Those who paid even passing attention to the Olympics – and that means most of us – have probably heard of Oscar Pistorius, South Africa’s “blade runner” who made headlines worldwide by qualifying for both sets of London Games. The name Natalia Partyka, by contrast, will mean little to all but a few, even though the Polish table tennis player will complete the same remarkable double in a few days time.
The 23-year-old has already done it once, in Beijing, and is one of only six athletes ever to have competed in both the Olympics and Paralympics.
Born without a right arm and forearm, Partyka won her first international table tennis medal at the disabled World Championship aged 10, and has gone on to win more than 30 medals, half of them gold. Four years ago, she demolished the Chinese home favourite by three sets to love to take the Paralympic title, also claiming silver in the team event.
Partyka started early. She was just seven when she first began following her 11-year-old sister Sandra to the table tennis hall in their native Gdansk. Sibling rivalry was her first motivation, she says: her primary goal was to become good enough to beat her sister.
By the time she was 11, she was beating not just her sister but most people. It was at that age that she competed in her first Paralympics, in Sydney, becoming the youngest player in any sport to compete at such a level. Her first Paralympics medals, gold and silver, came four years later, in Athens, when she was 15.
Partyka has to carefully balance the ball in the folds of skin at the end of her elbow before dropping it on to her swishing bat to serve, rather than tossing it up. But she has always competed in disabled and able-bodied events.
She is currently 63rd in the world rankings for able-bodied players, though has been as high as 48, and is Poland’s No 2 women’s table tennis player. Unsurprisingly, she is impatient with any suggestion that she requires special treatment: “For me, [disability] is nothing,” she has said. “I am playing the same lines as the others. I am doing the same exercises. We have the same goals and the same dreams and I can play like them. I can serve and don’t have any problems.”
Her immediate aim is to capitalise on her Olympic experience – she got through to the third round, the last 32, of the women’s single event – in the coming days.
“When I play here in the Paralympics [as defending champion] I probably will be at an advantage, having played here already.”
While Partyka is happy to be a role model she gets fed up with questions about her disability – like many other disabled athletes.
“Maybe someone will see me and realise their own disability is not the end of the world… Maybe sometimes you have to work a little bit harder if you really want to do something. If I’m an inspiration I can’t complain.”
It’s hardly surprising that, at the age of 19, she was awarded one of Poland’s highest honours, the Knight’s Cross of the “Order of Rebirth of Poland” in 2008, for her contribution to sport.