Parasports in Germany, as Told by Paralympic Games Gold Medalist Edina Müller
Edina Müller, one of Germany’s most prized super-athletes. She won a gold medal in wheelchair basketball in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, switched to Canoe (KL1 class) two years later, and won a silver medal in that event as well at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
She has won “The Silver Laurel Leaf”—the highest honor bestowed upon German athletes, and awarded to the Germany national soccer team after they won the World Cup in 2014—a total of three times. In this interview, we asked her how her competitive environment has affected her training as an athlete, and about parasports in Germany, a country known for its advanced view on parasports in general.
―― Tell us how you got into parasports.
Edina Müller (“Müller”) I was in an accident in 2000 that left me in a wheelchair. But even with lower-body paralysis, the area around where I lived had so many sports I could try, like wheelchair tennis or sitting volleyball. In Germany, there are a lot of things that might make it easier for people to get into sports. For instance, we have programs where those experienced in the same impairment will act as counselors for people who have just been injured, and “verein,” which are locally-oriented sports clubs.
I’d been playing volleyball before my accident, so the first sport I tried was sitting volleyball. But my ab muscles don’t work, so sitting volleyball wasn’t a good fit for me. I finally settled on wheelchair basketball, which I began in 2003 while studying at university.
Müller, who switched to canoe after winning a gold medal in wheelchair basketball—always challenging herself
―― How are you training right now?
Müller I’m currently employed by a company*, and training alongside my work. I’ll normally work for half the day, then train for half the day, but I do occasionally leave my work for long periods to go to training camps.
*: Since 2012, Müller has worked as a sports therapist at a trauma treatment and rehabilitation center (BG Hamburg Hospital) in Hamburg. Her work involves encouraging people who have just acquired an impairment to participate in society through sports.
―― So your company is understanding of parasports.
Müller From the beginning, they were very understanding of my identity as a former wheelchair basketball player. And fortunately, they told me they would continue to support me even after I switched over to canoe.
―― Would it be difficult for you to train without a company as understanding as yours?
Müller I think so. I wouldn’t be able to train, no matter how much I wanted to, without the proper environment. It’s because of companies like this that I’m able to keep training.
―― What other kinds of support are you getting, in addition to employment?
Müller The other support comes in the form of sponsors. My sponsors have changed completely from when I was doing wheelchair basketball to after I switched over to canoe. With wheelchair basketball, the team itself has sponsors that get you everything you need, like the uniforms and equipment. But of course canoe is an individual event, so that’s not how it works. You have to go out and buy your boat and paddles and other equipment, and go out on your own to look for sponsors that will assist you with your costs, like for training camp.
Müller in the Canoe event, which has been an official Paralympics event since the Rio Paralympic Games ©X-1
―― Did you also have to run around looking for sponsors?
Müller I had a few small sponsors from the beginning. But it wasn’t enough to cover all my costs, and I was thinking about what I should do to keep training. I was very lucky that I was based in Hamburg. I think it’s because Hamburg is a big city with a lot of big companies, but a lot of Olympic athletes have a pretty easy time finding sponsors in Hamburg. I used some of the connections I had with these Olympic athletes to find my own sponsors as well. This was the most important thing for me to keep on training.
―― Lastly, tell us about your thoughts and motivations towards the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
Müller I wasn’t thinking about Tokyo at all until Rio was over. But at the Closing Ceremony in Rio, I heard that the next one would be in Tokyo, and I thought, “well, why not try for Tokyo too?” Right now I’m training for Tokyo, but my goal isn’t necessarily to win a gold medal. It’s just to accomplish all the little tasks I’ve set for myself, one by one. I think as I do that, I’ll be able to figure out what kind of goal I should set for myself two years from now.
Müller discussing her thoughts on her current situation and the Tokyo Paralympic Games in the future
Silver Medal at Rio a Source of Pride, Not Bitterness
The Germany women’s wheelchair basketball team worked past the bitterness of their silver medal in the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games to win gold at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Edina Müller was one of the main players that made this possible.
She continued to play wheelchair basketball even after the gold medal, until hitting a turning point in 2014. She had come across canoe, learned that she enjoyed it, and decided to switch over. But she had not, initially, been aiming for the Paralympics. “My first priority was to have fun. I started with small goals—compete in a few tournaments in Germany, maybe win the first round of something.” She achieved all her goals faster than expected, however, and soon found that competition at the world-class level was something that was attainable for her.
“Maybe I Could Be the Best at This Sport Too”
These thoughts grew stronger and stronger, until finally she was aiming for the Paralympics.
Monika Seryu, the only Japanese Paralympian in the Canoe event, told us the following about what makes Müller so good.
“I think her biggest strength is how stable her form is. Her movements when she paddles are compact, so she doesn’t waste any energy.”
When we relayed this to Müller, she smiled, a bit embarrassed, and gave us the following analysis of her own abilities.
“My starts are actually quite slow. But I think from there, I get up to top speed very quickly. Another thing is that I can maintain top speed until the very end, when the others tend to slow down around the 150-meter mark (in a 200-meter race). I think those are my strengths.”
Edina Müller, gold medal candidate for the Tokyo Paralympic Games ⓒ Matthias Buchholz
In Rio, where Canoe had for the first time been held as an official event at the Paralympics, Müller had been 0.114 seconds away from the gold medal. As someone who had won the Paracanoe World Championships only a few months prior, she must have felt some bitterness about her performance at the Paralympics. Müller, however, told us that the silver medal had been the “best possible result” for her.
“Of course, I was upset right after I finished. But that quickly turned into pride. I don’t think this silver medal is any less important than the gold medal from London, because these are both medals I won doing the absolute best I could.”
Edina Müller, gold medal candidate for the Tokyo Paralympic Games—a relaxed and unassuming athlete with a strength borne of flexibility.
text by Hisako Saito, Parasapo
photo by Mariko Mibu