Paralympics 2016: Euthanasia option gives Marieke Vervoort control

Story highlights

  • Vervoort received euthanasia papers in 2008
  • Belgian has won three Paralympic medals

Rio de Janeiro (CNN)For Marieke Vervoort, the power to take her own life is really what's keeping her alive.

The 37-year-old wheelchair racer lives with a degenerative spinal condition that can make sleeping and eating impossible, and causes so much pain that she received assisted suicide approval in her native Belgium in 2008.
    But rather than ending her life -- as some reports had suggested she was ready to do after the Rio Paralympics -- the ability to control her own destiny has empowered her to compete at the highest level.
    "If I didn't have the papers, I think I would have already committed suicide," Vervoort told reporters at a crowded media conference following her silver medal 400-meter finish in the T-52 category over the weekend.
    Addressing speculation that her euthanasia was imminent -- "totally out of the question," she said -- the smiling Vervoort said she wants to use the attention that she has garnered to educate other nations, like Brazil, that lack assisted suicide measures for people whose suffering is unbearable.
    Vervoort is pictured competing at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

    Fear and anger

    Aside from a handful of countries, euthanasia and assisted suicide remain outlawed in most of the world.
    "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," she explained.
    Vervoort, who competes in the T52 classification for athletes who have limited or no mobility below their waists and who have impaired motor skills in their arms and hands, is the reigning 200m world champion, and earned gold and silver medal in London 2012.
    She has also competed in Para-Triathlons and Ironman competitions, according to her Twitter bio, and will be defending her 100m title on Saturday.
    "I no longer have a fear of death," Vervoort explained. "I see it as an operation, where you go to sleep and never wake up. For me it's something peaceful. I don't want to suffer when I'm dying.
    "When it becomes too much for me to handle than I have my life in my own hands," she added, clarifying that she would need further analysis from doctors once she makes the decision final.
    Receiving approval to end the pain that has accumulated since she was diagnosed at 15 was not easy in the first place, she stressed.
    "It's difficult to get papers. Three different doctors have to see that you have a progressive disease, and you need a psychological test."
    In the meantime, Vervoort is determined to conquer some other challenges -- including skydiving, race car driving, and flying an F16 fighter jet -- while she is able enough.
    "Training and riding and competing are like a medicine for me; I push so hard to push all my fear and anger away," she said.
    Vervoort is all smiles after receiving her silver medal in Rio.

    Survival playbook

    One thing Vervoort has decided, however, is that Rio will be her last Paralympics.
    Rather than allow her worsening disability to call the shots -- "It's too hard on my body," she admitted -- Vervoort will retire from competitive racing to enjoy time with family, friends and her therapy dog Zen.
    The labrador does a lot more than just help carry her groceries and fetch her socks.
    "When I'm going to have an epileptic attack, she warns me one hour before. I don't know how she feels it," Vervoort marveled.
    Vervoort's survival playbook also involves treasuring each day that she is alive.
    "Everybody can have a car accident and die, or a heart attack and die. It can be tomorrow for everybody," she said. "You have to live day by day and enjoy the little moments.
    "When the day comes -- when I have more bad days than good days -- I have my euthanasia papers," she added. "But the time is not there yet."