Misadventure leads Raimondo to volleyball


Anton Raimondo loves to travel. In fact his latest escapade will see him driving down the length of Africa. But even he couldn't have mapped out the journey he's been on in the last six years, which started in the Andes and will culminate on one of the greatest sporting stages – at the Paralympic Games in London.

It was on a family holiday in South America that it all started. “My mom, my girlfriend and my sister went off to do some exploring around Argentina and then my dad, brother and I did a motorcycle trip inland, going through the Andes and we popped into Chile, round the lake region there,” explained Raimondo.

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LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 30:  Anton Raimondo of Great Britain  prepares to serve against Russia in the Pool A sitting volleyball match on day 1 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at ExCel on August 30, 2012 in London, England. Russia  (Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)Anton Raimondo plans to come back to South Africa, where he hopes to start a sitting volleyball team.

“On the last day we had stopped for lunch. We were about an hour and a half away from our final destination and pulled out of the parking lot, on the side of a mountain pass with a lake below. My brother and dad went out first and they were a little bit further in the distance so I couldn't see them.

“I came out and I turned on to the left hand side of the road and went round this blind corner and there was a pick-up truck coming in the opposite direction in the same lane. I was like, 'Oh my god, what's he doing in my lane?' and there was hardly any time to swerve so it was a head on collision. I hit the front fender of the vehicle and it just took my leg clean off.

“At that same moment I realised that actually it was my fault – that I was the one on the wrong side of the road because I was used to driving on the left and they drive on the right.”

An initial battle for his life and then months of hospital care and rehabilitation followed, first in Argentina and then in Cape Town where Raimondo would meet the same plastic surgeon that operated on fellow Paralympian Natalie du Toit.

“When I had the accident it took me just slightly below the knee, but it wasn't good enough for using a prosthetic so I had to be re-amputated in Cape Town. They had to expand my own skin so they could use it to cover the wound. So I had, basically what were breast implants put into my leg – I had two of them and they were inflatable so I had all this excess skin which they could then wrap around the end of my leg after the amputation.

“So the whole process – the growing of the skin took about two months, the amputation recovery took another couple of months, and then I needed to get ready for prosthetics and that took a few months so I landed up being on crutches for 18 months in total I think.”

During that time, Raimondo made the most of his time off – fitting in a bit more travelling, going clubbing and generally enjoying life. But he remained determined to return to London where he had been based prior to the accident and where he had set up a property company.

On his return, the 34-year-old realised he'd put on some weight and so sought out a sport in which he could participate and was pointed in the direction of a nearby sitting volleyball club. The sport is similar to the standing version but is played on a smaller court with a lower net with the players seated on the ground during play. A part of the player's body between the bottom and shoulders must be in contact with the ground when they make contact with the ball.

“I had never heard of the sport but I thought let me go and see what it's like and try it out. And the cool thing was, that this club – East London Lynx, was the longest running club in the UK, had the best support and most of the GB team members came from this club at the time.”

With his father having been born in England, Raimondo has dual nationality and so was eligible to represent Britain.

“I could see the level I'd need to get to to become a GB player. The sport was really new in this country, so there weren't a lot of people and it wasn't a massively high standard so I could catch up quite quickly.

“And I think playing basketball at school probably helped me with the ball control – and so quite quickly I became a member of the team.”

Raimondo's first international competition was the European Championships in 2009.

“And that's when the plan was laid out for 2012. And we were saying, look we're going to build this, we're going to make this happen for 2012.” That they did, building the team to a high enough level to compete against, and even beat some of the best in the world at the Paralympic Games.

“It was then that it basically took over my life. Well, at least my free time out of work. So ja, it's been quite a journey.

“Sitting volleyball is very cool in that it's both a thinking game and a power and adrenaline game. It's quite strategic in how you set up plays, fake your opponents, the various passing techniques, setting techniques and then basic brute force when you come in to hit the ball and make a kill.

“And it's very, very fast – it's a lot faster than people actually think and probably see. The court's smaller but the ball is still being hit as hard as in regular volleyball so it's pinging around in a much smaller space and the reaction time is a lot quicker. But that's what I like – that speed, that strategy and just general team competitiveness.

“I never imagined I would be competing internationally – not even four years ago but this is a great opportunity.”

Raimondo explained there is no question about being torn over which country to represent as South Africa don't have a national team.

“It's not like I have a choice. But Britain has done a lot for me in that I came here over 10 years ago and I made a home and built up a friendship base and my work – and the fact that it provided the sport for me in the first place.”

Raimondo is far from turning his back on his home country though, and after his trip down Africa intends to start up the sport back home.

“I spent some time speaking with a lot of people in volleyball when I was down there in 2010 and it didn't seem to exist at all at that time. So I've got this idea of starting sitting volleyball in Cape Town – and trying to build the sport there, with the idea that South Africa could enter a Paralympic team at some point. People seem very keen for it to come. I went to various hospitals in the Western Cape and the idea that they could take amputees who need rehabilitation and exercise and go straight into a sport where you don't need prosthetics is fantastic. So all the hospitals seem very keen. And I'm sure there are plenty of amputees who would welcome a sport like this,” added Raimondo.

But before that venture begins, there's still the completion of his six-year journey to focus on at the Paralympics.

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