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Esther Vergeer looks back on a career the tennis world has only seen once: 48 Grand Slam titles, 23 year-end championships and 7 Paralympics gold medals, not to mention the incredible 668 weeks as the World Number One.

The Dutchwoman wasn’t particularly sporty before an operation left her paralyzed from the waist down at the age of eight. It goes against all logic that losing the use of her legs would set Esther on a path of pursuing an incredibly successful career in sports, but that’s exactly what happened.

Learn how Esther took hold of her destiny by being strong, open and proud.

1. Strong

In the beginning, I was confronted with all the things that I couldn’t do anymore. I couldn’t run anymore, I couldn’t play outside anymore and that frustrated me.

But it was my parents’ choice not to let me sit in a corner and be moody and sad. Instead their approach was, “This is Esther. This is the situation. We are still a family, so let’s make the best out of it.”

I started playing sports in my rehabilitation center and I focused on the things that I could do and that I had fun with. I played tennis and basketball and as I progressed I saw that sport was making me strong physically but also strong mentally.

I started to re-find myself. I got more confident and became more independent from my parents. I liked the fact that I was able to help myself and work hard for myself.

I made small steps with everyday things. I was so positive about the fact that if I worked hard I would get better every single day. I believe that approach is what kept me one step ahead of my competitors. I always wanted to see what I could improve, whether that was mentally or physically or in materials for my wheelchair. I guess all those small steps kept me in front.

2. Open

We all need to be more open. That’s really diversity. It sounds so simple and I know it’s the hardest thing to do. Every day I walk into walls, literally, of people seeing me differently to who I am. That frustrates me because sometimes you have no influence over those people.

That’s why I tell younger athletes to stay close to themselves. If society did that we would appreciate each other more and have greater respect for each other.

I’m a big promoter of more integration of Paralympic and Olympic sports. Now the two events are separated but it’s my dream to get those two worlds of disabled and able-bodied athletes together. I have a tennis tournament where I’ve started this integration of wheelchair tennis and able-bodied tennis.

I like showing the world who I am. I’m not a disabled person. I am not a hero athlete. I am just Esther.

3. Proud

During my playing days I wasn’t actually proud of what I did. It’s only now in retirement that I start to see what I have done and I’m becoming prouder of those achievements.

Being a role model is weird. I had pictures of people on my walls when I was younger and now I know that some kids have pictures of me above their bed and my book on the shelf.

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