“I was truly overwhelmed by my feelings at that moment.”

In this interview, we speak with Heinrich Popow about the visibility that people with disabilities have in society, his professional sports career and the role of social media.

Image Heinrich Popow Portrait

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Focusing society’s attention on people with disabilities – this was the United Nations’ goal when the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was launched in 1993. A great deal has happened since then: people with disabilities have appeared in films and TV series more and more often, achieved world records and featured on the covers of fashion magazines. Heinrich Popow is a special personality – a winner of multiple Paralympic medals, a World and European champion and a role model for many Para athletes. In this interview, Heinrich speaks about his professional sports career, participating in Let’s Dance on TV and the role that social media plays in our current times.

What significance does the International Day of Persons with Disabilities have for you?

I always find it difficult to get my head around individual days, because I often forget them. I tend to live in the moment. I’d prefer it if the topic of “disabilities” didn’t need its own special day, and every individual person instead got the attention they deserve every single day. By that I mean making it the norm to give each other respect and understanding. In my opinion, we don’t need to talk about disabilities, because they are simply accepted in society. Despite this, I think a day like this that focuses attention on this sort of topic is very valuable and important. It makes me happy to see news or projects that attract attention to the topic of disabilities.

You were a professional athlete for many years and won at the Paralympics and the World and European Championships a number of times. You are now a mentor for up-and-coming athletes. What was the best experience you had in your active career as an athlete?

It was definitely the occasions when I satisfied my own ego, for example by achieving personal bests. That was when I showed myself that my disability wasn’t holding me back and that I was continuing to grow. The gold medals weren’t really all that important. A lot of people might hear that and think, “Oh really?”. But they truly didn’t feel as good as my first bronze medal in Athens. It was so unexpected and pure. When it came to the gold medal, all eyes were on me, there were a lot of expectations and the pressure was really high. It didn’t feel as carefree as the bronze medal. But when I look at my medals today, they aren't all that important to me. What counts is the moment when I won them.

As far as what I’m doing now, the Running Clinics with Ottobock are definitely my top priority. It’s so fulfilling for me, and it’s more than just a job. When I get up in the morning, I know I have the opportunity to give something back. There was a moment with a young boy at the Running Clinics in Dubai that really had a big impact on me. He suddenly stood completely still in front of me and looked at me, realising that he could run again. That boy had done something that he thought he’d never be able to do again. I was truly overwhelmed by my feelings at that moment. Children are really important to me in general. Especially when I think back about my childhood and how difficult it was for me in PE with my disability. The fact that I am the person I am today is because I met the right people at the right time. My father said to me after my first big success in London, “I’m proud of you, son. But all this won’t mean anything to me if you forget where you’re from.” So giving back like this is something very fundamental for me.

How did you end up at Ottobock?

If you wear a prosthesis, you’ll definitely come across Ottobock at some point because it’s the world leader in prosthetics. So I had already known about the company since my amputation. And then I always went to the Ottobock workshop when I had problems with my prosthesis because the company is the Paralympic sponsor. So I was there in 2004 and noticed that Ottobock tended to be the workshop for other manufacturers but didn’t have any of its own sports products. I was quite shocked. This led to us getting to know each other better and my joining Ottobock in 2007 to help develop the company’s first sports prostheses. A lot has happened since then. We’ve launched many different sports products and established the Running Clinics at the global level.

You are also a trained O&P professional. How did you decide to start training for this career?

I actually studied IT originally and worked as an IT and system administrator while I was doing my sport. When I came back to work after winning my first gold medal at London 2012, I asked myself: do I identify with this career enough that I can do it full time later on, once I’ve finished with sports? No, I couldn’t. So I wrote my letter of resignation and looked for a job where I could contribute all my experiences and play a part in developing solutions that will make the lives of people with disabilities easier in future.

And then I went back to vocational school, which did feel strange. But in the end, I was the best in the class. I did even better than Johannes Floors, who was in the same year as me. And I’d been copying his work most of the time (laughs).

Did you find it difficult to leave professional sports?

No, I actually should have stopped two years earlier – after Rio. But then Let’s Dance came along in 2017, and that motivated me to keep going. I had already passed my peak at that point though. Luckily, I still managed to get out at the right time; otherwise, things wouldn’t have ended up well. I would have been walking all over my own legacy, so to speak. And I was really happy when it was all done. I participated in competitive sports for 18 years. All the attention from the media, the pressure – it all got too much for me at some point. But I also wouldn’t have wanted to miss a thing, and I’d do it all over again.

