Among the newspaper and magazine clippings, photographs and postcards, medals and ribbons, and the mementos, both fading and radiant, one document stands out for Natália Mayara.
Illustrating the hard path that has taken wheelchair tennis player from poverty and tragedy in Recife, a port city on Brazil’s northeast coast, to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the national spotlight is a blank autopsy report with Mayara’s name on it.
On an evening in 1996, Mayara, then 2, was run over by a city bus and dragged down the block before being left for dead beneath a wheel by the vehicle’s driver as he tried to flee the scene.
“I remember that as the doctor was taking her into the surgery room, he came back out and said he would advise we have another kid,” Rosineide Maria Azevedo, Natália’s mother, recalled.
Doctors were so skeptical of Mayara’s chances of survival they prepared the form for the government agency that would list her cause of death.
“I have a document already with my name on it,” Mayara said. “(Doctors) said I had a two percent chance of survival. I don’t know. I guess I clung to those two percent.
“That’s all I had.”
In the ensuing weeks and months as their daughter underwent a double amputation and a series of follow-up surgeries, as Azevedo and her husband Carlos Costa tried to make sense of a swirl of emotions – denial, anger, despair, fear, hope, uncertainty – Azevedo found herself bound to a mother’s sense of loss for her child.
All these years later, Azevedo remembers a day nursing Natália after the final surgical procedure had been completed. She looked down at what was left of her daughter’s legs in a sense of denial, convinced she could will Natália whole again.
“I couldn’t stop staring at her legs, with that feeling that something was missing, almost as if I looked for long enough everything would be back to normal,” Azevedo said. “That’s when the bandage fell from her leg and I stiffened at the sight. I was having a panic attack but trying to be still so she wouldn’t notice and would keep breastfeeding her. But she noticed my nervousness and put her little hand on my cheek turning my face towards her, and told me that it was OK, that everything would be OK, and for me to not be nervous that God was looking after us.
“That was incredible to see, a 2-year old that had just lost her legs was actually the one comforting me and saying things that only an adult would. Even as a child, from the first moments, I knew she was a strong and blessed child because she fought a lot to survive, she never let herself down and always taught me to be strong with her.”
Rosineide would not be the last person touched by a life spent defying the odds.
Natália Costa Mayara Azevedo is convinced her existence is a “miracle” so she lives it with sense of divine purpose. She is above all else a woman whose life was forever altered by near-fatal tragedy yet refuses to view herself as a tragic figure.
“It’s just crazy,” said Mayara, 28, who lives and trains in Southern California. “It makes me want to live life like never before. Every day I really have this concept of living every day like it’s your last day. I only have a chance to do everything I want to and reach my goals and pursue the things that I love and to be happy and you only have today. You don’t know what’s about to happen tomorrow. So I feel like … I live intensely. I live, everybody who knows me, knows I’m crazy, I’m goofy. I don’t care about what people think. I’ll live my life and I’ll be happy no matter what.
“It’s just like all these little things, if you had told me when I was young, still living in Recife, I would tell you I was crazy and it’s just wild how everything has happened, and how far I was able to go with all the adversities in the way and again I’m still not done. I still want more.”
Mayara is determined to compete in the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, undeterred that she has been without funding from the Brazilian government since 2019 and presently is without a coach or regular access to practice courts.
“There’s always a mountain out there,” Mayara said. “It’s boring if you just climb one and sit on the top for the rest of your life. You always have some mountains to climb and that’s what I’m working toward: being ready for whatever mountain that comes through.”
Mayara was raised in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, but she is very much a child of Recife, a reflection of the city’s resiliency and a belief that rebirth can be found beneath the surface of tragedy if you look hard enough.
Recife’s survival depends on its resiliency. Known as the “Brazilian Venice,” the metropolis of more than 4 million sits next to a vast floodplain and is defined by a series of waterways and the Capibaribe and Beberibe rivers as they flow into the Atlantic Ocean. This, along with torrential rains, makes Recife vulnerable to severe flooding.
During part of the 2014 World Cup, much of the city was under several feet of water. Many in the city, especially in Recife’s poorer sections, find themselves in this cycle of flooding and rebuilding. But the Capibaribe and Beberibe have also the rich, black soil ideal for growing sugar cane, which has made the region for five centuries one of the world’s top sugar producers.
Another daughter of Recife, late Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, whose life like Mayara’s was shaped by tragedy, wrote in her novel, “The Passion According to G.H.”: “The mystery of human destiny is that we are fated, but that we have the freedom to fulfill or not fulfill our fate: realization of our fated destiny depends on us.”
