No one can accuse Daniel Dias of lacking the kind of self-confidence that inspires athletes to be the best. The 24-year-old Brazilian Paralympic swimmer won more medals at Beijing than any other athlete, and he is often compared to fellow multi-medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps.
“People say that a lot,” he told The Independent, chuckling. “It’s amazing to be compared to Michael, but you have to remember, I’m a lot better looking.”
Dias’ ascent from a teenager who had never been in a pool to one of the world’s top Paralympic swimmers has been as dramatic as it has been rapid. He was born to middle-class parents in Campinas, a large Brazilian city north of Sao Paulo. In an entry on his website, his mother recalls how doctors told her that her son had been born with no feet or hands.
Over the years they made frequent trips to surgeons in Sao Paulo to allow prosthetic limbs to be fitted. But while Dias has gone on to become one of the world’s best Paralympians, his earliest love was music. “I tried lots of instruments but it didn’t work out,” he said in a recent television interview. “Drums worked fine. My mum worked out how to tie drumsticks onto my hands so I can play.”
It was while watching fellow Brazilian swimmer Clodoaldo Silva collect seven medals – six of them gold – at the Paralympic Games in Athens that Dias had a change of heart and decided to concentrate on sport instead, with the aim of equalling or bettering his idol.
At the age of 16 he had his first lesson in a pool and within two months he had mastered four styles of swimming. “The hardest moment in my life was when I started out,” he said. “I didn’t have any help, no sponsorship. So my father had to pay for everything so I could compete.”
It was a worthy investment. Dias dominated in Beijing, bettering the total medal tally set by Silva and eventually winning a remarkable four golds, four silvers and a bronze.
What makes Dias stand out is that in the intervening four years between Beijing and London, he has kept up his winning streak, showing a level of consistency that really could put him in the Phelps category next week. At the World Championships in Eindhoven two years ago, he came away with eight golds and a silver, while at the Pan American games in Guadalajara he won 11 golds.
Currently in Manchester with the rest of Brazil’s squad, Dias says he doesn’t want to concentrate on the colour of the medals he might win. “I’d like to try and win at least six medals,” he says. “But I don’t have any expectations for the colours.” As a deeply religious man, he puts much of his success down to God. But he says good funding has made a major difference as Brazil tries to copy Britain’s medal successes when they host the 2016 Games.
“You need both the talent and the money,” he says. “If you have money to develop those talents, you can bring in the medals. If you don’t have the finance, it’s hard to develop your skills.”