When a spinal injury ended the playing career of Brazilian Bruno Landgraf at the age of just 20, the former goalkeeper refused to give up his dreams of being a top sportsman. Now six years after a terrible road accident on a Sao Paulo highway left him hospitalised for six months, Landgraf has just competed in a sailing event at the London 2012 Paralympics and has his sights set on Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Participating at London 2012 marked another phase in Landgraf’s intensive and ongoing rehabilitation, albeit a very special one. With just three years sailing experience under his belt, he partnered 30-year-old Elaine Cunha to form Brazil’s only sailing crew at the Paralympic event in Weymouth.  

“To qualify after so little sailing time was hugely significant for us, and it was very gratifying to take part in an event like that,” he told FIFA.com. “Although we didn’t get the result we were hoping for, we just want to improve now ahead of Rio de Janeiro 2016,” added the keeper who won a gold medal with Brazil at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Finland 2003.

Hitting the water
To be able to compete at this level and continue his recuperation, the 26-year-old has to follow a punishing exercise regime that sometimes involves more than ten hours a day of physiotherapy and muscular work. “I do more fitness work now than when I was a footballer,” said the sailor, who has regained much of the movement in his neck, arms and fists, enabling him to control the skiff.

“I have some sensation in my legs – I can feel some muscular contraction – but not enough to be able to move myself unassisted. Every day I have physio either at home or in the gym. If I go even two or three days without it, it can set me back an entire month.”

Landgraf was first invited to take up sailing in 2008, when he was swimming a lot as part of his rehabilitation, although it would be another year before his sailboat was modified and he really got into the sport. Then it was just a matter of convincing Elaine, a rower who he shared physio sessions with, to become his sailing partner.  

Out on the water, crews have to deal with much more than just the physical aspects of sailing. For one thing, you are much closer to the elements, as Landgraf himself discovered. “With sailing you learn a lot about the weather and the wind. Being close to nature can be relaxing and a way to avoid stress,” he said. However, when it comes to competing for medals, the pressure is constant.

We’re going to do it all again with better organisation. Our goal is to get a project up and running and be able to compete for a medal in Rio.

Bruno Landgraf

Landgraf and Cunha competed in the SKUD 18 category (a keelboat with twin paraplegic crew) at London 2012, where they finished 11th and last, some distance behind medallists Australia, USA and Great Britain. For the former Sao Paolo youth keeper, who began playing competitive sport at the age of 11, making the Paralympics after so few nautical miles was an achievement to be proud of, even if he was not satisfied with his performance there.

“Taking part is cool. But when I used to play football, the minimum we’d accept would be a podium finish. Competing and finishing last just to say you took part is not good at all,” he said, before adding: “But if all goes well and we’re able to train properly, the goal for 2016 is to try for a medal.”

The Brazilian explained that he and his partner only got to sail the boat used for London 2012 just weeks before the Games, during the final stage of their training in the Netherlands. “We were the only team who didn’t have the boat beforehand. The keelboat used for the competition is far faster than our training vessel.”   

Another factor that impeded the team’s preparations was the fact that they had to carry out most of their training in Sao Paulo’s Guarapiranga Dam, where conditions are markedly different to those on England’s south coast. “Even though it’s a sheltered bay, it’s still sea, and there’s much more wind over there [in England]," said Landgraf.

"Wind speeds there were 16 knots and upwards, whereas here in the dam, generally the most you’d ever get would be 15. On top of that, we made some silly mistakes. That said, the experience made it all worthwhile. We’ll see if we can bring the boat over here and compete in it more.”

Finnish memories
Competing, after all, is something Landgraf knows all about, having managed to contain the likes of Cesc Fabregas and David Silva when A Seleção defeated Spain in the final of Finland 2003. “We’d finished runners-up to Colombia in the South American Championship then drew our opening game at the World Cup against Cameroon.

"That caused a few eyebrows to be raised but we got better as the tournament went on," he continued. "We were in confident mood going into the final, even though our opponents were a very good side and great passers of the ball. We scored [after seven minutes] and held on for the win.”

Looking ahead, Landgraf knows he has many more battles to face but is not lacking motivation, as he explained at the end of our interview: “They are two very special types of competition. The Paralympics is special because of everything that has happened and because it allowed me to compete again.

"The result was not great but we worked with what we had," he concluded. "We managed to qualify and that’s enabled us to see where we need to improve on the physical, technical and planning side of things. We’re going to do it all again with better organisation. Our goal is to get a project up and running and be able to compete for a medal in Rio.”