Friday, 5 January 2024, 15:35
No one is ever prepared for a tragedy. But what we can do is choose how we react to it. In the case of Sarah Almagro, she chose not just to survive, but to reinvent herself, summoning a courage and intelligence that was deep within her and bringing it to the forefront.
Five years ago, at just 18 years old, meningococcal meningitis plunged Sarah into a 10-day coma, leaving her hospitalised for over five months as she underwent multiple surgeries, including the amputation of both hands and feet. This was followed by a kidney transplant.
Now, five years later, Sarah is an incredibly resilient woman, a Law student nearing the end of her degree and, above all, an outstanding athlete, excelling as a para surfer.
Despite a challenging start to the year, 2023 ended up being the best season of Sarah's career so far, achieving the triple crown as the champion of Spain, Europe and the world in para surfing, specifically in the Prone 2 category.
"This year has been particularly special, especially because it didn't start on a positive note. I had a health issue early in the year, a kidney rejection," she told SUR. "Fortunately, they caught it just in time and they put me on the right medication."
Just a month and a half after finding out the problem had reversed, Sarah won the European championship, turning a potentially dire situation into a mere scare.
Though she was always connected to sports, it has now become like a family member, accompanying her through her toughest times and offering a new perspective on life.
People on the street inevitably still cast glances her way and at her prosthetic limbs, but over the past few years, many have shifted from pity to admiration. "In this situation, you have no choice but to keep fighting," she says.
Unlike on the street, when Sarah attends a championship, she stands out for a different reason - she's one of the favourites. People seek her advice, ask for photos... she's a role model.
"Being regarded as a role model by others is a source of pride for me," says the 23-year-old.
Her influence extends beyond the water, where she consistently showcases her skill, but also to classrooms, sports halls and conference rooms, where she often delivers talks to share her experiences with diverse audiences, both at one-off events and through the Mentor 10 programme run by the Andalusian region government.
"Getting on a stage to share my story, showing people that there's no such thing as limits and that there's nothing anyone can't overcome, is a personal triumph for me. I hope I can continue doing sport and talks for as long as my body permits," she says.
While being a speaker is a key part of her life, including in her studies, Sarah's primary aspirations are now, more than ever, focused on professional sports, despite the many hurdles that remain.
"Do athletes with disabilities have a tougher time getting support? Absolutely," she admits. "Right now, there's a hesitation to back us, even though I've got a very media-friendly story and a bunch of titles. It's still a tough road for us."
That said, she says, "We're slowly getting noticed, but our sport's still quite under the radar, making it tough to make a living."
Not being a Paralympic sport also means less institutional support is available.
"It's great to win things and get recognised globally, but I really need more backing from sponsors to keep going," the Marbella local explains, knowing well the costs of prosthetics, gear, and constant travel.
Despite all this, one of Sarah's biggest dreams is still to become a Paralympian. Now that surfing has been included on the Olympic programme, this gives some hope that para surfing could soon follow.
"It would be a monumental step if para surfing became a Paralympic sport. However, even if it does, there's talk that only a few categories will be included, and mine might not be among them," she says.
The reason for this, she explains, is that the coach is in contact with the athletes in the water during the action, and this supposedly violates regulations - something Sarah describes as "a form of discrimination within the realm of inclusion".
However, given all the issues she's already been forced to overcome, you shouldn't bet against Sarah overcoming this one, too.