Even from a young age, Mayara has had an innate sense that her fate rested with her, bound not to a sense of loss or the poison of bitterness, but focused on the opportunities still ahead of her, no matter the obstacles in between.
A REAL LIFE ROLE MODEL
For her second ascent of Mount Olympus, the pursuit of a second Paralympics, Mayara is determined to bring others along on the climb with her. Mayara works with the mentor program with “Ready, Set, Gold!”, a community health, fitness and social and emotional learning program that promotes healthy and active lifestyles to children in Southern California schools and is a public-private partnership between the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, the Foundation for Global Sports Development, and several local public school districts.
In Mayara, students have found inspiration.
“The first time she came to the school and she talked to the entire school and she talked about her story and you could see how much it touched the staff and the students,” said Danny Shollenberger, a physical education teacher at the Banneker-Doyle Career and Transition Center, a school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that provides vocational training and instructional programs for students between 18 and 22 with moderate to severe disabilities.
“So many of them wanted to stay after and talk more, so I think … they became comfortable with her and she was able to be vulnerable with everybody and I think that made them feel comfortable and they got excited when I told them that she was coming back,” Shollenberger said.
Mayara in turn has been energized by her visits to the schools.
“Their reaction impacts me still,” she said. “Even the first time I went to the Banneker school, one of the kids came and talked to me and said, ‘Look I have autism and I have some attacks sometimes and I don’t know how to deal with them. But I don’t want to give up and I wanted to ask you what I could do to not give up.’ And I was so touched by, that she trusted me to help her with that. There was a kid who told me that I motivated him to keep going. There was a kid who came to me and said I was thinking about giving up but after yesterday listening to your story, I’m never going to give up. There was a kid who asked me what was my motivation for keeping going every day because he is trying to find his.
“It’s so impactful for me that that’s literally what I love to do the most. When I’m there with them and share my experiences with them, it just makes me so happy. This is helping me so much in changing my life and the fact that I’m being able to change other people’s lives too is massive for me.”
On a recent afternoon, Mayara was at Banneker-Doyle, climbing out of her wheelchair to lead the students through a series of exercises at workout stations spread out through the school’s P.E. area.
Through the sit-ups and push-ups, Mayara’s message was clear.
“Believe in yourself,” said Francisco Estrada, a student at Benneker. “Yeah, never give up.”
Jazmin Flores said Mayara encouraged her “to do a good job and step outside of your comfort zone.
“And I did,” Flores continued. “I did push-ups, sit-ups without being embarrassed.”
After commiserating with Mayara about Brazil’s quarterfinal exit from the World Cup, Banneker principal Christopher Eaton talked about Mayara’s impact on the school.
“For me, the huge benefit for our students is to see someone who has a physical disability who has risen above the challenges and has been incredibly successful in the realm of athletics and in life in general and I think, we have students in the moderate to severe special ed eligibility range,” Eaton said. “In that student population, we have students who have cognitive delays but also physical disabilities and I know that they have been incredibly inspired by her story and I think it helps them to see what’s possible for themselves. That for me in a nutshell is the absolute beauty of having Natália here.
“For (students) it sparks imagination and it plants that seed to be able to see a real life role model. It plants that seed in their minds that they really are capable of anything they set their minds to and that the real limitations are the ones that they place on themselves.
“So much of the work we do here is about instilling in them the belief in themselves, and research shows that our students make incredible employees once they get their foot in the door and it’s that thing of convincing employers. And I think when you get your foot in the door, you have to go in with the mindset that you’re not going to be limited. When you see yourself as limited, so do other people.
“It is a universal message.”
Everyone, Shollenberger said, “is going to be inspired by her story.”
A TERRIBLE NIGHT
It was about 6 p.m. on Sept. 26, 1996, when Carlos Costa received a telephone call at the Coral paint plant where he worked as a security guard. A local hospital was calling. His daughter had been run over by a city bus.
“At that moment, I went crazy and desperate,” Costa said.
The accident had happened an hour earlier right in front of the hospital. Costa’s wife and daughter had just left the Hospital da Restauracao where Mayara was examined by a pediatrician for an allergy on her feet. Mayara had been on her mother’s lap at the bus stop before Azevedo put her daughter down briefly to retrieve a ticket out of her backpack.
“That’s when I felt a very strong wind gust with noise,” Azevedo said, “then I saw the bus had lost control and hit her and taken her meters away from me.”
The bus had come to the bus stop at too high of speed and the driver lost control as he tried to stop. The bus jumped the curb striking Mayara and then dragging her another 200 meters as the driver tried to race away. Passengers finally forced the driver to stop only to have him flee the scene, running off down the street with the bus on top of Mayara.
