Going for gold

Losing a leg was just one of the hardships faced by Jonas as he grew up in Lithuania – now he’s determined to fly the flag for Britain at London 2012

JONAS Zimnicki is a sportsman on a mission. This week marks a year until the London Olympics begin and – with the 2012 games firmly in his sights, the sprinter is training hard. Every spare minute is spent in the gym or out on the track.

Jonas Zimnicki

With an average 100m time under 13.5 seconds, it’s amazing to think the 29-year-old only took up running a year ago. When you consider that Jonas is also an amputee – who runs with a prosthetic right leg – the feat becomes utterly awe-inspiring.

“I can still remember being in the rehab clinic with other amputees who felt, having lost a limb, their lives were over,” reflects Jonas, who lives in Cambridge. “I’ve proved that’s just not true. Losing any part of your body, like losing someone close to you, is a kind of bereavement. But there’s no point getting bitter about it: with the right kind of support, you can go out there and do whatever you want – anything is possible.”

Picked out by Paralympic talent scouts at a sporting open day last year, Jonas has been sprinting ever since and – thanks to expert coaching, a special running blade and his own unswerving dedication – his chances of making the games are rising all the time.

“I want to run for Britain as a way of saying thank you,” explains Jonas who, born and raised in Lithuania, recently took British citizenship. “This country has given me a new start – this is my way of giving something back.”

When Jonas arrived in the UK, in the autumn of 2004, he had only recently lost his leg, spoke no English, and had a debt to pay; his sister, Alicia, had loaned him £5,000 to pay for his first proper prosthetic limb.

Within a matter of months, Jonas had repaid the loan. In two years, he’d learned the language. In three years, he’d trained for and secured his dream job as a fitness instructor. And now, almost seven years on, he’s aiming to represent Team GB at the 2012 Paralympics.

“I suppose I am proud, in a way,” smiles Jonas. “But I think my parents would be more proud if I went home to the farm and started milking a few cows, to be honest.”

Born to Polish parents, Jonas grew up in north-east Lithuania on the family farm. He was born with one leg significantly shorter than the other; by the time he stopped growing, around the age of 19, his right leg was some 25 cm shorter than the left.

“I still don’t know why,” reflects Jonas. “There were quite a few kids born like that in Eastern Europe in the early 1980s. It might have had something to do with Chernobyl, and there was a certain medication given to pregnant women that caused some problems . . .

“But my parents didn’t want to think about it, really. I think they felt a bit, well, almost ashamed. Living in Eastern Europe at that time with a disabled child wasn’t that easy.”

For years Jonas used a very basic walking aid: a heavy contraption fashioned from wood, metals and leather straps. “I thought I was fine – I was working on the farm and had no real problems – but then my sister suggested seeing a specialist in Warsaw. The doctors there told me my foot was twisting and, if it was left, it would cause big problems with my knee, my hip, then my back.

“At first I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about. So I went back home to the farm and carried on as before. But then I started thinking and realised that maybe they were talking sense, that I couldn’t just leave it.”

A two-hour operation, to remove the right foot and a 10cm length of calf, followed. “I remember coming round and not being able to feel the lower half of my body. That was a bit scary . . . And it was very painful. They were injecting morphine and stuff, but it wasn’t working: I didn’t sleep for five days and five nights. When my mum came to see me, after a month, she said I’d aged four or five years.”

Eventually transferred to a rehab unit, Jonas, then aged 20, began to learn how to walk again. “I was very lucky, because I went to what is probably the best clinic in the whole country. But I was scared: scared I’d made the wrong decision and that I’d actually end up less able-bodied than I was before.”

With the loan from Alicia, Jonas was able to buy a better quality – and considerably lighter – artificial limb. “It still took some getting used to. And I kept having to go back and have fittings: it takes a long time for the swelling in the stump to go down, so the socket kept having to be altered. The clinic was 600 miles away from home, a 12-hour journey, which didn’t help.

“Then my sister and her boyfriend decided to buy an apartment and she said ‘I’m very sorry, I need the money back’, which was fair enough. And that’s the point when I decided to come here.”

Thanks to a cousin, who had already emigrated, Jonas was given both lodging and employment as soon as he arrived. “He got me a job washing dishes at a pub in Grantchester,” laughs Jonas. “He told them my English was OK, but all I could say was ‘Hi’ and ‘Bye’ . . .

“It was a bit strange to start with, but exciting too. I know what my parents’ life is like and – as an only son, working on the family farm, I could see my whole life stretching out before me, exactly the same as theirs. Then I came here and realised that, if I wanted to, I could lead a completely different life.”

Determined to repay his sister as swiftly as possible, Jonas soon took on a second job as a cleaner at Cambridge Regional College. “I’d clean at the college in the daytime, then work in the pub in the evening. I’d intended to stay in the UK for eight months. When the eight months were up, I’d repaid my sister and saved up a bit too: when you can’t speak the language it’s hard to spend money! So I decided to stay for a bit longer and learn English.

Jonas in his adopted city of Cambridge – which he says he has fallen in love with

“I’d fallen in love with Cambridge: it’s beauty, the international population. It’s not quite like home, but there’s something special about it for me. These days I actually feel a bit like a tourist when I go home to Lithuania.”

A part-time English course at CRC followed: “I’d study from 9am until 1pm, then clean from 1pm until 7pm. I knew I didn’t want to be cleaning toilets forever and I’ve always been interested in fitness, so I asked the gym manager what qualifications I’d need to work there – and then I went away and got them.”

After passing his exams and working at the gym as a volunteer for a while, Jonas joined the staff; he’s now a full-time fitness and classes co-ordinator. “I love my job. Helping other people reach their own goals is great.”

Settling in central Cambridge, Jonas began looking for a sport to do in his spare time: for three years, he was a member of a wheelchair basketball squad. But it wasn’t until he went to the Paralympic talent-spotting event in Birmingham that he finally found his niche – on the running track.

“I’d seen all these emails saying the search was on to find Paralympic talent,” he explains. “So I decided to go to this open day. We tried all kinds of different sports – rowing, basketball, running – but I quickly decided to focus on the 100m and 200m; I’ve been training ever since.”

Jonas has a packed schedule. He has 13 training sessions a week, several of which take place down in London, where he’s coached alongside fellow Paralympic hopeful Johnny Peacock of Chatteris, who, as readers of the News will know, lost a lower leg to meningitis.

Jonas also needs regular physio and deep-tissue massage; running with a prosthetic puts added strain on other areas of his body, particularly the lower back. “It takes 30 per cent more energy for an amputee to do something – even walking down the street – than someone able-bodied,” he explains.

Taking it all into account – treatments and travel expenses alone add up to £125 a week – training is proving an expensive business and Jonas is looking for a sponsor. “It would be amazing to get some sponsorship to help with the costs – and also to know that someone else really believes in me.”

Whatever happens, Jonas is determined not to give up. His aim is to get his 100m time down to a qualifying 12.2 seconds and make it into Team GB. “What keeps me going? I don’t look too far into the future,” Jonas concludes. “I stay in the here and now, in the moment – and I try to make the very most of it.”

• If you are interested in sponsoring Jonas’ Paralympic bid, you can email him at jzimnicki@camre.ac.uk

By Alice Ryan

All at the DOUGLAS BADER FOUNDATION wish you the best of luck, Jonas. You deserve to succeed and we know that Sir Douglas would have wholeheartedly approved of your dedication and determination.

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