At age 17, Pascale Bercovitch was running for a train to school in Angers, France when she slipped onto the tracks and was run over, eventually losing both of her legs.
But she refused to wallow in depression — and 32 years later the Israeli woman is competing for the third time at the Paralympics, this time as a kayaker.
“I said to myself, ‘OK. Life is very short. I am alive. I am lucky. So now I am going to enjoy it,’” she recalled, according to the interview with SportsPro news site.
Bercovitch, a multitalented athlete, motivational speaker and former journalist, is one of the most unique stories at this year’s Paralympics.
Israel’s Paralympic team usually includes many heavily wounded Israeli Defense Forces veterans. About a third of the more than 30 athletes competing at this year’s Paralympics are veterans.
Bercovitch, on the other hand, joined the IDF after her injury. Raised in a poor suburb of Paris to a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, Bercovitch was a teen gymnast who dreamed of moving to Israel and serving in the military.
With her life turned upside down after the accident, Bercovitch decided to fast-track her ambitions. Six months later she moved to Israel alone and joined the IDF’s Sar-El unit, helping volunteers and giving her first motivational speeches. She would later speak to audiences in the United States, Israel and Germany, sharing her tale of finding her sense of purpose through her accident.
“‘If everything’s already changed for me and I’m not the Pascale I was before, a regular kid running everywhere, now I’m sitting in a wheelchair and I’m going to fulfil all my dreams,’” she said she told herself after the accident, according to Sportspro.
Bercovitch’s IDF general, Aharon Davidi, encouraged her to become involved in sports. After the military, she joined Israel’s national swim team with the hopes of competing in the Paralympics but found full time athletics to be prohibitively expensive. She became a journalist, working for CBS, France 2 and the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. She also produced and directed documentaries, authored two books and taught communication at a university in Aix-en-Provence.
Meanwhile, Bercovitch continued with sports on the side, taking up surfing, skateboarding, horseback riding, skiing and sky diving. In 2001, she had a child with her French partner. The pair later separated. Bercovitch met Oz Skop, a national coach for the Israeli climbing team, when she approached him for help in learning the sport. They became a couple and in 2009 had a daughter together.
At age 40, Bercovitch was approached by Israel’s Paralympic committee which asked her if she would be interested in rowing for the team. She had never rowed before, but took to the sport immediately. In 2008, she competed in the Beijing Paralympics, finishing in eighth place. Four years later, she again competed in the London Paralympics, coming in sixth place in hand biking, using a bike powered by the arms instead of the legs. On Wednesday, September 14 Pascale will kayak for Israel in Rio.
“I feel so lucky waking up every morning and feeling my body is healthy and strong and I can cope with it, and I can go further,” she told SportsPro.
She said her two daughters and her partner are her support system.
“They are really behind me, very proud of me,” she said. “(They are) very happy that Mum is not a couch potato, Mum is not an old cripple sitting in a wheelchair, but she’s faster than everybody and she’s strong and she’s smiling all the time.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.