Table tennis standout Natalia Partyka excels despite disability

The Olympic track and field competition got underway Friday, and one of the most talked-about stories will be the tale of Oscar “The Blade Runner” Pistorius, the South African double amputee who is racing at 400 meters with the aid of prosthetic legs. What most people don’t realize is that Pistorius is not the only disabled Olympian at these Games.

There is another.

Far away from the glare of TV cameras, at the ExCel table tennis hall Friday morning, was the equally compelling but lesser-known Natalia Partyka, a one-armed table tennis player from Poland. She was born without a right hand or forearm and is competing in her second Olympics after winning gold medals in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics. She will also compete in the London Paralympics.

With four matches going on simultaneously, and the dizzying speed of the game at the world-class level, it would have been easy upon first glance to overlook the fact that Partyka is missing half her arm. It is most noticeable when she serves. She cannot toss the ball with her off hand, so she cradles it in the crook of her right elbow and drops it onto the swinging paddle. Once the ball is in play, Partyka, 23, is as quick and graceful as anyone out there.

She reached the third round of the singles competition last week before losing to a Dutch player. On Friday, she played in the team competition against Singapore. Poland lost the match 3-1 (2-3, 3-0, 3-0, 3-0), but Partyka won a lot of hearts in the audience. The Polish fans in the building already knew Partyka, as she is very well-known back home. She received the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of the nation’s highest honors. Those who didn’t know her now do.

She shrugs off the disability, calling it “nothing’’ when reporters ask. “I am playing the same lines as the others. And I have the same dreams and goals. It is not an issue. My coaches expect the same from me as from everyone else.’’

She admits it can get tiresome being asked about her missing hand, but she smiles and politely answers every time the topic comes up. She hopes the publicity can serve as an inspiration to others. After her opening-round singles matches here, she received fan letters from India, the United States and all over Europe. Many were from disabled kids and parents of disabled children, thanking her for being a good role model.

“I can show people that nothing is impossible,’’ Partyka said. “Maybe being disabled makes things more difficult than for able-bodied people, and maybe we have to work a little harder. But we can do anything we want to do if we just try. Maybe someone will see me and realize their own disability is not the end of the world, that they can achieve bigger dreams than they imagined.’’

Partyka began playing table tennis at age 7 out of a burning desire to beat her older sister, Sandra. She followed Sandra to the neighborhood table tennis hall in their seaside hometown of Gdansk and began taking lessons. Four years later, she beat Sandra for the first time.

“One of the most beautiful days of my life, the first time I beat my sister,’’ she said Friday.

At 11 years old, she qualified for the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney and was the youngest athlete to compete in any sport. She didn’t win, but was inspired to keep training for the 2004 Games in Athens, where she won a gold medal at age 15. Four years ago, in Beijing, she competed in the Olympics and won a gold medal in the Paralympics.

Partyka is widely admired among her competitors worldwide.

“I remember the first time I saw Natalia was four years ago, at the Junior World Championships in Stanford [Calif.], and I was amazed at how good she was,’’ said U.S. player Lily Zhang after the Americans lost 3-0 to Japan on Friday. “She is such an inspiration to all of us. She doesn’t let her disability slow her down.’’

Ariel Hsing, also of the U.S. team, added: “Natalia is absolutely amazing. I really admire her and respect her. She is so brave for putting herself out there and playing with the best in the world. I don’t think she knows me, but I definitely know her.’’

Her Polish teammates said Partyka has made the sport more popular in their country.

“Because of Natalia’s story, the television and media are paying attention to table tennis now,’’ Katarzyna Grzybowska said. “They take notice in our big tournaments and our results and we get a lot of fans at our competitions. Everybody supports her and wants to see her play. But she personally never makes a big deal of it. She hasn’t had a hand her whole life, so she’s used to it. And we’re all used to it, too. When I play against her in practice, I don’t even notice.’’

Partyka has been particularly interested in the Pistorius story because she can relate on some level.

“It’s different because he has no legs, but he is a Paralympian competing in the able-bodied Olympics like me, so that we have in common,’’ she said. “I think both of us can make a difference, especially with disabled people, to prove we can be top-level athletes and compete against the best. There is no need to feel inferior.’’

Related stories from Miami Herald