Sylvana Mestre, a life dedicated to adapted sport

Portrait of Sylvana Mestre smiling. Image by Play & Train.

Sylvana Mestre has sport in her DNA. After her experience as a skier in the Spanish national team, life led her to discover Paralympic sports. She began as a guide and ski trainer for athletes with blindness and then she was the Chairperson of the Paralympic Ski Federation. After reaching the top, she wanted to return to the base to continue working on what she is passionate about: adapted sport. Together with Mariona Masdemont, she founded Play & Train, a non-profit social enterprise with various sports programs for people with disabilities and their families.  With a clear and purposeful motto, Challenge the limits, this pioneering association that manages the Adapted Sports Centre of La Molina, in Cerdanya, has turned sport into a tool for social inclusion and normalisation.

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) awarded Sylvana Mestre with the Paralympic Order for a lifetime dedicated to the defence of adapted sport. Among many other merits, she is endorsed by the results of the athletes she has prepared: 15 medals in the Paralympic Games and 30 in the World Championships.

Taking advantage of the fact that 2020 is the Sports Tourism Year in Catalonia, which, among other objectives, highlights sporting values such as equality, inclusion and accessibility, we spoke to Sylvana Mestre, who received us telematically with a British punctuality and an attentive and willing smile. From We are All, of the Costa Brava Girona Tourism Board, we talk to this lover of snow and mountain sports who exudes an inspiring personality.

When did you start getting interested in sports?

My father was a very sporty person and somehow he introduced us to sports;
to all kinds of sports, but especially to skiing and snow sports. It’s in the family’s DNA.

And what do you value most about sport?

Sport gives you a way of life; it makes you see life differently. Feeling frustration, having to fight… All this is part of your day-to-day life when you play sport and it forms you as a person.  And, on the other hand, sport brings people together. When you play sport, you play sport. There are no differences of colour, gender, religion or anything else.

“Society does not understand disability”

You were a skier, you were part of the Spanish national team, you worked in a sports material company… and, suddenly, adapted sport arrived to your life.

My husband died after a long illness and I was so fucked up that I wanted to quit sport. A journalist, Toti Rosselló, thought I’d gone mad. We were in the Alps and he insisted on showing me something. When I got to the ski slopes, I flipped out. It was the Paralympic blind team. When I saw that freedom, how they were skiing down… When I saw that, I was aware of what sport gives you. If I remember correctly, that happened in September or October. In November, they called me and asked me to be the guide of a blind boy. And so I started.

What did you learn from that first experience?

You realize we don’t understand disability. Society does not understand disability, so we set it aside, even today, unless someone close to you has acquired a disability or was born with it; then, you pay more attention to it.  I remember one day when we were going to the ski slope by bus and the boy said to me: “Wow, what a blue sky!” I looked at him and asked: “But, Dani, how can you see the colour blue if you’re blind from birth?” And he said: “Sylvana, I can feel the sky is blue.” We were in Slovakia, where it was cloudy every day, but that day was radiant. There’s something that escapes us.

In a snowy alpine landscape, during the 2014 Vancouver Paralympics Games, Sylvana Mestre shares the Olympic torch with a Dutch athlete sitting in a ski chair. Image by Sylvana Mestre.
In a snowy alpine landscape, during the 2014 Vancouver Paralympics Games, Sylvana Mestre shares the Olympic torch with a Dutch athlete sitting in a ski chair. Image by Sylvana Mestre.

After working as a guide, Sylvana Mestre trained the Spanish Paralympic team, was a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and she became President of the Federation in 2006. She says that one day, in Germany, at the headquarters of the IPC, she thought she was getting old and began to think about retiring. However, it was clear to her that she wanted to continue working on the field of adapted sport. After an evening out with Mariona Masdemont, whom she already knew from La Molina, in the Girona Pyrenees, Play & Train was born.

What was your objective?

I come from the world of sport and I believe in integration. I think that a quadriplegic child in a wheelchair can teach a lot to a child with cerebral palsy, and vice versa. But it didn’t exist. And we wanted to set up an organization that would give people with disabilities the opportunity to practice sports with their families. In hotels, or wherever, there are entertainers who carry out sport activities, beach games…But if you go with someone with a disability, there are no activities for them, because they haven’t thought about it. Accessibility standards are met, because they must be complied with by law, but nothing more. And this is what we want to stress, because people with disabilities and their families are usually shut away from society. That’s changing.

Really? Is it changing?

There’s still a lot to do, but in Germany, for example, you can frequently see people on handbikes around the city. It happens in the Netherlands too. And here we’re starting to see it.

Awareness from the ground up is essential

In addition to promoting sports practice, Play & Train provides school training, advises organizations and companies on the design of accessible services and has a corporate volunteer program, among many other projects. The objective is clear: to demand the creation of inclusive and adapted experiences, spaces, products and services so that all children and their families can enjoy them equally.

You have done a great job in this sense in Cerdanya.

