Mario in action at the world championships in Catania, Italy in October 2011. (Photo Courtest/Dayna Canada)

Paralympic fencer reaches for the gold a fourth time

With three other Paralympic games under his belt, 53-year-old fencer Mario Rodriguez has more experience than most competitors.  His story could begin during his tour in Crete as a Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force.  It could also start with his career as a Russian translator for the military.  But he made an unimaginable decision seventeen years ago that is arguably the most life changing.

He chose to remove his leg.

Growing up in Houston, Rodriguez was always active in sports. After doctors surgically removed his leg, he needed an outlet. “Fencing has everything,” he remarks. “It is a sport, a discipline, and a martial art you can do for life.”

His decision to compete as an athlete in the 2012 Paralympics in London was not easy. He won gold and qualified for the US Wheelchair Fencing Team at the Pan American Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil last August. “But I have to take my age into consideration,” he says.

His journey began in 1985 when surgeons discovered a malignant mass in his pelvis during surgery to repair the injuries Rodriguez sustained in a motorcycle accident.  The surgeons decided to remove the tumor along with part of his pelvis and femur. Mario started an intensive physical therapy program to strengthen his leg, but after seven years he did not see an improvement. “It should have been a more difficult decision but it is easier to live without it,” Mario admits.

While most people would see a life full of limitations, Rodriguez saw a window of opportunity. “I saw immediately the benefits of exploring rehab and use it to its fullest potential. I decided to spend my time helping recent spinal injury patients.” So he began volunteering at the Texas Institute of Rehabilitation and Research in Houston in 1994.

Since then, he has coerced patients out of bed to enjoy the outdoors.  “I just want to get people to explore rehab and fitness to improve their quality of life. At the end of the day all you have is your attitude,” says Rodriguez, stressing that it helps physically and emotionally.

One day after volunteering, Mario found his newest calling. “I stumbled upon a magazine. I saw the athlete in a fencing uniform and I immediately peeked inside.”  He was so intrigued he found a fencing program in Atlanta and began training right away.   A year later he fought his way to claim the 1995 Exhibition National Champion title, and a year after that he took part in the Paralympics.

Paralympic fencer reaches for the gold a fourth time photo e1338828464264 news NBC Latino News

Mario Rodriguez (left) and Ryan Estep (right) both won gold medals at the Pan American Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Mario competed foil and Ryan épée. Photo taken by London 2012 team leader, Ginny Boydston in Jackson, Mississippi. (Photo Courtesy/Ginny Boydston)

Although he has not won any medals in the past three Paralympics, he is not discouraged. “No individual could do this alone. It takes a community to make an athlete. It also takes building blocks of failures to reach success. Winners don‘t just appear,” says Rodriguez about his life philosophy that his father taught him while growing up.

“Ever since I was little – whether I was playing tennis or when I was able bodied and teaching children how to swim – my father was involved,” says Rodriguez.  He explains his father, a semi-professional tennis star, always shared his knowledge, expertise, and enjoyment of sports with others. A legacy he hopes to continue.

His friends and family motivate him to excel. His able-bodied girlfriend, Dayna Canada, stands beside him and trains with him. “We work together,” she says. She won the gold medal in the 2005 Women’s Veterans National Championship and has faced the stress of entering a competition. “I understand what he is going through. The whole psychology of going into it is understandable.”

After 17 years of hard work and countless grueling hours in training, there is one true reason why Rodriguez competes in the Paralympics.

“I feel selfish fighting for the gold, but all I want to do is inspire people,” he says. “If this helps motivate my community then I like doing it.”

To see Mario in his element, watch this video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUjS9VD9cEQ

BRIAN LATIMER, NBC LATINO STAFF

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