Every Obstacle Provides an Opportunity

Heinrich Popow is one of the world's top 100 meter sprinters and long-jumpers. But he won't allow himself to be put under pressure.


Motivating oneself, learning from setbacks: Heinrich Popow and Markus Rehm share a lot of experience in this area. They are among the top German performers in paralympic sports. The two track-and-field athletes from TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen have learned to view their disability as an opportunity.

If a fairy godmother were to fly by and magically give him a new leg … „I wouldn't take it.“ Markus Rehm sits in the stadium at the Fritz Jacobi Sports Complex in Leverkusen. Training is about to begin. He is wearing workout shorts and his lower leg prosthesis is visible. „Without this thing I would never have become the person I am today – and I'm proud of what I've accomplished.“

There's no question that he has every right to feel that way: Markus Rehm is among the world's most successful paralympic athletes. The TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen athlete won gold in the long jump at the Paralympic Games in London in 2012. At international meets, he clearly is among the leading medal contenders. The 28-year-old athlete can even jump further with his prosthesis than many non-disabled athletes and won the German Championship in 2014 with a jump of 8.24 meters – promptly triggering a heated discussion about the boundaries of inclusion in competitive sports.

If you'd told the orthopedic master technician all this 14 years ago, he would not have believed you. At the time, Rehm had had to have his right lower leg amputated following a wakeboard accident, and had spent weeks in the hospital. He of all people, a jock and a golden boy – always in a good mood and always on the go. Overnight, everything changed for the teenager from a town of 2,000 inhabitants in southern Germany. A future with so many opportunities, dreams and hopes seemed dashed, and for him, his life seemed to be over. „I thought I was never going to find a girlfriend. That's what goes through your mind when you're 14,“ explains Rehm, who now just smiles at the memory.

The first few weeks after the operation were like a fog. „Sometimes you wake up and realize it wasn't all just a bad dream – and then all of a sudden, you're wide awake and all the memories come flooding back.“ The wakeboard, the fall, the boat's propeller, the ride to the hospital, the shocked doctors, his crying parents. And then his first look in the mirror: he was now an amputee. A person with a disability. „That was really tough.“

Markus Rehm is among the world's most successful paralympic athletes.

But just a few months after the accident, something changed: Rehm grabbed his bicycle and took a first tentative ride around his town. It went surprisingly well. „That's when ambition seized me: I wanted to know what else I was capable of despite the prosthesis,“ he recalls. „I began to test my limits.“

His disability spurred him on. He overcame increasingly difficult obstacles and faced up to constantly new challenges. The prosthesis motivated him to achieve peak performances. „I excelled thanks to it,“ he says. „Who knows what would have become of me without this thing? No idea, and I don't want to know either.“ His life is good the way it is. He wouldn't change any aspect of it.

Motivational trainer and top sportsperson David Behre visits a patient in hospital.

Four questions for David Behre

David Behre is considered to be one of the world’s fastest sprint runners with below-knee prostheses. He also works as a motivational trainer. What drives him?

How do you as a performance athlete manage to motivate yourself for athletics every single day?
In 2007 I had an accident in which I lost both of my lower legs. While I was in the hospital I saw a program showing paralympic track athlete Oscar Pistorius, who beat able-bodied athletes in a sprint. That was the moment I knew that this would be my new goal. I wanted to run on prostheses like Pistorius and compete at international level. I derived a great deal of strength from that moment. And I suspected that I would have to train very hard every day to achieve my goal.

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Are there never days when you don’t feel motivated?
Of course there are – like the days when training is painful and I just don’t feel like it. Then I focus on my goals. I want to run even faster and continually improve my performance. If I want to run with the world’s best I can’t afford to miss a single day of training. If I missed a day I’d having to make up for a whole week – that’s something you think twice about doing and it’s motivation enough to get me back to the track.

You work as a motivational trainer and regularly visit people in hospital who have had an accident. How do you help them?
I make it clear to them that they only have to believe in themselves. So many things are possible even if you’re an amputee! When the patients see my prostheses that usually breaks the ice. They realize that I know what I’m talking about and that I can also put myself in their position. That motivates them – and these encounters give me something as well, they’re always a major source of new motivation for me.

What advice would you give to people who feel unmotivated?
Everyone wants recognition and sets themselves goals in order to get it. But you can only achieve goals if you have a positive attitude. Many people block themselves by thinking too negatively and moaning about things that are of no consequence. When I tell people about my accident, they realize how often they complain about things that are simply not worth it, and these conversations give them new, positive energy.

