Ileana Rodriguez competes for Team USA at the Paralympic Games London 2012. (Photo: Joe Kusumoto)
When the International Paralympic Committee asked Ileana Rodriguez to lead its new Refugee Paralympic Team last year, she didn’t hesitate for a moment.
“I’m super happy about it and very passionate about this,” said Rodriguez, a 2012 U.S. Paralympian in swimming. “I think the condition of the refugee is such a vulnerable one. Nobody wants to leave the land where you live, right?”
As Rodriguez pointed out, often there is no choice. People become refugees when they lose hope, have no future, have no food or are escaping an untenable political situation or a war, she added. And currently, the IPC estimates there are more than 82 million displaced people across the world.
ForRodriguez, her role as de mission is personal.
“I was born and raised in Cuba and moved to the U.S. when I was 15,” Rodriguez . “These are people that … struggled a lot to be able to make it, to be able to survive and thrive, and I totally relate to this. My family came to the U.S. We struggled for a few years before we would be able to kind of settle ourselves in the U.S.”
A swimmer and ballet dancer as a youth in Cuba, she lost the use of her legs due to malformation of the spine and a stroke before coming to the U.S. to find better treatment for her condition.
“When I came to the U.S., what changed was that in high school I was able to swim with the regular swim team,” Rodriguez said. “And I could see that regardless of the wheelchair, I could still do sports at a different level.”
In her third year at Florida International University, Rodriguez told her sister of her dream in the Paralympic Games. She feared that she was too old to try, however. The late Jimi Flowers, a U.S. Paralympic swim coach, convinced her otherwise.
Ultimately, Rodriguez swam for the U.S., setting an American record in the 200-meter breaststroke and placing seventh in the 100-meter breaststroke at the Paralympic Games in London. But Rodriguez first had to attain her citizenship before competing for the U.S., so she knows what disabled refugee athletes are up against.
“If you are a high-performance athlete in your country and you leave the country, your hosting country doesn’t necessarily allow you at that point to compete because you’re not a citizen of that country,” Rodriguez said. “I had to wait to be able to compete.
“The beauty of (the RPT) is it gives the opportunity for athletes who do not yet have a team or a flag that they can represent. They’re kind of taken under the IPC flag. The message that the team sends is very strong, too. I think we shouldn’t have refugees, period.”
The RPT gives Paralympic athletes a home until they eventually qualify to represent their host nations.
“It’s a process,” Rodriguez said. “It depends on what country the athlete lives in, and then it depends on the different opportunities that the country offers. And eventually, they would be naturalized, or they would have a status. As long as they have refugee status, have been classified and have reached minimum performance standards, they can compete (for the RPT).”
A pair of refugee/asylee Paralympians did compete at Rio in 2016 but only as independent athletes. They were swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein of Syria andIranian-born discus thrower Shahrad .
When the IPC decided to form a team for Tokyo, it turned to Rodriguez, a 35-year-old architect who runs a Houston consultancy that specializes in creating accessible design for buildings. In that capacity, she has worked with both the IPC and the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
Rodriguez has also served as an Americas Paralympic Committee athlete representative since 2015. The APC athlete rep is the voice of the Paralympic athletes in the Americas Region and a member of the APC Executive Committee.
The RPT will send six athletes from different sports to Tokyo this summer. An IPC committee made the selection in June.
“We have a cap at six right now,” Rodriguez said. “We have diversity in the sports (in) the hopefuls that we have. We have athletes from different parts of the world, and we have a couple that live in the U.S. Maybe we will see a medal somewhere.”