The Champion of Perseverance

ImageFanni Illés’s name is a huge inspiration for Hungarian disabled swimmers. The 21-year-old girl was born without legs and with webbed hands, but she decided not to give up, and started swimming regularly at the age of 12. Her outstanding achievements led her to the Paralympic Games in 2011, where she got the bronze medal, and since then, she has gone through a series of successful events. This year in March, she won the Miss Color international beauty contest for disabled persons, and if all that would not be enough, she is doing very well in Hungarian Studies at ELTE, she is in a happy relationship, and of course, she keeps getting ahead with her swimming carreer as well. We were talking about her motivations, her future plans, and her private life while sitting in her big and cozy room that is decorated with the medals of this extraordinary champion.

When and how did you fall in love with swimming?

When I was twelve years old, I found out to that I have scoliosis. Doctors suggested me to go swimming, so my sibling and I started to go to trainings in the nearby town of Hévíz. At first, we participated only two times but later I realized that I actually missed the exercises and the team that I met in the pool. I went back, and after very little training, I easily outran my dad, who is a great swimmer. He suggested that I should take it seriously. We did some research on para-swimming, and managed to get hold of a good connection. István Málnai became my coach. He was with me on my first race on 100 meters when I won my first gold medal. Then I started to attend more and more competitions; international, national and world championships, and the Paralympics. I have been doing it professionally for eight years.

How important it is for you to stand up for the disabled?

Achieving success in swimming is not my only aim. I do not consider myself a great swimmer. I treat my life positively, and with that I am trying to show people that we are all the same; they do not have to feel sorry for us. I try to bring our world closer.  Healthy people need to get used to us. We’re here.

What does your average day look like? Do you have time for your hobbies?

ImageI have trainings in the morning from 8 to10. Then I go to school. In the evenings, I meet my boyfriend Zoli, and we usually go to the gym to train for about two hours. If the weather is nice, we like spending time in nature. He walks, I sit in the chair next to him. We discover new places. When we get home, we bake, cook, or just order a pizza on weekdays, and sometimes we play basketball or go to the cinema to relax. We do a wide range of activities together; he is also very adventurous, so we get along very well.

Everybody has an icon, but who inspires you?

My parents. I want to be just as caring and loving as they are. When I was a baby, they were advised to put me in orphanage. Doctors kept on telling them that raising a disabled child will only ruin their marriage and they are going to regret keeping me. But they did anyway. For my  sister, my condition has never been a problem. She always says that it is better to be someone like me because I do not know how hard it is to shave legs and how painful it can be if the shoe breaks your heels. Also, my partner accepts it without question. He helps me a lot and he is also interested in swimming. If it is not for myself, I would definitely like to hold on and achieve further success for us.

Have you ever had depression?

A lot of times, and for a very long period. Through the high school years in Zalaegerszeg, I was ashamed of myself. As a kid I did not care at all. I was able to skate without legs as well as to fight and play with the other kids. Later, I saw the beautifully dressed up girls with their boyfriends, and it made me cry every day. I was a bit more chubby and it bothered me, but at least I did well at school. Then everything changed gradually. Swimming became the most important thing in my life. Of course, I am sure that I could easily fall back into my previous state; I still have days that are tough. But since my sister is an adult now, out relationship has become even better. We became inseparable.

Before you met Zoli, did you have any bad experiences with boys?

ImageI had a lot. They did not want to talk to me that way, I got as far as making friends. I was in a distant relationship for a while with an older swimmer boy who lived abroad, but this relationship only mattered because I really wanted to belong to someone. We met very rarely, so he did not have to confront with the fact that I do not have legs, which made it easier for him, I guess.

Does the victory at the Colors beauty contest give you confidence?

Of course! I started going out, and I look at the dresses that my generation wears. Initially, I tried to hide. I wore baggy pants, long shirts two times my size just to cover my body. I loved them until now, but I’d rather try to dress according to fashion. In summer, I am going to wear skirts – I have already bought two that I can’t wait to put on. My hair used to be short, now it’s long and more ladylike.


Photo Source: Fanni’s own collection and

By Dimitrow Daniella


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