Ex-Colombian rebel heading for paralympics in Tokyo
GRANADA (COLOMBIA) - Maimed in a horrific bombing, Colombian athlete Juan Jose Florian emerged from South America's longest conflict with three missing limbs and one clear goal -- to win gold at next year's Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Florian has fought on both sides of the Colombia's 50-year conflict, first for the Marxist FARC rebels when still a child soldier, and then for the regular army.
Now he is on the cusp of realizing his biggest dream, competing in next year's Paralympics in Japan despite losing both his arms and a leg, blown off when he picked up a booby trapped package.
"I never imagined myself as an athlete," he told AFP. "My childhood dream was to be a soldier."
Soldiering was cruel to him, however.
- Child soldier -
FARC rebels raided his village when he was just 15 and like many other child soldiers, took him away to enlist in their ranks.
The conflict, which has since largely been resolved by a 2016 peace agreement, was raging then. "At night I watched the bullets fly. It was our fireworks," Florian said.
"Men from the FARC told me to come with them, that I was old enough to carry a rifle."
"My older brother was in the army. If you gave a son to the government, for them it meant you had to give one to the revolution too," he said.
He thus became one of the Marxist guerrilla group's 6,068 child soldiers, according to Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory.
After nine months he escaped from FARC and surrendered to the Colombian army. When he came of age, he enlisted.
Years later, when his mother was the victim of extortion by the FARC -- a favored self-financing technique of the rebels -- they left a package outside her shop. Florian picked it up.
After the blast, Florian remembers smoke rising from his skin. He couldn't feel his arms, or his right leg.
"I told my brother to go and get the rifle and shoot me in the head. Luckily, he didn't."
Instead, he now sees the bombing that maimed him as a kind of turning point. "A gift of life."
After spending 12 days in a coma and undergoing multiple surgeries to patch up his mutilated body, he spent a year doing physical rehabilitation. During that period, the now-retired soldier discovered the Paralympic Games and a love of swimming.
- Medal opportunities -
"I swallowed some water! But I wanted to get on the podium," he said, showing off his first gold medal, won at the 2013 Paralympics in Minneapolis.
Cycling provided more opportunities to win medals however. Colombian Air Force engineers designed carbon fiber supports for the stumps of his elbows and knee.
He shifts gears with his mouth and brakes by applying pressure with his thigh.
At 38, he is one of the youngest of 30 athletes classified as C1, indicating the severity of their disability.
"Of all those in my category, I'm the most degraded, the most amputated," he said self-mockingly, triumphantly raising the stumps of his arms.
The coronavirus pandemic has deprived him of income from exhibition races and sports conferences, but the postponement of the Paralympics to 2021 has bought him some time.
"I've gained a year to train. And if it's not Tokyo, it's going to be Paris," in 2024.
In the modest house they share with their toddler son, his partner and coach Angie Garces manages their sports equipment brand, Mochoman, with him.
"I learned from Juan Jose. Not to say 'I can't', but to persevere," she said.