to quit. Now, of course, I’m preparing for the Rio Games in two months. After that, I’m also preparing from next year for Tokyo in 2020 because I really intend to be on the podium in Tokyo, too, you know? So life is good.
Looking back to the early 90s, and then on the eight years since Beijing, what do you make of how the Paralympic movement has grown and changed? And how important has it been in terms of public perception of disability?
You know, the Paralympic adventure, the Paralympic experience, just changed from coast to coast. Because when I was 20, in the 90s, the Paralympic sports were really half-sports. The disabled were beginning to swim, as I did, just for rehabilitation and the level wasn’t so high. You didn’t have so many disabled people dealing with sport and you had no money, nothing, no support of any kind in 90 per cent of the countries – maybe more. It was really, really small and nobody knew about it.
With time, it really changed tremendously and, today, the Paralympic sports have the same questions and the same problems and the same quality as the regular athletes. You have to be on the top level all the time and you have to really perform, and it doesn’t matter which sport you’re competing in: for all of us, the level is very high.
"I think the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 changed, a lot, the mentality and the way of seeing disabled sports, because the British did a wonderful job with the advertising, and publishing and explaining."
Also, the mentality changed a lot. In the whole world, you can see that most of the people know who the Paralympians are and what the Paralympic Games is. They know that disabled people are doing sport at the highest level. It’s now quite well known and the youngsters, the young people around the world, they really love it and they really support us, even more than older people, and it’s really cool to see that.
I think the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 changed, a lot, the mentality and the way of seeing disabled sports, because the British did a wonderful job with the advertising, and publishing and explaining – they did very nice communication work in Britain but also everywhere in the world. I think now people understand that we are athletes at the highest level and we are athletes with very interesting personal stories, and it makes us very interesting. You can take any athlete in the Paralympic Games – and it can be an American or an Australian or an African, a guy from Ghana or a girl from Zimbabwe, each of us – and ask them, “What happened to you? What is your life? How are you training? What are you doing?” And it is amazing, you will have a whole world. Of course, the regular athletes are very interesting, too, but each of us underwent a lot of difficulty, a lot of tough things, and despite that we are training and doing and showing the world that everything is possible. So I think this change is absolutely amazing and, again, I’m so grateful and lucky to experience it, because I began just when it was like village stuff, and today it’s gorgeous. It’s crazy.
How much of a crossover is there between that side of the Paralympics and what your interests were before as a journalist and a filmmaker – that connection to stories? Is there any way in which those interests play on how you look at the Paralympics now?
Yeah, I guess so. You know, I was a journalist for a long time, I worked all over the world and I saw a lot of things. And I think I can understand I’m looking at it from a journalistic point of view, from a bit far – not only being inside and part of it but also looking at it from the side. Actually, in Sydney in 2000, I made a documentary movie about the Olympic Games, about the Paralympic Games.
So in Rio, I will be there for the third time as an athlete at the Paralympics but it will be my fourth Paralympics because in Sydney I was there, too, as a journalist. It’s very interesting to me to also see it from the side and I’m not sure that all the athletes understand the whole story of the Paralympic Games because they are training hard and they are going to their first Paralympics, and they don’t know how it was before and they don’t know how it looked from the side. So of course, I think I also have this journalistic point of view. That makes it even more interesting for me, you know. I’m winning twice. I’m enjoying the thing twice.
You mentioned that you’ve made the move from being a full-time journalist into being a motivational speaker. How did you make that transition?
Actually, it came very naturally because people came to me and said to me, “Please come to our event and tell your story.” It began, actually, when I was 18. I was in the army and my commanding officer asked me to climb on stage and tell the soldiers about my courage under stress. And this how it began. I was 18, and I was on stage and telling my story to soldiers.
My Hebrew was very bad because I came from France; I didn’t know how to tell a story; I didn’t know how to be on stage. But, you know, I was doing it because that’s the way you do things in Israel – you do and then you think. First, you do! This is often how we handle things and of course, in the army, this doesn’t change. And they didn’t ask my opinion either, they just asked me to do it, you know, as a task.
So that’s how I began being a motivational speaker but I dreamed about being a journalist – I wanted so much to be a journalist – so I did it for years. Then, it was 12 years ago or something like that, people just came to me. I’d begun to be a bit famous in Israel, people had heard about me, so they came to me and said, “Could you come to our event and tell your story?” They said that it would give strength to the employees or the directors or the students… So I began to do it, because it sounded fun and interesting and new – and I love trying new things.
It wasn’t so new because I was doing it when I was in the army but I was much more mature so it was, of course, from a different point of view.
And it began slowly, you know? One conference in two months, and then one conference a month, and then one speech every two weeks, and then it’s like a snowball: more and more, people were hearing about me and wanted to hear me. That’s the way it moved forward and I became a motivational speaker in Israel, but also in the States and in Europe. The snowball is going faster and faster and I really enjoy it.
What does the future hold for you? How much longer do you think your athletic career will go on? Do you see yourself returning to filmmaking and journalism?
I’m intending to go to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. My strength will be enough and if I’m healthy and enjoying it I’m going to try and be in Tokyo in the kayak. I love kayaking.
You never know. I can’t say I’m sure to be there, you know, because it’s always a lot of luck. This is my plan, and then you see what life is choosing for me.
I’m going to write a book, too. I’m going to write a book about my career – which is something I promised to someone and now I have to do it.
After Rio, this is my plan: to continue to be a motivational speaker, to continue kayaking at the highest level, and to write a book. I think, for the moment, it’s enough! It’s already a lot, I guess.