North’s 1st Paralympic athlete set for London

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North’s 1st Paralympic athlete set for London

PYONGYANG - North Korea’s first and only Paralympian is a swimmer who doesn’t live in North Korea and, until a few months ago, didn’t know how to swim. But he’s an inspiration in a country where disabled people are just beginning to get the support they need to shine as athletes.

Long accused by rights activists of shunting its disabled residents off to isolated detention camps, North Korea gained provisional membership in the International Paralympic Committee earlier this year.

“Healthy or disabled, if you have the will to succeed, there is no obstacle in your way,” said Li Pun Hui, a former table tennis star who has become her country’s leading advocate for disabled athletes.

Clearance to participate in the Paralympics, which open Wednesday in London, came too late to qualify for most events, but swimming was an exception. That made Rim Ju-song, a 16-year-old who actually lives in Beijing, North Korea’s only hope to compete this year.

One problem: Rim, who lost an arm and leg in a construction accident, couldn’t really swim. His first training session in April was a disaster.

He sank “like a rock,” recalled Kim Sung-chol of the North Korean Paralympic Committee. Nevertheless, he soon learned the crawl stroke and in May, Rim and his coaches boarded a plane for Berlin and his first international competition.

Only upon arrival did the North Koreans learn that Rim would need a second stroke to compete. He spent the next two weeks learning the breaststroke. Rim finished last in one event and was disqualified in the other, but that was good enough for a wild card slot in the Paralympics, where on Sept. 4 he’ll compete in the 50-meter freestyle.

Gripping the North Korean flag, he smiled Monday as his nation was introduced at a Paralympics welcoming ceremony in London.

His performance will be watched closely back in North Korea, where sports play a major role in life. From the streets of the capital to the dusty fields of the countryside, kids are constantly kicking around soccer balls, and there’s a basketball hoop in nearly every schoolyard.

From an early age, promising athletes are plucked for rigorous training, and those who win medals at international tournaments are welcomed home as heroes.

One of those heroes was Li, who became her country’s darling after teaming up with a South Korean player in 1991 to beat the seemingly indomitable Chinese and win the team gold.

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