Interview with Heinz Frei

21. July 2021

Foto: Daniel Streit

After a fateful slip and fall into a ravine, Heinz was diagnosed with paraplegia in 1978. Forty-three years later, the Solothurn resident is undoubtedly one of the most successful Swiss athletes of all time, winning 15 gold medals at the Paralympics, 14 World Championship titles and 112 marathons. With his tenth Summer Paralympics, he wants to leave the stage this summer - but not explicitly end his career...

While others your age are thinking about retirement, you're competing with the world's best at the Paralympics. What is your recipe for success?

The joy and motivation I get from doing sports and the fact that my desire to compete with competitors has never waned. Besides, I was always healthy and full of energy, so my play-instinct never became cloudy! I’m still allowed - but no longer have to: this is liberating and ensures that I grow playfully with this challenge, which is probably the recipe for success per se!?

I never had the impression that I had to do without other things due to the intensity of the sport. To this day it is a very enriching element of my life. Not to mention the vitality and quality of life, from which I am currently benefiting as a wheelchair user!

For almost 40 years you’ve been part of disabled sports and have helped to shape it. What are the biggest developments?

I became a wheelchair user on 9 July 1978, when wheelchair sports were barely acknowledged. The first sports equipment had to be built and “figured out” yourself! Together with Peter Gilomen - a fellow wheelchair user from Kriens - I built my first racing wheelchair and, at the same time, a cross-country sledge in his garage. Eigenbau brand name sports equipment that he developed. These devices were made of steel, had small front wheels that started to wobble at a certain speed and were correspondingly heavy. But we could definitely drive faster than with the normal everyday wheelchairs...!

Over time, the materials gave way to aluminium or even titanium and today it is practically a prerequisite to compete with carbon. The seat positions have changed enormously, enabling much more powerful and ergonomic work to be achieved with sophisticated arm and drive technology. While we were previously successful with a «gymnastics club effort» or slightly above, today we train like normal top athletes. I believe a successful high-performance sports career in Paralympics needs to involve a professional company.

If you could turn back the clock, what would you do differently in your sporting career with today’s knowledge?

Probably not much... and as a trainer, I would even consider a few findings from the "conservative development school"! I would motivate my athletes to become independent and take responsibility for themselves. Nobody but me knows myself and my body! I have to feel this body, respect it and treat it with humility. My head could still demand more from this body - but at the risk of potential revenge! A person outside my body cannot feel this. Except maybe a sports medicine with tests and heart rate or power meters...!? 

Do you have an insider tip you would be willing to share with us?

I think they are more findings than secrets: hard work, willingness, attitude, and a huge portion of joy will produce a fine reward!