Paralympian Elena hits the Playboy cover | Sunday Observer

Paralympian Elena hits the Playboy cover

15 May, 2022
Krawzow won Paralympic gold in the 100m breaststroke at Tokyo 2020
Krawzow won Paralympic gold in the 100m breaststroke at Tokyo 2020

Elena Krawzow dives off the blocks. There’s half a beat of silence. A moment of stillness. Then her hands cut the surface. A rush of water, a crash of noise. She submerges and starts counting.

“I know nothing about what’s happening around me in those seconds,” Krawzow says.

“That’s partly because of my disability, but also my focus.

“I count the strokes to orientate myself. That way I know when in one more stroke there will be the wall and the turn.

“I can’t tell what’s going on in lane three, five or wherever. I worry only about myself, my technique, my race.”

Krawzow is visually impaired, only 3% of her vision remains. She can’t see her rivals, the ripples, the reaction. She can’t see the photographer either. But she can hear the click of the shutter, the instructions and encouragement.

Krawzow’s not on the blocks now, but on a boardwalk. The sea beneath her is flat and calm. The sun above blazes hot. Wearing only a pair of white bikini bottoms, she runs her hands through her hair and pouts towards the photographer’s voice. It’s a long way from the pool. It’s even further from the start.

Krawzow was born in Mergen, a small village in southern Kazakhstan. It was 1993. Her country had been independent for a little over two years. The separation from a splintered Soviet Union left scars.

Mergen’s farms were short of seeds and customers. Work for Krawzow’s family was scarce, money was tight. There were days when she and her siblings would get by just on tea and bread.

When Krawzow was seven, things became even harder. Her teachers noticed that she would squint and strain to see the board. She would hold books close to her nose as she tried to read.

The family’s desire to leave grew more urgent. They needed to find somewhere to treat and teach their young daughter. Firstly they went to Russia and a Moscow eye hospital, where her macular degeneration was diagnosed. Krawzow was sent to a boarding school for disabled children, where violence - between kids, from teachers - was common. Finally, with Elena now aged 11, the Krawzows managed to re-settle in Germany.

“It was not easy to change countries,” she remembers.

“I come from a very small village and the European lifestyle, and Germany was completely new to me. I felt like an alien.

“But it was the best choice from my parents. I am very happy to live in Germany, because a lot of people here helped me to realise myself.”

One was Michael Heuer - a sports teacher. He saw that for Krawzow - a fish out of water - swimming could be an outlet.

During the week she trained herself, counting strokes and lengths. At the weekends she lost herself dancing to the beats of Berlin’s techno clubs.

She went to the London 2012 Paralympics as a teenager, claiming silver for Germany aged 18. She won her first world title a year later. In 2016 she set a world record in her favoured event, 100m breaststroke. Success brought attention and the opportunity to break further ground.

“I was a little bit popular before - because I’m a world champion and had world records and all these things - but it was very important that Playboy made that request to do the shoot,” she says.

“I am the first disabled person to be on the cover. It was a step to show other guys in the world that people with a disability are the same as those without a disability.”

(BBC sport)