RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Daniel Dias likes being mentioned in the same sentence as Michael Phelps.
Some Paralympians may feel diminished — even offended — by using an Olympian as a reference to help illustrate their excellence.
“If people keep comparing me with Michael Phelps, I will be even more honored,” said the 28-year-old Brazilian. “That will show that I left some legacy for Paralympic swimming.”
Phelps won 23 gold medals and 28 medals overall, making him the most decorated Olympian in history.
Dias, likewise, is about to shatter records and approach Phelps’ numbers.
He won his first gold medal on Thursday in the S5 200-meter freestyle, the first of his nine events. That gave him 11 gold medals and 16 overall through three Paralympic Games.
Australian Matthew Cowdrey has won 23 medals, the most for a male swimmer, with 13 of them gold — a mark Dias seems likely to pass.
Dias can also surpass the record for the most gold medals won by any male athlete. Swedish shooter Jonas Jakobsson, who has competed in the Paralympics since 1980, has won 17 gold medals, and his 27 overall medals are also the most by any male athlete. The 51-year-old could increase those totals with three more shooting events in the coming week.
Dias, from Sao Paolo, was born with a partially formed left hand, and his right arm stops at the elbow. He was also born without a right leg below the knee.
Craig Spence, the spokesman for the Paralympics, was at the pool Thursday night and said Dias’ victory was the most memorable thing he had seen in sports.
He said it surpassed a football match he saw last year, when Flamengo was playing at the famous Maracana stadium.
“When Flamengo scored a goal, I’d never heard such noise in a stadium,” Spence said. “But Daniel Dias winning gold exceeded a Flamengo victory in the Maracana.”
Dias could be the face of the Paralympics, a home-country hero who can drive ticket sales and interest. A frequent presence at football matches in Sao Paulo and as a motivational speaker, the swimmer could be a role model not just for athletes, but all Brazilians.
Additional success at the Paralympics could also increase Dias’ number of sponsors. Nearly 10 brands make him one of the few Brazilian Paralympians that can live off his sporting success.
The swimmer’s training regime is so special that he spent weeks practicing in Spain to focus for the 11 days of competition.
Dias admits there is a lot of pressure for him to deliver nine more medals.
“I do feel the pressure, but that will be compensated for by the support of the crowd and my family,” he said.
What Dias believes will be his most emotional moment of the Paralympics will be sharing a relay on Saturday with the man who inspired him. Six-time gold medalist Clodoaldo Silva is competing in his last Paralympics, and Dias wants him to leave in style.
“I only began because I saw Clodoaldo swimming on TV,” Dias said. “I didn’t even know people like me could swim, could do any sport at all.”