Rodriguez defies age barrier and chequered past to secure silver

Spanish swimmer who went on hunger strike wins 13th medal

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The Independent Online

A Spanish silver medal in the S5 50m freestyle would not usually attract more than a passing glance but Sebastian Rodriguez is no ordinary Paralympian and not because he has now collected 13 medals over his four Games.

It was 27 years ago that Rodriguez, then a member of a left-wing terrorist group, was handed an 84-year prison sentence for his part in the murder of a Spanish businessman. While in prison he went on hunger strike, an action that saw him lose the use of his legs. He was given parole in 1994 and five years ago received a pardon from the Spanish government despite protests from the victim's family.

He made his Paralympic debut in Sydney 2000, telling Spanish offcials that a road accident was the cause of his disability. In Australia he won five gold medals and set four new world records. When his past was revealed he refused to talk about it, while Paralympic officials have always since insisted he has the right to compete at the Games.

Rodriguez is now 55 and his presence in the 50m final, won by the brilliant Brazilian Daniel Dias, helped highlight the extraordinary diversity of the Paralympic Games. The youngest competitor in the race was 40 years younger than the Spaniard while Vo Thanh Tung provided a rare Vietnamese presence in the Olympics pool, and to cap it Dias, winner of nine medals in Beijing, won in world record time.

The opening night was dominated by China as they won eight medals, three of them gold. It started from race one. Zhang Tao thudded his head against the end of the pool to stop the clock in the S6 100m backstroke nearly half a second inside the previous world record, set in Athens eight years ago. "I am not really surprised as I do these times in training every day," said Zheng, who is competing in his first major event outside China.

Zheng, born on Christmas Day 1990, has no arms and propels himself through the water with a butterfly kick – when it came to the medal ceremony the small bouquet of flowers each medallist receives were tucked under his chin.

Lu Dong lost both her arms in a car accident when she was a child. She too is now a Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder after winning the women's S6 100m backstroke. Lu went out quickly, tired down the final 25m but had enough in reserve to hold off Britain's Nyree Kindred. Natalie du Toit began her third and final Paralympics with an 11th gold medal in the women's S9 100m butterfly.