If a fairy godmother were to fly by and magically give him a healthy leg … „I'd say: You can keep it!“ Heinrich Popow is known for honest answers and clear words. The orthopedic technician sits contentedly in the meeting room of the prosthesis manufacturer he works for in Leverkusen. With an oversized baseball cap, a white t-shirt and sneakers, Heinrich Popow looks like he could appear in an American rap video. As he's wearing shorts, you can see his prosthesis. He long ago stopped being annoyed by the stares of passers-by. „I don't care about that anymore.“

Heinrich Popow is self-confident. And for good reason: the track and field athlete from TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen has been one of the world's top 100 meter sprinters and long-jumpers for the past 15 years. In 2012, the now 33-year-old athlete won the gold medal at the Paralympic Games. He regularly takes part in star-studded international meets, and the expectations are always high. „I don't care,“ he says. „I won't allow myself to be put under pressure.“

Heinrich Popow won't allow himself to be put under pressure.

It took Popow a long time to achieve such a relaxed attitude toward people and their expectations: when he was nine, the doctors amputated his left leg above the knee after discovering a malignant tumor in his calf. Suddenly, the young boy from Kazakhstan who had only been in Germany for two years had just one leg. School was difficult for him. When the kids played soccer, his classmates regularly picked him last when selecting the teams. But Popow was tough. He stuck up for himself and gave as good as he got – and he eventually earned their recognition and respect. Nonetheless: „Puberty was hell,“ he says. „You just want to fit in, and you constantly have to prove yourself.“

Sports became his outlet. On the field he was able to get his frustrations out, wear himself out and let off steam. He trained every day in order to keep pace with the other boys. „That's not so easy if you have a prosthesis because it requires seven times as much effort as for a healthy person,“ he explains. „Every time you go for a walk, every soccer game and every shopping trip takes an enormous amount of energy.“

Corinna Groß

Accept the challenge and try to make the best of it – because every obstacle also provides an opportunity.

He tried out many different sports before settling on track and field in 2001. Just one year later, he won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Lille, France. Since then Popow has broken one record after another – despite the fact that he doesn't like adhering to training schedules. „Success comes from up here.“ He taps his cap. „It's all in your head. You mustn’t let sports become a chore for you – that’s the only way you can stay relaxed enough to win.“

Heinrich Popow has grown with his prosthesis. The disability has shaped his personality. It changed his perspective on people and the world – and made him reflect. About himself and others. It made him grow up at a very young age. „And I'm grateful for that.“ Now he's slowly preparing for a career after competitive athletics. „And for a family.“ He grins tellingly.

When he's not on the athletic field, Heinrich Popow teaches leg amputees how to walk with a prosthesis. He's a role model for them – after all, he once couldn't go any lower, but now he's at the top of the podium. Popow always gives people the same advice: „Accept the challenge and try to make the best of it,“ he says. „Because every obstacle also provides an opportunity.“

The swimming team from Leverkusen won two medals at the 2012 Paralympics.

Disabled sports

People with disabilities have been organizing within sports clubs since the beginning of the 20th century. They first competed in 1911 at the "Cripples Olympiad" in the United States, and the "Silent Games" for deaf athletes were held in Paris in 1924. Disabled sports became much more popular following the Second World War, however, when many war veterans with disabilities and amputations returned from the front.

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They speeded their recovery through gymnastics, track and field, swimming and movement games. Today patients still improve their endurance, strength, coordination and flexibility with rehabilitation sports following an amputation. Many disabled persons wanted to keep playing sports following their rehab. As a result, a broad range of recreational sports quickly developed that focus not on health-promoting aspects, but rather on the pleasure of exercise and a feeling of community.

These recreational sports eventually developed into competitive sports. The Stoke Mandeville Games held in 1948 in England were the predecessor to the Paralympics. Since 1984, the track and field athletes of TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen have regularly appeared in the list of results at the Paralympic Games. With some 300 members, Bayer 04's Disabled Sports Section is among the most successful clubs in Germany – and the athletes do not just perform well in track and field: they won two medals in the swimming events at the 2012 Paralympics, and TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen is the leading sitting volleyball club team in Germany. The team has won 22 German Championships to date, as well as three European Champions Cup titles. The athletes are assigned to classes depending on their disabilities. Heinrich Popow, for example, is in class T 42 (above-the-knee amputation), while Markus Rehm competes in class T 44 (below-the-knee amputation).

And when Rehm fits an amputee with his or her first prosthesis, he also has a piece of advice: „It's okay to be sad at first.“ You have to go through a period of grief in order to process a stroke of fate and accept a new situation, he says. „After a while, the prosthesis becomes part of your own personality: it's part of you just like your eyes or your heart.“ In the end, nothing can make you unhappy – except for yourself.