The Swiss silver bullet.
Off to the races
I meet Hug before his training session at the Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil, where--for the past few months--he has been preparing for the big showdown in the British capital. As he enters the cafe, it is his shoulders and arms that give him away. Broad, muscled and decorated with a tattoo of the Olympic rings, they are a vital part of the human machinery which--allied to his wheels--have made him the fastest wheelchair racer in Swiss history. His smile is warm, friendly and almost shy and we quickly find common ground, both being children of the glorious 1980s.
The youngest of four boys, Hug was born in Pfyn, Canton Thurgau, in 1986 with Spina Bifida (Latin for 'split spine'), a developmental disorder that impaired the function of the spinal cord below his waist and left him without the use of his legs. A wheelchair has since provided mobility for the Paralympian who "even as a child, always liked to be active." While his brothers were into gymnastics and cycling, a young Hug played ball games at a local wheelchair club until one day, when he was ten, his sports teacher brought in an old racing wheelchair.
"I was immediately excited when I saw it. I had met Franz Nietlispach [one of the most successful sportsman with a disability in Switzerland and Hug's idol] when I was little and exclaimed that I too wanted to race when he showed me his racing wheelchair." Hug regales me with a childhood story that he has heard many times. "I had also seen the sport on TV, so when my teacher asked me whether I wanted to try out the chair, I said yes right away!" Hug's first attempts on the racing wheels were followed by extended practice sessions on the little road outside his parents' farmhouse. "I would spend hours going up and down; all by myself," he recalls fondly. There was no denying that he was hooked.
Building for the future
Recognising his passion and potential, Hug's teacher immediately registered her student for his first competitive race, a youth race held over 3 kilometres as part of the Schenkon Marathon. In the style of a true future champion, the ten-year-old dominated his age group--"even though I fell along the way!" The Thurgauer shakes his head as if still in disbelief after all these years. Once he had tasted glory, there was no stopping the youngster. The Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil paired him with trainer Paul Odermatt and Hug never looked back.
In 2001, the racer became a member of Rollstuhlsport Schweiz (Wheelchair Sport Switzerland). The same year saw him amongst the first students to be accepted into the new Thurgau sports school in Kreuzlingen, where equal emphasis was put on education, sports and regeneration. Hug was the only wheelchair racer at the boarding school, an experience he describes as "immensely important for my personal development." Odermatt visited him three times a week for training, a routine the pair continued during Hug's subsequent year at the Schule fur Beruf und Weiterbildung (School for Employment and Further Education) in Romanshorn.
"It is very important to me to have a conventional career in place--something to fall back on later in life," says Hug of his decision not to turn professional upon finishing school. However, his busy sporting schedule and his physical disability made it difficult for him to find a suitable career option. "Being at school in Romanshorn provided me with the opportunity to do work experience at different companies. This helped me realise that a Kaufmannische Ausbildung (practical business training) was the right thing for me," he explains. After Romanshorn, Hug enrolled in a special course for athletes at Frei's Schulen in Lucerne, where he could obtain his tertiary education on a part-time basis. It was the best of both worlds for the young sportsman.
Re-inventing the wheel
With half of his time dedicated to his passion, it didn't take too long for Hug to burst onto the international wheelchair-racing scene in a big way. In 2004, he started off his impressive collection of trophies with two bronze medals at the Paralympics in Athens, his "most memorable achievement to date." It was enough for the Thurgauer to be hailed Newcomer of the Year 2004 by Credit Suisse Sports Award and be offered a spot on the Swiss National Team. But the athlete was only getting started. The next few years would see him catapult past the competition to achieve a slew of milestones, including five European Master titles and several Junior World Championship titles.
