Gold medalist Nantenin Keita of France (R) celebrates with silver medalist Ilse Hayes of South Africa (L) after the race. Photo: Jason Cairnduff

Rio de Janeiro - Ilse Hayes ended her Paralympic career the way she began it, with a medal in the 400-metres. In Athens, 12 years ago, when she was still a teenager, she won bronze. Under a searing sun, she took a hard-fought silver.

The effort had been immense, and afterwards she had to sit down for a spell as she struggled to recover, still smiling and joking all the while. Her journey at the Paralympics was over. The last 400-metres of it had been hard toil as she fought with Ukraine’s Leilia Adzhametova for second place behind Nantenin Keita of France. She finished in 56.49secs, Adzhametova was just behind in 56.60secs, while Keita broke the European record with a run of 55.78secs.

“The 400m comes down to the last 100m, so I went out conservatively because my training was for the 100m,” said Hayes. “My coach said it was perfect pacing. It paid off at the end.”

As one adventure comes to an end for Hayes, so another begins. She was 19 when she debuted in Athens, finishing fifth in the 100m, before that bronze in the 400m. In Beijing she won gold in the long jump and was second in the 100m, a set of results she repeated in London. She leaves Rio with two silver medals, her third consecutive Paralympic 100m silver and the silver for the 400m. Seven medals from four Games is the sort of return that marks her as a South African great.

“This is my last Paralympics. I know I’ve said it before, but that was under different circumstances,” she laughed. “I was injured and I didn’t reach my full potential. I haven’t looked back. Since that I’ve just gone from strength to strength after London. One of the highlights was my gold medal in Beijing in the long jump. I went in there as an underdog, no one thought I would be on the podium. After that we had the privilege of meeting the late president Nelson Mandela. That was a huge highlight of my life, not just my athletics career.

“London has great memories. I’ll definitely be back in London for world champs. There’s a 200m for me there. That will be my last race as an athlete.”

Her future is not yet decided save for one thing. She wants to be a mother.

“I’ve had a decent career. I definitely want to start a family. I’ve got peace this year at the world championships and that it was okay to end my career. You’ll see me in London, but I’ve had an amazing journey. I want to end off on a high.

“I’ll never stop being active. I love dancing, so I will go into dancing. I studied developing with kids in paediatrics, so, who knows, maybe life will take me there again. I have also got a creative side, and I want to start a furniture business. Being a mother is a really big dream of mine. My husband (Cassie) has sacrificed so much. This medal is just as much his as it is mine. My biological clock is ticking.”

Another Paralympic veteran Zanele Situ failed to make the second round of the discus competition. Alani Ferreira was seventh in her 100m backstroke heat and did not make the final. Hayes believes the team is changing and was impressed with what she saw. There is a future.

“These Games in Rio, there has been something different about it. I was one of the most experienced ones in the team and it was a massive honour for me to be there for the youngsters. Reaching out to them and giving back a bit. I was the best prepared ever. For the first time in a long time I didn’t have any injuries coming into a Games.

“We had a really young team. I think for most of them this is a good opportunity and good experience. Learning what it is like at a Paralympics. The movement is becoming so strong. Maybe for some of them this is an eye opener that you have to really put in some effort to get something back. Some are going to go on, some are going to finish. New athletes will come through. I’m, really excited for the future of Paralympics. I think it will get stronger towards Tokyo.”

Independent Media