LATRUN, Israel (Reuters) - When Pascale Bercovitch hurried to catch a train to school on a freezing December morning in a Paris suburb in 1984, the last thing she could have imagined was that one day she would represent Israel at the Paralympics.
Then 17, she tried to jump onto the departing train but could not hold on. She fell under the wheels, the train severing her thighs and leaving her inches from death.
Recovery was long and painful for Bercovitch, now a 44-year-old mother of two girls. But since moving to Israel she has represented her adopted country in the Paralympics as a rower in Beijing and is now set for London as a hand cyclist.
“I was totally in shock, I tried to call for help and I lay on the rails for 47 minutes on my own, it was such a long time,” Bercovitch told Reuters of the accident.
“I didn’t know what would happen ... was I going to survive? ... I understood that all I was and all I knew was gone and I didn’t know how my new life would be, if I even had prospects of a new life”.
Unable to move, she lay on the tracks counting down the seconds until the next train came along and finished her off. She recalled that when a paramedic finally turned up he expected to find a dead body.
Bercovitch discovered her Jewish heritage when she was 13 and it prompted her to volunteer to serve in the Israeli army after her school studies. The accident delayed those plans but she eventually did get to carry out her wish.
After recovering sufficiently, she served for two years and returned to active sport under the auspices of Etgarim (challenges in Hebrew), an organization that helps rehabilitate the disabled through sport.
Extraordinarily vivacious, Bercovitch said that she was becoming a better sportswoman as she got older, and that for disabled athletes, youth was less of a factor for success.
“It’s easier to be a good athlete with time ... when I was a swimmer aged 20, I don’t think I was as good as I am today. I am much stronger and much more focused and far cleverer as a sportswoman, as an athlete,” she said.
Bercovitch has worked as a television journalist and filmmaker concentrating on disabled issues and makes a living as a motivational speaker, using her story as the basis for her presentations.
Rowing at the Beijing Paralympics was a one-off, Bercovitch said, because a dispute with her coach meant she could no longer continue in the sport, so she switched to hand biking less than two years ago with the aim of qualifying for London.
“When I realized I would not be able to row any more, I looked for a sport in which I could continue to keep my fitness and I understood that hand cycling is the closest to rowing,” she said.
“When I rowed on the river it was lonely and depressing but now I am part of a riding group and I can ride with both disabled and able-bodied, it’s so much nicer,” she said.
Bercovitch will compete in the three disciplines in her hand biking category for athletes with lower limb disability, a road race, a time trial and a mixed team relay. Events will be based at the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit near London.
She has an outside chance of a bronze medal in the road race, her coach Ilan Ulman said. But he added that by the next Paralympics her chances would improve.
“She’s still new in this sport ... she has made a jump but if you ask me if she’s good enough to win a medal, I would say not yet, but in four years, for sure,” Ulman said.
When training on the road, Bercovitch hoists herself into a specially designed “bucket” which supports her from the waist down. Ulman said he pushes her as hard as any cyclist he trains.
She uses a rural road just off the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway for hill training and also works out in a gym and in a Tel Aviv park, devoting every day of the week to her preparations.
Ulman added that because she weighs only around 30 kilos (66 lbs) Bercovitch had an advantage when climbing, although on the descents the cycle was much harder to control and she could create less momentum.
Bercovitch said she was in regular contact on making modifications to her bike with Alex Zanardi, an Italian racing driver who also lost both his legs above the knee after a car race accident in 2000, and has also turned to hand biking.
While Israel has earned just one gold medal at the Olympics, it has achieved far greater success in the Paralympics, having amassed 333 medals, 113 gold, since its first participation in 1960. It hosted the third Games in Tel Aviv in 1968.
Israel’s Paralympic success has come due to the Beit Halohem (Warriors’ Home) sports centres for wounded soldiers, who receive a stipend from the state and are able to devote themselves to sport. Etgarim has also been influential.
But Ulman said that with the rest of the world devoting more resources to young disabled athletes, Israelis were finding it much harder to keep pace and it was important to start devoting resources to youngsters rather than wait for wounded soldiers to become the main source for disabled athletes.
“It is important to take 12- or 13-year-olds to treat them like professionals, train them right, make them a great swimmer, a great cyclist or a great runner ... there is a difference between starting at the age of 21, 22 and starting at age 12. A kid will be a much better athlete,” Ulman said.
Additional reporting by Naama Shilony, Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Peter Rutheford