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Para cycling

Para-cycling: Eugene Fritzner’s love of handcycling

Eugene Fritzner in action in Nottwil
Eugene Fritzner in action in Nottwil

The first thing that strikes you when talking to Eugene Fritzner is his bright, wide smile. That smile broadens when he talks about handcycling.

The 35-year-old athlete recently returned home to Haiti after two months based in Switzerland. His stay culminated with the 2015 UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships which were held in Nottwil.

“I love this sport,” he said before lining up for his first major international competition. “I love it. I am in Europe for Haiti and I want to win. It will be difficult but you have to believe in yourself and move upwards and onwards.”

Finally, he was a long way off medal contention in the UCI World Championships, but the fact that he lined up at the start was victory in itself.

In a wheelchair since a shooting incident in 2010, the determined young man discovered handbiking while in rehabilitation at the Hôpital De La Convention Baptiste d'Haiti. The hospital was built after the 2010 earthquake that ravaged the country, and the Swiss Paraplegic Foundation in Nottwil has been closely involved with its development and activities.

Enter Albert Marti, handcyclist, researcher at Swiss Paraplegic Research and specialist in participation and social integration. Marti travels to Haiti every year to motivate, encourage and coach the country’s handcyclists. He said:

“When we found out that the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships were coming to Nottwil, we realised we had to do something to get at least one of our Haitian athletes over here to participate.”

It was a long and complicated process but finally Eugene Fritzner got the green light, sufficient funding and a visa to come to Switzerland with his Haitian coach Senatus Severe.

During Marti’s last visit to Haiti in January of this year, he left his own handbike behind for Eugene Fritzner to train on.

“There is always a problem of equipment and tools,” explains the Swiss coach. “Eugene’s handbike wasn’t in good condition so I left him mine. He brought it with him when he came to Switzerland and used it for the World Championships.”

Eugene Fritzner with his coaches Senatus Severe and Albert Marti

Fritzner is not the first Haitian para-cyclist to compete internationally. One of his fellow rehabilitation patients in 2010, Leo Gaisli, shot to fame at the 2012 London Paralympics just two years after losing his wife and eight children in the Haiti earthquake that left him with spinal cord injury

Gaisli is a role model for Fritzner who, like Gaisli grabbed the opportunity to travel to Europe and made the most of every minute. He particularly appreciated the training conditions in Switzerland, meeting members of the Swiss para-cycling team, and riding on safer roads. He explains:

“Basically we have just one flat, straight, road going from Cap Haiti to the Dominion Republic and it is dangerous. When I am training I need to be accompanied by a motorbike.”

The handbike is not only his sport, but his means of transport. Each day he commutes to and from work on his trusty machine. He trains every day after work, following a programme sent to him by Marti.

Eager to give something back to the rehabilitation centre that introduced him to his beloved sport, the now international athlete is a monitor at the hospital’s Sports Centre, where he plans to share his experience gained in Europe and at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships.

“I want to be successful for Haiti and for my coach. He has made a lot of efforts for me. I love this sport and I do it every day,” he says.