Wojtek Czyz may not seem like he needs more medals, having already lined up several from three Paralympic Games as a track and field athlete for Germany, but retirement, or even slowing down, is not on the cards just yet.
Czyz’s personal motto – “don’t think of what you were, rather what you are and aspire to be” – has seen him reach heights many never would have thought possible.
“If I do something, I’m all in,” he said after his debut for New Zealand at the Fazza Dubai Para Badminton International in May in the Standing Lower (SL3) category.
Czyz was a 21-year-old footballer with SC Fortuna Koln when during a match the opposing goalkeeper crashed into him, causing multiple fractures and compartment syndrome. Eventually his left leg had to be amputated above the knee.
“I thought my life was over but the medical team opened new doors for me.”
Roberto Simnozzi, a Paralympic medallist and physiotherapist, helped Czyz on his path to recovery.
“He had heard about me and asked me why I wanted to be a footballer. I said because I wanted to hear the fans cheering when I entered the stadium. He showed me a VHS recording of athletics at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympics, and that’s the door I needed.”
Czyz started training two months after the amputation and in May 2002 participated in the 100m and long jump at the German Championships.
After more than a decade of professional athletics, he retired in 2013.
“I needed a break and wanted to do something more useful. I decided to sail around the world bringing prosthetic limbs to the less fortunate.”
So with wife, Italian athlete Elena Brambilla, and their two-month-old son Paul in tow, Czyz set off on his boat which he had turned into a workshop for his non-profit project Sailing4Handicaps.
“Through our network of friends and coaches, we got in touch with those in need, sailed there with a technician, assessed their requirements, build the prothesis and taught them how to walk,” said Czyz, also a trained paramedic.
After five years of sailing, they landed in New Zealand.
“It was just about the time of the worldwide lockdowns and at first we thought we were stuck. Then we discovered New Zealand to be a great place to live and raise our child. It suited our lifestyle and long-term goals.”
Czyz then started playing badminton and joined the New Zealand team.
He puts in 11 one-and-a-half-hour sessions per week, training with 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Tracey Hallam and coaches Kenneth Yew and Marianne Loh.
“Athletics is a powerful sport. It’s full on at one go. Badminton is a beautiful game where you have time to think, where you play with and against the person in front of you.”
Czyz also holds the world record for free diving. In Tahiti in 2019, the became the first amputee to dive below 50m deep for a distance of 117m.
“I’m an expressive person. My athletic experience helps me focus and free diving is completely relaxed, which helps me with my badminton.”
His debut in Dubai allowed him to see where he stood among his competitors.
“I got more comfortable on court with every match and enjoyed it. I also never expected this camaraderie and I like the community openness, sharing of ideas and the exchange of opinions about prosthetics and the sport. I know this will help me progress.”
Observing his opponents, he said: “The Indian players are technically advanced but Japan’s Daisuke (Fujihara) is the strongest amputee here. I’m able to compare our moves but my prosthesis allows me to bend at the knee.”
Drawing on his many sporting experiences, and his sports science, marketing and management degree from the German Deutsch Sport Hochschule in Cologne, Czyz also analyses the rules of his category, including playing on half court.
“Today’s athletes are fitter, highly skilled and the prostheses are more advanced, allowing for easier movement. Perhaps this category can evolve,” said Czyz, the 2022 New Zealand Para badminton champion.