"They say there is a formula," Hug says of his secret for success. "You multiply talent with drive and opportunity--and I was lucky to have all three!" Ever modest, he links his talent to his advantageous physique of long arms and a long upper body--and credits the opportunities he has had to his beloved family, trainer, sponsors and supportive environment at the Nottwil centre. "But the most important factor," he adds after a pause, "is to love what you are doing--that's what drives you. And I love wheelchair racing, because it is so dynamic, so physically challenging and so tactical. It just fascinates me. I hope I can inspire the next generation of athletes with my passion."
But it isn't all as romantic as it sounds. The saying 'no pain, no gain' holds as true of wheelchair racing as it does of any other sport. "You need to work hard to be at the top of your game," says a man who knows what 'hard' means. Hug's training--which includes endurance sessions, weight lifting and fitness drills--has multiplied in intensity over the years and requires discipline and utter dedication. It requires the kind of commitment that cannot be afforded on a part-time basis. And so in 2010, the then-24-year-old athlete decided to turn professional.
Playing in the big leagues
"I was disappointed about my performance at the Paralympics in Beijing [where medals eluded him] and knew I needed to fully focus on racing if I wanted to reach my potential," he explains. "And the timing was just perfect--I had just completed my work experience in the Human Resources Department of HUG AG [a company with whom he shares his name] and felt I was set for the future. It was intimidating to take the step to become professional, but I still feel today that it was the right move."
The subsequent successes were to prove the athlete right. The Swiss Silver Bullet--as the Swiss media lovingly nicknamed Hug because of his speed and trademark silver racing helmet--set a new Swiss record for every distance up to 10,000 metres, before adding a staggering four world records in four different distances over four days to his tally.
Displaying such top form, Hug was the man to beat going into the 2011 IPC Athletics World Championships in New Zealand, where he competed in all track events from 400 metres to 10,000 metres. Unfortunately, he hadn't reckoned with the fury of one David Weir from Great Britain, whose records Hug had smashed. Weir was determined to get his own back. While Hug won gold in the 10,000 metres, the Brit came out top in the three tactical races they faced together (800 metres, 1,500 metres and 5,000 metres). It was nevertheless a fantastic achievement for the young Swiss.
As an acknowledgement, Hug was later crowned Swiss Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability at the Credit Suisse Sports Awards 2011, a title he is "very proud of." "It is an honour to be a role model," the 26-year-old says modestly. "But it is important to me to be respected as an athlete and not be admired because I am an athlete with a disability. I don't practise sports because I have a disability, but despite it."
On track for gold
The next big event on Hug's agenda are the 2012 Paralympic Games in London later this August. In light of his 2011 performances--and his recent victory over Hug at the 2012 London Marathon last April--the man to beat this time is Weir. But Hug is determined to spoil the Brit's party at his home Games and make "his biggest dream" come true--to win the holy grail of Paralympics, the gold medal. His rival might have the advantage of racing in front of his home crowd, but this time, the fury is with the Swiss. And Hug is well prepared. For the past months, he has completed a staggering 30 hours of training each week and feels at the top of his game, both physically and mentally. There is no doubt that Hug is ready to step into the footsteps of Switzerland's great Paralympians, Nietlisbach and Frei, and become Switzerland's next Paralympic Champion--true to his slogan, 'the future is rolling now' for Hug.
Name: Marcel Eric Hug
Known as: Swiss Silver Bullet Date of birth: 16 January 1986
Hobbies: sports, music, socialising with friends and family
Profession: Athlete, Wheelchair racer
Class: T54, an athlete with unrestricted function from the waist up. There are four classes for athltes who are in a wheelchair due to a spinal cord insury Or amputation, ranging from T51 to T54. Hug was born with Spina Bifida ('split spine')
Trainer: Paul Odermatt www.marcelhug.oom
Paralympics London 2012:29 August-2 September
Hug will be competing in the Athletics category, the largest sport in the Paralympics with 1,100 athletes competing for 170 gold medals, He will be competing in all T54 men's track events from 400 metres to 10,000 metres and in the marathon
Venues: Olympic Park--Olympic Stadium (track events); The Mall (marathon) To find out the schedule, please check: