Paralympic gold medalist Marieke Vervoort ended her own life this week after living with constant pain from an incurable spinal disease. She had long been an advocate for euthanasia.
She won gold, two silvers and a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games in wheelchair racing. But following her retirement Marieke Vervoort maintained that when the time came, she wanted to end her life.
"It's too hard for my body," she said in an interview prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Vervoort lived with constant pain from an incurable, degenerative spinal disease, which was diagnosed when she was just a teenager. She suffered from seizures and paralysis in her legs and often couldn't sleep longer than 10 minutes. Focusing all her efforts on sport gave her the strength and motivation to continue living.
"Each training I'm suffering because of pain. Every race I train hard. Training and riding and doing competition are medicine for me. I push so hard - to push literally all my fear and everything away," she said.
The Paralympian found great success on the world stage. Vervoort won gold in the T52 100m wheelchair race at London 2012 as well as silver in the T52 200m.
In Rio she added to her medal tally with silver in the T51/52 400m and bronze in the T51/52 100m. It was an astonishing achievement given she had severley injured her shoulder in a racing accident in 2013. Doctors had told her it was so badly damaged she would never reach the top again.
Following the Rio Games, however, Vervoort announced her retirement and once again reiterated her support for euthanasia after seeing her physical abilities deteriorate, including the gradual loss of her eyesight.
In her native Belgium, euthanasia has been legal since 2002 and Vervoort signed papers in 2008 to allow doctors permission to end her life. The procedure is only allowed if the patient has an incurable condition, is in unbearable pain, and is able to make rational decisions.
"I'm really scared, but those [euthanasia] papers give me a lot of peace of mind because I know when it's enough for me, I have those papers," she said.
"If I didn't have those papers, I think I'd have done suicide already. I think there will be fewer suicides when every country has the law of euthanasia. I hope everybody sees that this is not murder, but it makes people live longer."
On Tuesday, in her hometown of Diest, Vervoort decided it was the right time to take her own life. She was 40 years old.
Belgium's royal family sent out a tribute on Twitter: "Marieke 'Wielemie' Vervoort was an athlete of iron strength and a great lady. Her death affects us deeply."
President of the Belgian Paralympic Committee Anne d'Ieteren added that Vervoort's "great sporting performances, as well as her courage in the face of the disease" would not be forgotten.
"Her personality greatly contributed to the immense popularity of Paralympics in Belgium after the 2012 Paralympic Games in London," she added.
The 'Beast from Diest' left behind an incredible sporting career, achieved in the face of great adversity and stands as a pioneer in pushing forward dialogue about assisted dying around the world.
"I hope euthanasia is also something [to show] every country that it means - not murder - that it means giving a feeling of rest to people," she said.
jcs/mp (AP, Reuters)