Table tennis Paralympian to fulfill Olympic dream, too

Courtesy Natalia Partyka

"I dream about achieving in the Olympics what I've achieved in the Paralympics. But I still have a long road ahead of me," said Natalia Partyka, who will compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics this summer.

Natalia Partyka was 7 years old the first time she followed her big sister Sandra to a table tennis hall in the seaside city of Gdansk, Poland. Born without her right hand and forearm, she gripped a paddle in her left hand, learned to bounce the ball off her right upper arm, and found her calling.

Natalia Partyka said it will take time for attitudes toward the Paralympics to change.

“Soon my sister’s trainer was telling me to come along to practice with my sister. It really excited me. We would play at home, bouncing the ball against walls and on the kitchen table. I never separated from my paddle,” Partyka told TODAY.com in Polish from her hometown. “I just can’t imagine my life without tennis. I think it would be boring. Maybe I wouldn’t be doing anything. Maybe I would just be sitting at home.”

With the support of her family, the spunky 22-year-old not only learned to embrace her disability, but became one of an elite group of athletes to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics. She’s traveling to London to represent Poland in the Olympics (she turns 23 on July 27, the day of opening ceremonies) and in the Paralympics in August, competing in the women’s singles and women’s team events.

As a young girl, she dreamed of competing in the Olympics, but she wasn’t sure she could be good enough, and she worried about encountering the hurdles faced by Paralympians in Poland. “It’s much easier for disabled athletes to compete than it was five or 10 years ago, but the Paralympics is still treated differently from the Olympics. There’s a lot less money and sponsors in the Paralympics, so clubs don’t have the funding needed for systematic training and tournament travel,” said Partyka, who is ranked 68th by the International Table Tennis Federation. “It will take time for the Polish mentality to change. Many people think, ‘It’s not sports; it’s rehabilitation.’ But the Paralympics are competitions of professional sports.”

Natalia Partyka's training regimen leaves little room for downtime, vacations or a love life.

It was her father Andrzej who pushed her to face her disability head on, driving her to every practice and drilling it into her head that table tennis came first.

“I was 7 and wanted to play with friends. But my dad made sure I was practicing every day,” she said. “The trainers said I could have a future as a competitor. I didn’t take it seriously. It turned out they were right.”

In 2000, she competed in the Paralympics in Sydney. She was 11 years old. “I was only a child, but I qualified quickly. I lost, but I remember thinking, ‘In four years, I want to go to Athens.’ ”

Her grueling practice sessions would include tactical and physical training, running, spinning and swimming, and arm muscle strengthening. “Some people think we just stand there and hit back the ball. In reality, it takes hard work. We also analyze opponents. It’s like chess; you’re always thinking about your next move. Every ball is different and you have to be ready,” she said. “Because I don’t have my right arm, sometimes I have to spend more time than others with physical conditioning.”

Her training and determination paid off. In 2004, she traveled to the Paralympics in Athens and brought home gold and silver medals. “It was a turning point in my life,” she said. It was then she began to believe she could qualify for the Olympics, and in 2008, competed in the Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing. She again won gold and silver medals at the Paralympics and was awarded The Order of Polonia Restituta, among Poland’s highest honors. “I dream about achieving in the Olympics what I’ve achieved in the Paralympics. But I still have a long road ahead of me,” she said.

Her tight training schedule leaves little room for downtime, vacations, or a love life. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend, so I don’t have anything to reveal,” she said, laughing. “I wouldn’t say I’m looking very hard. I believe you can’t force yourself to look for your other half. But, maybe someone will appear.”

For now, Partyka is focused on the one dream shared by all Olympians: hearing her home country’s national anthem play while up on the podium with a medal around her neck. “There is nothing more beautiful than standing on the highest podium and listening to ‘Dabrowski’s Mazurka,’ ” Poland’s national anthem, Partyka said. “To hear that anthem, it would all have so much meaning. It’s a beautiful moment where time stands still. That’s why it’s worth fighting, and worth the sacrifice.”

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