To say Fernando Rufino de Paulo has lived something of an interesting life would be something of an understatement.

Tonight the vivacious and larger-than-life Brazilian is celebrating winning his country’s first ever paracanoe Paralympic gold medal, which would be an incredible story in itself even if you did not know anything of the 36-year-old’s back story.

He took the win in the men’s VL2, becoming not only the first Brazilian gold medalist, but also the first winner of a category introduced for the the first time to the Paralympics in Tokyo.

For starters, Rufino has spent a large slab of his life as a rodeo bull rider, or as it is known in Brazil, as an Ox-rider.

Allowing for possible breakdowns in translation and possible misunderstandings, Rufino told a stunned media after his Tokyo triumph that he has suffered around 80 accidents during his life. Not 18 – 80. And not many of them relate to riding bucking bulls.

In no particular order, Rufino said he had fallen from a bus and then was ‘trampled’ by the same bus, had his head stepped on by an ox, got struck by lightning, and had an elevator fall on him.

He lost a finger and had a foreign object lodge in his eye. He had a motorcycle accident and broke his leg.

These are the selected highlights of an 80-accident career that has led to Rufino’s nickname as the ‘Steel Cowboy’. He proudly wore a 10-gallon cowboy hat through the media zone on Saturday, regaling all who listened with colourful tales of a life well lived.

Rufino’s positivity spins off on all who meet him. He was supposed to compete in Rio in 2016, but had to withdraw with a medical condition. For many that would have been devastating, but not for Fernando Rufino de Paulo.

“I had high pressure problems in my heart, but I have been able to rehabilitate,” he said.

“Being able to compete here has been a present from God, because he has seen all my efforts. He took me from riding bulls to canoe sprint.

“I didn’t feel disappointed. The most important thing here is health and life. I could feel the emotion of all my supporters that were here, and also because of the internet. I wanted to be in the Rio Olympics, but I can still feel the heat of the crowds from Rio today.”

Bravado aside, Rufino is very aware of the journey he has been on to get to the top of a Paralympic podium.

“This win represents all my work since I was a cowboy until now,” he said.

“This represents every time I said no to parties, to keep my head focussed, and all those times I had to leave my family or felt homesick while I focussed on my training.

“This also represents where I came from, I came from the country, and this is the highest prize on the earth you can get in sports.”

And with that I decided to end our interview. Standing too close to a man who has had 80 accidents in his life, even if he is a Paralympic champion, may not be a wise life choice…

Brazil Fernando Rufino de Paulo paracanoe Tokyo 2021

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