Léa Bayekula, a Belgian athlete specializing in track and field, hopes to use her position as a Humanity & Inclusion ambassador to raise awareness about inclusion for people with disabilities.
As a child, Léa knew nothing about adapted sports and had never seen athletes with disabilities in the spotlight. In June, she competed in the World Para Athletics European Championship in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and brought home a bronze medal in the 100-meter dash.
"This sport has had an impact on who I am today,” Léa says. “Before, I didn't know anything about sports. When I was little, I wasn't introduced to para-sports, so I didn't know that they existed. I learned about them when I was 15 years old. I started with basketball, and then I discovered track and field during a special day that my league had organized. I had played three years of wheelchair basketball, and I really liked it. I was the only girl. 2013 is when I first began pursuing track and field, and then I began competing at a high level in 2016. I started with the 100 meters, then the 200 meters, and then 400 meters came not long afterwards. I always enjoyed the competitive aspect the most, and today I find myself in competitions and I love it.
"In the middle of a race, it's all about the adrenaline—I feel great. It can vary depending on the competition. Sometimes I get a little stressed, but that's normal. It's a positive stress. There is this feeling of freedom—feeling free and being able to express yourself on the track. It's different from everyday life.
On being an HI ambassador:
Léa: I consider it a victory to be able to represent HI. I think anyone with disabilities is trying to make a difference in this society, and having someone who speaks out for people with disabilities is important. I have trainers and physical therapists and a coach. I have a whole team behind me that help me to progress and move forward. I have the chance to have free braces, while there are people and children who do not have the opportunity to have braces, a wheelchair or a walker. That is what drew me to HI. I think that together we can change the way people look at things, and we can change reality a little bit.
On the importance of visibility:
Léa: It's important to give visibility to athletes with disabilities because we also have our place. Whether we have a disability or not, we all have a place in society, and we shouldn’t set anyone aside because they are different. Sure, we are all different, but we are all human beings. My objective and my role as an HI Ambassador is to give even more visibility to the world of disabilities. Today, almost nothing is adapted, and that already makes things difficult. Some things are starting to be, but it's not so simple. It really is my goal to bring visibility to all of these issues.
Visibility can change people’s mindsets, because many are closed-minded when it comes to disability. Whether that be in the media, or in life, we need to change the gaze, that look of pity.
On setting an example:
Léa: I think that everyone chooses an example of someone who resembles them. For me, my example was Cynthia Bolingo. She is a high-level Belgian athlete in track and field, and she was the first person I knew in the sport. I didn't know that you could do adapted track and field, so for me Cynthia Bolingo was my main example of an Olympic athlete, and she is an example for me still. If there is someone who is not doing well, and I can serve as an example for them to regain their strength, that would make me very happy.
But each person works differently. We can find fulfillment in all areas of life, not only in sports. Personally, I think you can find pleasure in anything, so we must continue to keep the joy of living and simply do things we love.