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A dual citizen on a mission

July 27, 2011

For a Paralympics gold medalist with the U.S. wheelchair basketball team, November’s Parapan American Games in Guadalajara are not only an opportunity to seal his place at the Paralympics in London next year, but also a homecoming and “a chance to represent Mexico,” the country of his birth, for the first time.

“Even when I lived in the United States I always thought of myself as Mexican,” says Margarito “Tito” Bautista, who is hoping the games will raise awareness for disabled people in Mexico, as well as boosting the image of a nation tarnished by drug violence.

The Mexican-American athlete will proudly carry the torch from Chapala to his birthplace of Jocotepec, prior to competing in the men’s wheelchair tennis singles and doubles.

Born in Jocotepec in 1966, Bautista was taken ill with polio at the age of two. “Then, when I was about eight years old we emigrated to the United States because my mom was an American citizen,” he says. “We moved to Santa Barbara in California and I basically grew up there.

“I’ve been back in Guadalajara for about three and a half years now. I saw the Pan American Games were going to be here, so I decided to come down and spend some time in my home town to see if I could qualify for the games.”

Bautista has competed in the Paralympics, world championships and many tournaments in the United States, but this is the first time he has qualified for the Parapan American Games, which take place November 12-20. “That was another goal I set that I wanted to fulfill on my resume,” he says.

The highlight of Bautista’s career was winning a gold medal with the U.S. wheelchair basketball team at the 1992 Paralympic Games in Barcelona. “It was a team event, we had 12 guys that really sacrificed to be there and spent a year and a half preparing for it,” he says. “That was very satisfying. We’re not professionals so it doesn’t get any bigger than the Paralympics for us.”

Being in Barcelona also gave the team the opportunity to meet some of the world’s greatest athletes. The team stayed in the Olympic Village and practiced at the same facility as the U.S. Dream Team, “with Michael Jordan and all those guys,” reveals Bautista. “We got to see about four or five of their practices, and in one session they actually came out and played in our chairs.”

The 1992 Olympics were the first in which professional players were permitted to take part in men’s basketball. Considered one of the greatest sporting sides ever assembled, the US men’s basketball team – or the “Dream Team” as it became known – defeated opponents by an average of 44 points per game and never called a timeout during the entire competition.

“It was just amazing to watch those athletes,” says Bautista. “Their training sessions were probably harder than any other game they played in the Olympics because they played each other and it was a collection of the best players of all time.”

Aside from Michael Jordan, the Dream Team also included such megastars as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Scottie Pippen. “I met quite a few of them and they were really good people,” recalls Bautista.

Working since 2000 as a wheelchair tennis coach, Bautista has travelled with the U.S. youth teams to the past two Paralympic Games in Greece and China.

“The Paralympics in Athens was pretty amazing,” he says, of the 2004 games. “We spent about five weeks there and I was one of the coordinators for the trip so I was in charge of organizing the hotels, venues and transportation. The Greeks made it really accessible for us; we were able to go sightseeing and we visited the Parthenon. On that trip we also went to Spain, France, Germany and Italy, so it was a really cultural experience.”

His movements in China in 2008 were considerably more restricted. “Beijing was somewhat different. We were actually in Shanghai most of the time because we were in the junior team, so we only spent the last four days in Beijing. Of all the places we’ve been to for the Paralympics, this was the most low-key. Because we were in a communist country we really didn’t have much access to a lot of things. They had us kind of controlled. We could go downtown but we really couldn’t go to the places we wanted. They took us to the Great Wall, the forbidden city and Tiananmen Square, so that was good and historical, but I felt that we were being watched the whole time.”

Amidst his impressive sporting achievements, Bautista has also worked hard to gain a good education. Having studied for a bachelor’s degree in bio-chemical engineering at the University of Santa Barbara in 1991, he later returned to school to complete a master’s degree in economics at the University of Georgia in 2005.

Back in Mexico, Bautista has been training at the impressive new complex in the Parque Metropolitano, where the aquatic and tennis events will be held during the Pan American Games. Gliding across the court in his specially made 6-lb titanium wheelchair, Bautista returns serves from his doubles partner, Isias Mendieta. “We’re training real hard to win the doubles this year,” he declares.

They have no shortage of motivation for success. “Whoever wins this tournament in November automatically qualifies to go to London next year for the 2012 Paralymipcs, although there are also opportunities to enter by wildcard,” Bautista explains.

Prior to the Parapan American Games, Bautista will be taking part in another free-to-attend wheelchair tennis tournament at the new tennis complex, from July 29 to 31. The tennis facilities are also currently open to the public, with courts available for rent on an hourly basis.

At the right place and at the right time, Bautista was among the first group of players to ever practice wheelchair tennis when it emerged as a sport in California in 1979.

“The only difference between regular tennis and wheelchair tennis is that we’re allowed two bounces before we return the ball,” he explains, “but the top players nowadays don’t actually need two bounces, they’re that good.”

The main appeal of the sport is that it allows disabled athletes to forget their physical limitations. As Bautista puts it, “tennis is one of the only sports where you can play with someone else standing up. I like it because I can play against my cousins, my brothers or whoever.”

Bautista has also rallied with a number of famous professionals over the years. “When I lived in Santa Barbara I hit a few balls with Jimmy Connors. I also played with Lindsay Davenport when she was world number one. When I lived in San Diego I went to the women’s professional tournament and I hit a couple of balls with Maria Sharapova.

“Then last October Andre Agassi came to Guadalajara. Unfortunately we couldn’t do an exhibition match with him but we got to meet and talk with him. That was a highlight for me because Andre has always been one of my heroes.”

Since returning to Mexico, Bautista has been trying to bring disabled people here the same benefits they would enjoy in the United States.

“I’m the sports director of an organization called World Access Project (WAP). What we do is solicit wheelchairs from people in the United States who maybe have an extra one or don’t have a use for theirs any more, and we give them to people who can’t afford them. A wheelchair is a huge investment here in Mexico. It’s difficult to get one. So when you’re able to give someone a wheelchair it’s a life-changing event for them.”

Having organized WAP sports camps in Jocotepec, Mazatlan and the state of Mexico, Bautista is running one in Puerto Vallarta in October and hopes to hold another in Guadalajara next year. At these camps they play “basketball, tennis, hockey, volleyball, American football – all the things you can do in a wheelchair, we’ve done them,” says Bautista. “American football is quite rough but it’s one of the my favorite sports, it’s really smashing up wheelchairs rather than football, but it’s fun.”

Bautista currently divides his time between homes in Guadalajara and Jocotepec, where he likes to relax at weekends beside Lake Chapala. Highly engaged in the local community, he is planning a project that will take disabled children horse riding in Jocotepec, emulating the success of a similar program in California.

On the first weekend of November, Bautista will be taking part in the Parapan American Games torch relay from Chapala to Jocotepec.  “I was designated as one of the participants to carry the torch and I’ve elected to do it on my home turf. We have two main goals: firstly, to raise awareness about the lake. I remember when I was little the lake was clean and we used to swim in it, but now it’s polluted and people are not taking care of it. We need to clean the lake and keep it for generations to come. Secondly, we want to encourage people to come to the Parapan American Games in November because it’s not far from here and the tickets are going to be be really inexpensive.”

Bautista is confident that the Pan American Games can help improve Mexico’s image. “This is an opportunity that needs to be taken advantage of to counter all of the violence and the insecurity,” he says.

He also believes Mexico’s dangerous reputation has unfairly tainted the safer areas of the country. “I don’t feel at all unsafe here in Guadalajara. In fact I just went to Brazil last month and I actually felt more insecure there. The only time we went to the beach someone told us, ‘you’ve got to have a guard or a policeman otherwise you’re going to get robbed.’ So we actually hired a guard to be with us for a couple of hours.”

Bautista hopes that the Parapan American Games will also have a big impact on disabled access throughout the city. “Guadalajara has been constantly changing,” he says. “It has gotten better since I came here four years ago, but we still have a lot to do. I would like to see more ramps, and more accessible buses, but I think we’ll see more of that in September once we get closer to the event.”

Working closely with the organizers, he is optimistic the games will leave a positive legacy: “Right now the city government is trying to make the center of Guadalajara more accessible. I’m part of a committee to make sure we build these ramps, accessible elevators and wide doors. I want to show people we can make Guadalajara a more accessible place for everyone to enjoy.”

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