“I ran screaming for her,” Azevedo said. “I went into shock and then I just remember she was trapped under the wheels trying to get out and crying a lot, calling for me.”
Somehow the passengers were able to lift the bus off Mayara’s legs and one of them scooped the small child up and ran with her to the hospital.
Costa arrived at the hospital to find Mayara in the emergency room.
“When I saw my daughter in that situation, I ran through the hospital corridors looking for support to get my daughter out of general admission and take her to an ICU with better conditions for survival treatments,” Costa said.
A doctor at the hospital pulled Costa aside. If it were his daughter, the doctor told Costa, he would move her to another hospital. Hospital da Restauracao was not equipped to perform the procedure Mayara needed.
“If she had undergone her surgery at that hospital, she wouldn’t make it out alive,” Azevedo recalled the doctor telling her husband.
Costa scrambled frantically to get his daughter admitted into a better-equipped hospital. She was transferred, still hooked up to a blood transfusion, later that night to Real Hospital Portugues, a sprawling private facility. Just past midnight, Mayara underwent surgery to amputate both her legs near the knees.
“It was a terrible night for all of us,” Costa said.
The family’s ordeal, however, was just beginning. After 35 days at Portugues, Mayara still needed five more surgeries and extensive rehabilitation. Costa called a friend in Coral’s human resources office, pleading for assistance in getting Mayara admitted to Sarah Kubitschek Hospital, a rehabilitation facility known for treating persons with physical and motor problems located in Brasilia.
The treatment, however, was expensive. So was the cost of traveling back and forth to Brasilia, a 2½ hour flight or 29-hour drive from Recife.
“It was a constant struggle because I no longer had the financial conditions for anything and so I resorted to air transport companies, hotel chains, etc., always asking for help to carry out my daughter’s treatment, because the hospital did the necessary treatments,” Costa said. “It was a constant, relentless struggle.”
Costa and Azevedo also knew, given Brazil’s record of treating the disabled, especially disabled children, the struggle for them and their daughter was just beginning.
“Too often children with disabilities end up in Brazil’s institutions because families struggle to take care of them without resources and adequate community services,” Carlos Ríos-Espinosa, a senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in a 2018 report, ‘They Stay until They Die’: A Lifetime of Isolation and Neglect in Institutions for People with Disabilities in Brazil.”
“All children have the right to grow up in a family, and government resources should support families and children, not tear them apart.”
Among the report’s findings was that low-income children with disabilities were often placed into institutions at young ages and remained institutionalized for their entire lives. In these institutions, which the report compared to detention centers, individuals were routinely denied adequate food and hygiene as well as educational and personal development opportunities. Patients were not able to marry or have children. Some residents are tied to their beds and given sedatives to control them, the report stated.
Azevedo said she was worried about her daughter’s “development in general, including social inclusion in society, and her psychological development.”
“At that time I was a young poor girl from the country,” Azevedo said. “I never had any experience with people with disability and in my mind, I was very scared about how I was going to be able to help her through life.”
Costa shared her concerns. Financially, physically and emotionally drained from commuting between Recifice and Brasilia, he decided to move the family to the capital city.
“We were pretty poor and we didn’t have any money at all,” Mayara said. “So my dad basically decided to move me to one of the hospitals in Brasilia and sell everything they had. They sold the bed, the fridge, the TV, everything to pay for that bill.”
Even so, Costa felt he had no choice.
“I worried a lot about my daughter’s future,” he said. “I didn’t want to see my daughter like many people with special needs in Brazil, who live on the streets begging and surviving on the government’s minimum wage. And in the face of this situation, I had the objective of seeing my daughter in other better conditions of life. I always ran after scholarships in the best schools of Brasília, I sent letters to the schools like La Salles, Centro de Educação Católica and others always looking for a better education for Natália.”
The family continued to struggle financially. While the bus driver was fired soon after the incident, it would be eight years before the bus company agreed to a $40,000 settlement with the family. Costa and Azevedo used the money to buy a small home in Brasilia.
Despite hard times, Azevedo and Costa continued to find strength from their daughter’s courage and resiliency as she continued to emerge through the long and painful years of rehabilitation.
Azevedo recalled the day after returning home from the hospital following an amputation surgery.
“She went to the ground and started crawling and playing with her friends as if nothing happened,” Azevedo said.
“When Natália was undergoing treatments at the Sarah Kubitschek hospital in Brasília, she already showed a lot of determination, and independence and was always smiling and determined in every way, even when she was at the end of the treatments,” Costa said.
