How 'Mochoman' won the Colombian civil war | DW | 20.12.2020

After more than 50 years of war, Colombia has been at peace since 2016. Juan Jose Florian was a victim of that conflict — then he reinvented himself as a professional cyclist.

Juan Jose Florian was a victim of Colombia's decades of war. Then he reinvented himself as a professional cyclist.  

On November 12, 2011, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was trying hard to end the armed conflict that had plagued his land — but a peace treaty was still a distant dream. That was also the day that Juan Jose Florian's old life ended and his new life as "Mochoman" began. The young Colombian was visiting his mother and went out to get a few hamburgers when he noticed a small package on her doorstep.

Florian bent down to pick up the package, then came the explosion. It was a bomb left by FARC rebels (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) seeking retribution for the fact that Florian's mother had refused to pay the group protection money like everyone else. Part of the house was reduced to rubble and the young man was being burnt alive. He lost both arms, a leg and an eye in the explosion and can barely hear since the incident. At the time, Florian desperately pleaded with his brother to go get a gun and put a bullet in his head.

New life, new goal

"Thankfully he didn't do it," says the now 38-year-old. He says that as strange as it may sound, that bomb was "a gift that gave me a new lease on life" — despite the 12 days he spent in a coma and all of the operations and the long rehabilitation that he endured. For now, nine years later, all of Colombia knows him as "Mochoman," the man giving his all to win a gold medal in cycling at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics.

"Having only one leg, at some point I got the nickname 'quarter chicken.' And with the little bit of body that I still have, I guess that's really what I look like," says Juan Jose Florian, who has made self-deprecation his weapon of choice. "Then when I started cycling, I thought we have heroes like Superman and Ironman, so why not Mochoman?" A play on the fact that amputees in Colombia are referred to as "mochas."

Colombia's fragile peace

Mochoman's story represents the stories of many Colombians. And anyone hoping to understand it must understand the history of the country. More than 200,000 people, mostly civilians, died in the 50-year conflict between government forces, right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas. For decades, Colombia had more internally displaced citizens than any other country in the world.  

In June 2016, the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas signed a peace agreement at a festive ceremony in Havana, Cuba. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Four years on, the flower of peace remains very fragile. Other armed groups have stepped into the vacuum left by FARC. Dozens of human rights activists, journalists, and former rebels have been killed and the peace process is definitely not a priority for the new, right-wing government of President Ivan Duque.

FARC delegate in Cuba, Londono Echeverri 'Timochenko' (right) and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) shake hands before Cuban President Raul Castro (center)

The Colombian government and FARC guerrillas signed a peace agreement at a 2016 ceremony in Havana

From FARC guerrilla to government soldier

"I am living proof that there is another Colombia. My example should make people realize that peace, forgiveness and reconciliation are possible," says Florian.

He was part of the country's civil war himself. He was just a boy when rebels knocked on his door and took him away to the jungle as one of more than 6,000 child soldiers. Florian's older brother was a government soldier, so the guerrillas figured the younger son belonged to the revolution.

"They robbed me of my youth. I wasn't allowed to be with my family, nor finish school," he says. "My family was in great danger too. If the right-wing paramilitaries had found out that one of their sons was with FARC they never would have believed that I was taken against my will."

After nine months with FARC some 300 kilometers (186 miles) from home, he was able to escape. Florian then switched sides and joined the Colombian army when he turned 18. He says he had dreamed of being a soldier since he was a child. Suddenly, he was in the middle of Colombia's civil war, helping government forces recapture territory — then came the bomb, and by cheating death at the last second, Florian unknowingly jumped into a whole new life.

Swimming to wash away the wounds of war

"My family and my wife were always there for me. They helped me find meaning in my life. Helped me set new goals," he says. He found that meaning through sports, with swimming becoming a therapeutic obsession. It was if the water helped him wash away the wounds of war. Florian began winning gold medals at national and international competitions — his best discipline: the butterfly stroke.

The young man also fought hard outside the pool, embarking on studies in psychology. As reading had become so difficult for him, he often had to pore over texts four or five times, still, he earned his undergraduate degree. But that wasn't enough. Juan Jose Florian wanted more. He then set his aim high, looking for something far bigger. That was when he decided that his chances of winning Paralympic gold were better on a bicycle than in the pool.

In 2017, engineers from the Colombian Air Force designed a carbon-fiber bike with special pedals to fit Florian's stumps. Now Juan Jose Florian, who shifts gears with his mouth and brakes with his thigh, is the only Colombian among 17 competitors in the Paralympic C1 cycling class for those with the most severe physical impairments.

Representing the hope for peace

"I'm not here to get over something. I'm here to win medals for my country," he declares. His big goal is to win gold in Tokyo. To reach it he trains at least four or more hours each day on his bike as well as maintaining a regular swimming and weightlifting regime. Movistar, the Colombian telecommunications company that has sponsored him for the past two years, says Florian is the perfect symbol of a people who have been reborn in the hope of peace after decades of civil war.

A medal in Japan next year would coincide perfectly with the festivities that will accompany the fifth anniversary of the peace deal. Juan Jose Florian is confident that he is just as capable of winning as his country is of finding reconciliation: "Half a century of civil war has left many wounds and much hatred. But people forget their anger when they hear my story. It inspires them to change the way they think."

This article has been translated from German.

  • Cano Cristales river in the National Park La Macarena in Colombia (PNN/C. Byfield)

    Colombia's parks: From FARC to tourists

    River of seven colors

    Within La Macarena National Park flows Cano Cristales, known as the river of seven colors. Its different shades of blue, red, green, pink and black are caused by the great quantity of aquatic plants, particularly the red Macarenia clavigera. From July to November the extreme clarity of the water — a result of low sediment levels — lets the colors glow.




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