Feature: Sports help Italian wheelchair athlete’s career take new trajectory

As a former helicopter pilot for the Italian armed forces, Roberto Punzo loves plotting out trajectories. He adores things that fly, and he seeks that in sports, too.

At the 7th CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Punzo competes for Italy in archery as a wheelchair athlete, but the 55-year-old has also taken part in several para-badminton world championships and performed in golf at the Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada, in 2017.

“The arrow, the shuttlecock and the golf ball all fly. I am fascinated by that. When I was a pilot, I did that [flying] too. I think that’s the reason why I love those sports so much,” Punzo said.

The road to his “three loves,” as he calls them, has not been easy, however.

“In 2006, I was serving for the United Nations during the war in Lebanon,” he said. “Our building was surrounded by rockets and bombs and was hit three times. During a 36-hour truce, me and one of my friends wanted to check the amount of fuel available for the generators.

“But [suddenly] I could not feel my feet or my legs. They sent me to a hospital immediately, where they had the best skills for war wounds. One day, the alarm in the hospital went off and the doctors all ran to shelter, leaving the patients alone.”

A month later the Italian was transferred to hospital in his native Italy, where it was discovered that his wounds had become infected.

“It was difficult to treat,” he said. “I underwent about seven operations and it took me about three years to recover. The wounds have left me in a wheelchair, but the defense [department] gave me the opportunity to come back to duty. I am now working in public affairs and am very proud of that.”

A return to service brought with it the opportunity for Punzo’s life to take a whole new direction.

“In 2014, someone at the Italian ministry of defense had the idea to start a sports program for us. That is where my career as an athlete started,” said the athlete, who promptly took up several sports.

At the Military World Games, Punzo competes in archery, just like he did four years ago at the military games in Mungyeong, South Korea. “My disability was the opportunity to experience sports and to compete in Games like this. Something I never imagined I would be able to do,” he said.

“Sport is very beneficial if you are disabled. When you lose control of parts of your body, you lose confidence. But doing sports can help you to regain it. That is important. For me, the performances aren’t that important. What matters is the social thing. To be together on the same shooting line.

“The Olympics and Paralympics are separated for several reasons, but here the armed forces set an example. We do it together. It’s difficult to explain the feelings I have when I go to the canteen or compete with young and able-bodied athletes. It’s incredible.”