So what motivated you to take part in the Let’s Dance show?

RTL had asked me if I wanted to do the show a number of times. But I’d always turned them down. And why? Because I was afraid that I’d embarrass myself and that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice because of my disability. Or that I would even make the topic of “people with disabilities” a laughingstock. But then I thought to myself, this also means I can no longer tell anyone that everything is possible if I can’t even get past my own fears. So I decided to do it in the end.

The great thing about RTL was that they gave me the chance to try out dancing and didn’t just want to tick the “people with a disability” checkbox. And the feedback on social media was actually really bad at first, because I was showing my prosthesis on TV. But RTL totally had my back.

You appeared on the show in 2017, and the media scene has changed since then. What’s your perspective on this?

My feeling is that the diversity flag is being flown in an almost aggressive way right now. Including on social media. The question is, how much of it is genuine and is meant sincerely? My thought is, do it because it’s something you really stand behind and not just because you’re looking for some sort of attention. Otherwise the entire topic becomes meaningless. And that’s something I would find really terrible and extremely dangerous. But at the same time, I am happy that this is breaking down reservations and that people want to get more involved with the topic of disabilities. So what I’d like to see is a less aggressive approach that is instead based on conviction.

We’re seeing people with disabilities playing a more public role and openly displaying their disabilities on social media as well. What’s your perception of this – is it a trend that has the potential to change things or just individual cases?

In my opinion, it’s a trend that has been triggered by individual cases. For example, I was the first one to push for sports activity in the area of prosthetics. And now we’ve got Léon Schäfer, Johannes Floors and Markus Rehm. I really think this trend will change things, and I hope that this will be a positive change. But I actually have the feeling that people are going too far in their roles and that it’s all moving in a very extreme direction. People on social media expect others to be very understanding of their own position while having little understanding for other people’s opinions. It’s like a one-way street. I hope this can still change and that we can move away from it.

What role does social media play for you? How do you use it?

It played a bigger role during my sports career and Let’s Dance, but right now it generally plays a smaller one. It simply got a bit much for me. Now I use social media when I want to point something out or share something important to me. But what I really use it for is sharing ideas with other people. That all happens in the background, and I don’t share it publicly on my feed.

How do you support people with disabilities?

I try to do this through my day-to-day work rather than via the media. I also tend to work on the practical level and through sports. For example by fitting devices, one-on-one conversations with users, physiotherapists and hospitals as well.

Why is it so important to give people with disabilities a more public profile? Do you feel their public presence is sufficient?

It always depends on the situation. There’s a lot we can learn from people with disabilities right now, such as being optimistic or how to cope with apparent misfortune, as in my case. When I was nine years old, everyone told me about everything I wouldn’t be able to do anymore after the amputation. There was only one person – another amputee – who told me everything I could still do. That’s what I focused on, and today I am a happy person. Pointing out different solutions to problems and giving positive examples – that’s something valuable in society. I think it’s important to give people with disabilities an opportunity to do that.

What has changed in a positive direction in recent years?

The acceptance of prostheses or of devices in general. They used to be awful “flesh-coloured” legs that you tried to hide. Now they’re accessories. I think it’s great when prosthesis wearers identify with their prosthesis on social media and make it part of their style, or to match their outfit, for example. It creates a certain sense of easiness around the entire subject. In my opinion, culture also has to change along with this – away from the medical side of things and towards normality and an easy-going approach to dealing with disabilities.

If you had one wish, what would you change?

I don't like the word inclusion. It puts this stamp on people with disabilities, as if you have to look after them. But we’re already part of society and right here in the middle of things. Why are problems always talked about in terms of inclusion? Such as lowered curbs. They aren’t just put there for wheelchair users but for parents with pushchairs, too. So I really think we need to take a more open view of the topic.

I’d like to finish by asking what advice you’d give to people who have a disability?

My advice would be to approach new things without any assumptions and to be open. Making comparisons is what holds us back a lot of the time. It isn’t easy to get to grips with a disability and accept it. But acceptance only works when you understand it. And you have to allow room for your thoughts in order to do that. Openness is what you need, and that’s something children can do.

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Nadine Winter