WHERE SHE HAD FOUGHT TO GET TO
That treatment included swimming and Mayara would emerge as one of the top Paralympic Youth swimmers in South America.
“She soon started to practice sports in swimming and she always won the prizes, tournaments,” Costa said, “and it grew with each passing day and then we came to the conclusion that Natália really had a lot of personality in all senses and aspects and was always independent because we never treated Natália with pity or as an incapable person, on the contrary, always giving everyone freedom to come and go without restriction.”
“But,” Costa added, “we know that any and all developments she has are her own nature and intelligence.”
At age 11, Mayara started playing tennis as well. For a year, she juggled the two sports before deciding to focus on tennis.
“The complexity of it,” Mayara answered when asked what attracted to her to tennis. “The fact that no match, no practice, no ball is the same as the other. The fact that you have the mental game is immensely impactful in how you play and how strategic you have to be about it and all the little moving parts. A lot of technique, a lot of intensity, everything is like a very intense chess match and I fell in love with that. Because I was actually a swimmer before. I was getting pretty established as a swimmer. I went to the Junior World Cup for swimming. I won three medals there. When I got back, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore because I loved tennis much more.”
By 2011, Mayara was 17 and the No. 2-ranked girls Paralympic player in the world. Between 2013 and 2016, she won 20 tournaments, including the 2013 South American Games and the 2015 ParaPan American Games.
Mayara won her opening match at the Paralympic Games in Rio, dispatching Turkey’s Busra Un 6-1, 6-0.
“Packed stadium, everyone chanting my name, which was insane,” Mayara said. “I was very touched by it. After the game after I stepped out, people were swarming around me and wanting photos.
“After all the hard work you’ve put in with that one goal in your mind and it starts getting closer and closer, I feel like that game was one step closer to me and it felt amazing to have the support of my family and friends and my country.”
The next morning, Costa was at a newsstand when he looked up to find a large photo of his daughter on the front page of Correio Brasiliense, a national newspaper. He broke down sobbing in the newsstand, overwhelmed by the enormity of the family’s journey and the realization that the nation was seeing in his daughter what he and Azevedo has witnessed for years.
“No one knew why I was crying. It was very emotional,” he said. “Now she gets to share her strength with others.”
Mayara lost in the next round, but there was no way she and her family would consider Rio as anything but a triumph.
“That she was where she had fought to get to, just as she had fought to survive in the immediate aftermath of the accident,” Azevedo said. “And that winning or losing she was already victorious. She had gone much farther than any of us could have predicted, and all by herself, with her dedication and determination. I felt like that was what that feeling was telling me about when she had her accident, that she would be big!”
Besides, Mayara was only 22 and had every reason to think she would be a medal contender four years later at the Tokyo Paralympics.
NOW WHO AM I?
She kept winning in 2017, the Israel Open among her four tournament titles.
But Mayara and her coach, Wanderson Cavalcante, also came to believe that if she was going to reach the medal podium in Tokyo she couldn’t stay in Brazil.
“After Rio, we decided to take next step and really focus my entire life on sports and tennis,” she said. “We saw an opportunity of moving to the U.S.”
Mayara, Cavalcante and his family moved in 2018 to Orlando, where she would have access to a U.S. Tennis Association facility with more than 100 courts and additional coaching. Higher level tournaments would be more accessible to her in Florida than Brazil.
Cavalcante, Mayara said, decided “everything that I eat, when I sleep, what I’ve been doing, practicing twice a day every day with him. It was pretty intense. Preparing for Tokyo. Bigger goal behind all that.”
Then it disappeared.
Brazil found itself in a deep recession between 2014 and 2017 in which the nation’s economy shrunk by 7%. By 2018, the economy was still growing by only 1.1%. In response, the federal government began slashing funding to a wide range of state-financed programs. Among those cut was Bolsa Atleta Podium, a government program operated by the Ministry of Sport in conjunction with the Brazilian Olympic and Paralympic committees to provide funding to athletes with Olympic or Paralympic medal potential.
Mayara had used the $2,500 she received each month from Bolsa Atleta Podium to help cover food and training and traveling expenses.
“Everything,” she said.
“It was a significant amount that I couldn’t really depend on anymore,” Mayara said. “So because of that, I couldn’t have a normal life. I still have to pay rent, I still have to buy food. You have to start working and by working you basically lose the time to practice. Tennis is a sport where you have to travel a lot and I didn’t have funding for travel, I didn’t have funding for paying a coach or anything like that. So that’s basically kind of what happened. I found myself having to choose and I had to figure it out and start working.”
Returning to Brazil wasn’t an option. Her parents divorced when she was 18, Azevedo returning to Recife to be closer to her family.
