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Champion wheelchair athlete Marieke Vervoort dies at 40
Belgian Paralympic gold medallist Marieke Vervoort died yesterday at the age of 40 following the administration of euthanasia. The mayor of her hometown Diest, Christophe De Graef, made the announcement.
Vervoort, known locally by her nickname Wielemie, is a four-time medallist at the Paralympic Games. A wheelchair racer, she brought home gold in the 100m and silver in the 200m from the London Paralympics in 2012. She followed that up with bronze in the 100m and silver in the 400m in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Active on the world circuit, she also won gold three times at the World Para Athletic Championships. She currently holds the women’s world record in wheelchair racing for the 400m, 800m, 1,500m and 5,000m.
“We will never forget Marieke Vervoort’s remarkable performances, not to mention her courage in struggling with disease,” said Belgian Paralympic Committee chair Anne d’Ieteren. “The boost that the Paralympics has gotten since London 2012 was in no small part due to her personality.”
Living in pain
Vervoort suffered from reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a painful degenerative disease that leads to nerve damage. Vervoort’s condition was particularly damaging to her spine, and she has been in a wheelchair for nearly 20 years.
Following her gold medal win in 2012, Vervoort became a local celebrity, speaking on talk shows and to the press on behalf of Paralympics, the physically disabled and the chronically ill. She was also featured in television programmes, most notably Het huis in 2015, in which viewers got a glimpse of 24 hours in her life, rife with pain and seizures. Particularly shocking was the muscle cramps she endures when she falls asleep, with the pain becoming so bad that she would pass out.
She has received many local honours, including Belgian Paralympian of the Year; the Flemish Sport Jewel, an award bestowed annually by the government of Flanders for outstanding performance; and the Flemish Giant, given by the Flemish Sport Journalists Union. She was named a Grand Officer of the Order of the Crown by King Filip in 2013.
Vervoort was open and honest about her struggle with constant pain and her decision to end her life with euthanasia when she felt the time was right. Over the last year, she had to be hospitalised every month for pain therapy.
“They take very good care of me there,” she recently told VTM. “The special medication would knock out an army. But that’s barely 10 good days in a month. Things are heavy for me, both mentally and physically. I live day to day.”
Donations in Vervoort’s name can be made to Canisha, which trains dogs to assist the disabled. Vervoort was a spokesperson on behalf of the organisation after she was paired a few years ago with her beloved Labrador Zenn.
The city of Diest has opened a memorial book for Vervoort. People can sign it in person in the town hall until 12.30 on 28 October. It is also possible to leave memories for the book online. The book will be delivered to Vervoort’s family.
While the funeral will be private, the public is invited to say a final goodbye to Vervoort between 18.00 and 20.00 on 28 October at Hof te Rhode in Diest.
Photo: Marieke Vervoort returning triumphant from the 2016 Paralympics in Rio ©Thierry Roge/BELGA. This article first appeared in Flanders Today