Meet the Match
A Coach for Suriname's Paralympic Future
The brace was sticking out through Zabdai Zamuel’s shorts. It was time to divide up teams for basketball, but he knew he wasn’t going to be picked. Everybody was afraid the boy with the “broken leg,” as they called him, would slow them down.
Born in Paramaribo to a Surinamese father and Dutch mother, Zabdai did not feel fully accepted by others at a young age due to his mixed background. When he suffered nerve damage from an injury at the age of 6, the resulting physical disability presented new challenges to Zabdai’s life.
“After the nerve transplant, my parents were so worried that they tried everything to help me recover: traditional medicine, Western technology, acupuncture, even visiting a tribal shaman,” Zabdai says. “Part of the sensation and mobility came back, and now I have scar, a long leg with a short foot, a short leg with a bigger foot, and a story.”
In secondary school, Zabdai discovered his passion and skill at swimming. Through hard work in practice, he became one of the best athletes in his class. By 1998, he was national youth triathlon champion of Suriname.
Triathlon had lost popularity in Suriname over the years, but Zabdai remained in touch with every coach that he knew to keep training. The coaches were shocked to see a teenage boy at the pool so early in the morning, borrowing their coaching books and manuals so he could study them after practice. For most of the 1990s, Zabdai feels that sport was seen as a hobby in Suriname. He challenged that notion with every early morning swim and long afternoon bike ride. With little support for his own career, at the age of 21, he dedicated himself to coaching.
“I thought to myself: If I could make the Olympics, I’d only be one person,” Zabdai says. “But, if I could be there as a coach, there could be 20 of us. I wanted to be the guy who I needed when I was an athlete trying to reach my dreams.”
After being certified as a trainer in 2001, Zabdai began to coach others in swimming, athletics, and triathlon. He traveled the world to learn from experienced international coaches in order to apply the knowledge back in Suriname. In 2010, he coached his first Swimmer of the Year. Since then he has trained every yearly winner, including Renzo Tjon-A-Joe, one of the fastest swimmers in Surinamese history and a 2016 Olympian.
Four years ago, Zabdai approached the Suriname Paralympic Committee about expanding his work. He extended an invitation for blind and visually-impaired swimmers to train in an inclusive environment alongside his other students. One of the athletes who arrived at the club never thought it would be possible to train on his own. Now, he is helping Zabdai to train the younger swimmers, and is training for duathlons with his coach’s help.
In Suriname, financial support for the development of adaptive sports is lacking, so Zabdai is on a mission to change the culture of sport. He plans to create a new generation of role models and mentors for athletes and coaches to follow. As a way of starting this mission, Zabdai took the photos and memorabilia of national athletes that he had collected over the years to hang up in a local café. The act was a way of honoring the sports heroes of Suriname’s past and motivate sports heroes for the future.
“I created my own Wall of Fame in that place,” Zabdai says. “There’s a disconnect that I want to bridge. I’m very stubborn. Once I get something into my head, I will never abandon that mission. I’ll stop when I’m finished.”
With three decades of experience in the disability sport sector, Mark Lucas guided Zabdai as on his mission to spark a greater appreciation of the Paralympic movement in Suriname. Among his many responsibilities as executive director of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, Mark oversees sports management programs for nine Paralympic sports—including swimming, cycling, and athletics—and manages relationships with the U.S. Olympic Committee, sports clubs in more than 30 U.S. states, and international disability sport federations. With Mark’s support and extensive knowledge of Paralympic sport, Zabdai was able to discover the leadership skills he needs to forge greater collaboration between Suriname’s sport and government entities, as well as best practices for developing sustainable mentorship and athlete development structures to produce a broader impact in communities across Suriname.