RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — He was scalded at 3, kidnapped two years later, and lost a kidney when he fell from a tree at 10. To say Isaquias Queiroz had a rough start in life would be an understatement.
The 22-year-old became Brazil’s first medalist in flatwater canoeing Tuesday, winning a silver in the men’s 1,000 meter singles. He’s also competing in the 200-meter sprint and the 1,000-meter doubles.
“I was really satisfied to win this medal after all the obstacles I have faced,” Queiroz said.
There is no visible trace of the hardship he endured while growing up; the scar from his kidney operation is hidden by his green uniform. Paddling on the lagoon in Rio, he is a confident young man with a gemstone gleaming in his left ear and tattoos covering his right shoulder.
But Queiroz entered his first Olympics with the weight of a nation on his broad shoulders. Brazil counts on him to follow up on his three world titles with at least one Olympic gold medal.
The story of this unlikely Olympian begins in Ubaitaba, a small town in Brazil’s impoverished northeast, where Queiroz grew up with his mother and nine siblings, four of them adopted. His father died when he was 5.
The town’s name stems from the indigenous word for canoe, historically the main mode of transportation on the Rio de Contas. But Queiroz was more interested in soccer until he tried competitive canoeing when he was 11 as part of a government-funded social project, said Figueroa Conceicao, his childhood coach.
“From his first contact with the water, I realized that he was good, that he had something special,” Conceicao said.
He couldn’t figure out why everyone called the boy “Sem Rim,” which means “missing kidney” in Portuguese.
“So he showed me the scar and told me the story of when he went to see a snake which was up in a tree,” Conceicao said. “There was a rock, and he fell on it and he had to go to the hospital. They took out his kidney.”
It wasn’t the only time the boy was in grave danger. As a toddler, he required emergency care after being scalded when a pot of hot water fell over him. When he was about 5, he was kidnapped but returned to his mother unharmed.
Conceicao said Queiroz was a restless boy who didn’t always do as he was told. Just before a tryout for a national competition, Queiroz ignored his coach’s ban on swimming in the polluted river where they were training. Conceicao decided to punish the boy by making him compete in a higher age bracket.
“He said, ‘No problem.’ And the next Saturday, at the tryouts, he came in second,” Conceicao said.
From there Queiroz’s career took off. By 2011, he was a junior world champion; two years later, he won the first of three world titles.
Coached by Spaniard Jesus Morlan, he’s now competing on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Rio before a roaring crowd, including his mother and several friends.
Queiroz resists talking about his modest background. In several interviews with Brazilian media before the Olympics, he insisted his childhood was a happy one.
“I have only one kidney, but I usually don’t talk about it,” Queiroz told reporters Tuesday. “I also suffered a burn when I was a kid on almost all of my right side.”
However, he said he never let his difficulties get in the way of his Olympic dreams.
The hardship he has faced, Queiroz told The Associated Press, lies in the countless hours of grueling training it takes to become a top-level Olympic canoeist.
“I think the journey of an athlete comes with many difficulties,” he said. “It’s not smooth, not easy work. You have to kill yourself daily to get to the competition and win.”