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Greek Paralympic Fencer Hopes To Show What's Possible In A Wheelchair

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Panos Triantafyllou (left), in his fencing uniform and mask, trains with Vasilis Ntounis, his fellow Paralympic athlete and close friend.
Demetrios Ioannou for NPR

Panos Triantafyllou (left), in his fencing uniform and mask, trains with Vasilis Ntounis, his fellow Paralympic athlete and close friend.

"En garde!" the coach shouts. Two opposing fencers, uniformed and masked, raise their sabers before their own faces.

Both Greek fencers, Panos Triantafyllou and Vasilis Ntounis, are in wheelchairs.

"Prêt, allez!" the coach shouts again, and the match begins. The sound of swift-striking sabers echoes inside the small indoor court in Athens' Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, where Greece's national team consisting exclusively of people with disabilities is training.

Triantafyllou, 33, won silver at Rio's 2016 Paralympic Games and is getting ready for the Tokyo Paralympic Games in August. He's been picking up medals in the meantime: gold last November at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in Amsterdam and silver this month at the cup in Eger, Hungary.

He is currently ranked No. 2 of the year's best athletes by the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation, and he ranks fifth for Paralympics qualification for Tokyo 2020.

"Only the best 10 qualify for the Paralympics, or the ones who come first in the European tournament and the world championship get a direct qualification," Triantafyllou says. "Theoretically I qualify, but it's better to attend the last three tournaments ahead of the Paralympics."

Support comes from

Despite his huge success, he says Greece hasn't always been very supportive of people with activity limitations.

"Greece gives to a person with disabilities an allowance of maximum 600-700 euro [every month], depending on the disability," he says, an amount equivalent to $660-$770, which is considered low by European Union standards. "If you can't work and don't have your own house, you simply don't get by. When you have to pay 400-500 euros [$440-$550] just for your rent, how can you handle your other expenses, like bills, food, etc.?"

According to a recently published report by Eurostat, in 2017 more than 82% of adults with disabilities in Greece lived in a household that struggled financially, the highest rate in the European Union and well above the EU average of less than 30%.

Triantafyllou was in a car accident on Nov. 21, 2004, that left him paralyzed from the thorax down.

He considers himself one of the lucky ones because he received some insurance money, but it isn't enough: "They only cover your everyday expenses for some time," he says.

Finances are just one challenge people with disabilities face. "What has troubled me the most is bureaucracy," Triantafyllou says. "Wherever you go, either you need medicines or whatever, you have to prove every time that you are disabled. It takes too long to get a permanent certification, if you ever get it."

Triantafyllou is also the face of 525 Handmade Wheelchairs — the only company in Greece, and one of a handful in the world, that creates customized, hand-built wheelchairs. The man behind the project is Faidros Panagopoulos, a 36-year-old former sports journalist who fell in love with the idea of building wheelchairs for customers' specific needs, offering them more freedom to move.

"When you see a wheelchair that optimizes or gives autonomy to a person with disabilities it is an amazing feeling. It gives you the pleasure that someone is satisfied. It's also a huge responsibility," Panagopoulos says.

Athens is not a very welcoming city for people with disabilities. Despite the city making improvements for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, there is still much to be done. "Athens has very bad accessibility. It's tragic," Panagopoulos says. "At the moment as we speak, if a person with disabilities wants to visit [the] Acropolis, they can't. The elevator is not working."

It's a matter of education, they both agree. "I remember as a school kid that never a person with disabilities have visited us or even our teacher teaches us about what disability really is," Triantafyllou says. "As athletes, now we try to go to schools and talk to kids, who are very eager to learn."

In recent years, Greek media outlets have paid more attention to athletes with disabilities. Social media networks have also helped offer exposure.

"When you see something and hear about it, you learn how to respect it," Triantafyllou says, regarding ramps and parking spots for the disabled, often blocked by parked cars or being used by people with no disabilities, just for their convenience. "You don't have to be sensitive to know not to park there," Panagopoulos agrees. "You just have to be a normal human being."

Triantafyllou tries to avoid the center of Athens, where things can get more complicated. Yet he says he doesn't let his disability prevent him from traveling. Seven years ago though, he moved in a seaside area about one hour from downtown, where the roads are wider and the sidewalks lower, making it more accessible.

In addition to his wheelchair, Triantafyllou gets around driving a car with hand controls.

"I wanted to live by the sea," he says with a smile, as he sits in his car to go fishing nearby.

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