Irene Villa, born in Spain, is a journalist, psychologist and Paralympian. When she was 12, she lost both legs and three fingers of one hand during an attack by the Basque terrorist group ETA. Passionate about sports since she was little, the attack did not deprive her of physical activity and sports competitions. Currently, she is married and the mother of two children. She is in Rome this week as one of the speakers at the Seminar “Coaches: Educators of Persons,” organized by the Church and Sport Office of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
During the presentation of the Seminar, Irene said that sports has benefits that are not only physical but also psychological. As she explained, to move with two titanium prostheses it is necessary to be in shape, and sport helps with this. Cycling, canoeing, fencing … and now she can proudly say that she is part of the first women’s chair-adapted ski team.
With her testimony she can assert that “sports frees from many evils; it is very beneficial.” Sport “calms the spirit” and “gives us a sociability that the human being needs.” Therefore, she invited everyone to be filled with the “values that are going to be given these days” in the Seminar. Speaking of the way that sports has helped her concretely in her life, she said it gives interior strength to surmount any obstacle. In addition, she observed that sports promotes social integration, “you meet people, travel, competition gives one confidence in oneself and self-esteem, which is fundamental to walk in life.”
At the end of the press conference, ZENIT spoke with her on the role that sport has had in her life.
ZENIT: Why did you want to take part in this Seminar?
Irene Villa: They contacted me through my Web page and I wanted to come because sport is fundamental for me. I think that the practice of sport must be fostered in all environments, in all aspects and in all countries. Sport is what unites us. It is a universal language that the whole world understands and, in addition, it is based on values that are the ones that save humanity. I feel as one saved in this connection, because I could be sunk in misery as a result of the attack. Yet it hasn’t been so, thanks to this strong spirit and hope, as I always say, and for others also thanks to the faith, the love of life, religion … It is everything for me: faith, hope, optimism, excitement, love. All that is what has saved me from what could have been a sad and bitter life, yet it is a life of excitement, passionate … and I owe this to the values that sport gives.
ZENIT: What is sport for you?
Irene Villa: Sport is effort, struggle and sacrifice, and life is that. When I went through the surgeries and operations I suffered a lot, but I always said “this suffering will bring a reward as it does in sport.” To spend long periods training and leaving things you like to one side, later brings a reward, such as a medal or a championship of which you are proud of your work even if you don’t win. Life is like this, so how could I not be here? My life demonstrates what they want to transmit with this International Seminar, that’s why I didn’t give it a second thought and I came.
ZENIT: The values that sport offers are something that was transmitted to you as a child. Now that you are a mother, how will you transmit them to your children?
Irene Villa: It will be fundamental for both of them, of course. I have two boys: one who is two years and ten months old, and the other who was born three weeks ago. My husband is also an athlete. He was a tennis player in Argentina and we are going to infect our children with this and transmit it to them. Moreover, they are going to see it at home, because the weekends are already for sport in the open air, contact with nature and I would like them to grow in these values. If in the end they dedicate themselves to sport, that will be their decision, but we do want them to grow with this passion for physical exercise and activity because I believe this also leads to mental health.
ZENIT: With your experience as a Paralympian, what would you say to someone who is facing a new disability in his life and doesn’t know how to cope with it?
Irene Villa: Sport gives you tools that a disabled person needs. The tools are given to all of us, but I think when you have a handicap you need them more. For instance, if you are in a wheelchair and have to go up a ramp or a curb, if you aren’t strong you fall or can’t go up. That is why they are necessary tools. Often people say to me;” How courageous you are given what you do!” It’s that I had no other option, because if I want to have a life as close to the one I’d have with my legs, I have to make a triple effort, I must do sport, go to the gymnasium and I must be strong to be able to pick up things and move around … Sport gives you the quality of life you need. None of my ski companions can walk. And they all say that their life has improved a lot since they took up sports. It is fundamental.