“I felt helpless basically,” Mayara said. “I saw myself not be able to do anything to fix it. It’s rough because I was by myself in a country that is new to me, that I’m still learning about. The language is not my first language. I have sacrificed everything, left everything thing behind to pursue that dream. So it was hard. It definitely felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. There’s nobody to blame or anything like that. It was just the circumstances at that time. But it was rough because I dedicated my whole life to this sport. It’s like I never … the worst part is that it’s not you who chooses to stop. Like I never chose to stop. That’s what hurts the most I feel like.”
Eventually, she took a job selling toy balls at a stand at an Orlando outlet mall, working for $7 an hour, sometimes from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.
“Squishy balls,” she said. “Toys you throw against wall and they become square and then you pull them off and they regain shape.
“It was rough because if you are almost a little embarrassed because you if have a failure, like I was a Paralympic tennis player and had all that athlete life, traveled the whole world and now I’m calling out to everyone in the outlet mall to try squishy balls. That was really rough. I remember that I saw somebody that I knew from a tennis tournament once, everybody was playing the tournament, and I remember one of them came up to the outlet and I saw them from afar and I just hid because I was too embarrassed to be seen in that situation.”
Unlike the toy balls she sold, Mayara couldn’t bounce back. For the first time in her life, she felt lost and without purpose.
“It’s tough when that happens because tennis was all I thought about,” she said. “People ask me what tennis means to me and it’s always hard to describe because tennis was my life. I didn’t do anything besides tennis. I never got to have a regular job, a regular life. Since I was 12, I was playing tennis, and I was practicing every day, traveling my whole life, never thought about anything other than that. And when it happened, it’s almost like they took your identity away. So as a Paralympic athlete people would come say, ‘Oh, who are you? What do you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m a Paralympic tennis player.’ And now who am I?
“I don’t know what I like to do besides that. I don’t know what I want to do besides that. I felt completely lost, very hard to deal with that situation. In a country completely new. Not that many people around me that I knew. So I had to deal with a little bit of depression, anxiety, crying every day, pretty much. Trying basically to find myself in a way. Trying to understand who I am now and what do I do and almost the feeling of failure. That I was working so hard toward something and I couldn’t get there and it’s hard again when it wasn’t my choice to not get there and stop. So it was really hard, so much so that I gained weight, I was not very active at all. I was in pretty rough shape and then I just basically couldn’t do it anymore.”
Instead of winning a medal in Tokyo, the Paralympic Games in 2021 went on without her.
“Honestly, I didn’t watch too much,” Mayara said. “I just, it hurt me to watch it. I tried watching it and then for the first day. Then I decided to put a little blind eye towards it because it was still hurting me a lot. There was a point in my life looking at my tennis chair would make me cry.
“And then Tokyo was the reason I was in the U.S., the reason I moved here, the reason I made all these changes and everything and see that happening through the TV first time since I started playing, it was like I was pretty hurt, so I didn’t follow it too much.”
A FIRST STEP BACK
The disappointment of missing the Tokyo Games, however, provided a wake-up call for Mayara.
She moved to Santa Monica and began coaching and training again, grabbing court time whenever and wherever she could find it.
She decided to stop hiding and feeling ashamed. She would tell her story.
“I can’t just be basically waiting for something to happen,” she said. “I’m somebody who lives intensely and I’m going to be happy no matter what and I’m going to live every day like it’s my last day. So I had to take that first step and start taking care of myself again, and find a way back, So I’ve been doing everything I can since then. Changed my diet better than even when I was playing. My workout routines are better than whenever I had it, even when I was in my top shape. My life routine is better than it’s ever been.
“I had to flip that switch and start having that hope again. I’m not just, like, ‘Sure that it will happen.’ I’m just, like, ‘If it happens, I will be ready.’”
She will find her mountain and its summit, whether it’s the Eiffel Tower and the iconic red clay courts of Roland-Garros at the Paris Games next summer or a peak just as daunting, just as majestic.
She won’t be alone on the climb.
In some of her darkest days since her name was written on an autopsy report, the first glaring underestimation of her will in a lifetime full of them, she has summoned others to join the ascent, pushing them out of the boxes life and they have put themselves in, over the obstacles, up their own mountains, a guide once again reaching up from tragedy and heartache to touch their souls, leading them forward.
“She is my light,” Azevedo said, “and has taught me everything about life through this incredibly hard journey.”
https://www.dailynews.com/2023/04/03/she-always-bounces-back-wheelchair-tennis-star-aims-for-paris/ Wheelchair tennis star aims for Paris – Daily News