We did it in La Molina and in Fuerteventura, in the Canary Islands, where we do surfing activities. We went to the schools in the region and we organized a Paralympic day in those schools. Nowadays, more and more children with disabilities are going to regular school. That day they feel important because they teach a lesson to their peers, who practice adapted sports and get aware of their difficulties.  So what happened? Mayors have included us in their budgets because they have seen that when a child is in the car with his mother, and the mother parks, the child says: “Not here, Mum, this is a car park for people with disabilities”.

You’ve worked from the ground up, from education.

That’s what we must do. We must work from the ground up, because the children of today are the politicians of tomorrow. 

“Accessibility is not about installing strange things or complicated iron rods on rooms”

You don’t really like the word “accessibility”.

No, because those are things that I also need. Whenever I’ve had a broken leg, I’ve needed places to be accessible. It should be regarded as completely normal. When you go to a football match or something similar, why can’t you find accessible seats together with the regular seats? For instance, two seats followed by a wheelchair space? No, they’re located up there, in one corner… That’s my struggle: accessibility can be friendly and it can be completely natural. Why do bathrooms in hotel rooms need to have a little step? Is that truly necessary? We need to understand that accessibility is not about installing strange things or complicated iron rods on rooms. 

You advocate the need for a friendly, global and natural accessibility.

Sure, you can build an accessible hotel, but once you get out of it, what? When the Paralympic Winter Games were held at Whistler, Canada, people with disabilities couldn’t get into the bars, because they were built above the floor level, you had to climb a set of stairs.  

At La Molina ski resort, in a snowy alpine setting, a Play & Train skier pushes a user sitting in a ski chair. Image by Play and Train.
At La Molina ski resort, in a snowy alpine setting, a Play & Train skier pushes a user sitting in a ski chair. Image by Play and Train.

At Play & Train you adapt to the conditions of every single user 

I want children to enjoy skiing. And in order to ski, they need to do a series of movements. What we do here is we assess what type of disability they have, what it provokes and what their capabilities are. I never speak of disabilities, I speak of abilities. In this sense, I ask myself how I can help so that they can perform a movement in the best possible way. The body is very wise; when something doesn’t work well, it finds a different way to do it. 

Reinventing oneself after Covid-19

During these two months of lockdown, Play & Train has kept active with its users through social media. First, through the #ConfinaChallenge – a series of online challenges that can be found on the association’s Facebook and Instagram accounts. Chinese shadows, warm-up exercises, costumes at home… Activities designed to have fun. This has led to more formal sessions which include training sessions, interviews with families and even with Paralympic athletes, such as surfer Marcos Tapia.

This crisis has forced us to open the windows of social media and fill them with activity.

I ended up exhausted during the first few weeks! Everybody was calling me, asking: “What are you up to?” I said: “Nothing, I’m sitting on the couch watching some series. I’m dead tired from seeing you all doing so many things!” I mean, there is not enough time in the day! It’s madness.  After this pandemic, I don’t mean to say that world will have changed, but some things will definitely change. And that goes for the world of disability too.

In what sense…?

All the organisations are great and do their job, but many of them are not entirely open. We work with children with different types of disability who don’t have access to regular sport clubs. Clubs don’t take them because they don’t know how to work with them. But we take care of them. We teach them how to ski, surf, and cycle.  Then, we work with the regular clubs to assess them on how to include these children and integrate them as part of the club. Families feel very grateful because the whole process develops in a natural way. In addition, ski clubs that work with children with disabilities have now realised that this brings other beneficial effects. In front of these children’s efforts, other kids are less prone to just sit down on the snow and say: “Oh, I’m so tired!” Everybody wins.  And when you manage to make organisations think about them as regular customers, you’ve made it, you’ve planted the seed

On a slope at La Molina ski resort, a Play & Train guide gives directions to a blind skier. Image by Óscar Vall.
On a slope at La Molina ski resort, a Play & Train guide gives directions to a blind skier. Image by Óscar Vall.

How can inclusive tourism be integrated in the tourism supply? What can we tell the agents?

The same thing I told the people at La Molina back in the day. You need to show them a spread sheet and say: “There is a market niche here that can be very important to you. You’d be fools to let it go”. Because when people with a disability go somewhere and they feel comfortable, and the environment poses no problem to them, they’re the most loyal customers you can imagine.  And as customers, they’re the ones that spend the most.

How are you facing the uncertainty of the coming “new normal” at Play & Train? 

We are worried, this is not an easy situation, but for some time now we have been planning to launch an educational platform with several goals. Education for tourism: providing tools so that the different tourism agents consider the person with a disability as one more client in his environment and that they can offer adapted packages in a normal manner, like for the rest of the clients. We are also seeing to organise training courses for young people with disabilities.This is still on a brainstorming phase. We’d like tooffer online training that we think can have applications in the tourism field, and maybe give them the chance to work at tourism offices. Who knows best about the needs of a customer with disabilities, or how to cater for them?  We already did this at our ski resort. We had teachers with disabilities who were qualified sport instructors among our staff. Sometimes people with disabilities can be very sharp, and don’t hesitate to tell you:  “Please, don’t come and tell me how I feel, because you don’t have a clue”. If the instructor also happens to have a disability, there’s no discussion.