Antonio Flores is a 27-year-old Maltese man who loves sports and athletics. He has competed in numerous competitions both locally and internationally, and even represented our country in China when he was still a teenager. Antonio was born with clubfoot, but he has never let that get in the way.
Antonio's condition has always been a big part of his life. "I underwent surgeries at a couple of weeks old and then again at age six for clubfoot," he told Lovin Malta. "Then, when I was 14, we had a race in our class and I came third. I thought to myself, 'How can this be?' That one single moment turned out to be the seed which my passion for athletics grew out of."
Four years later, an 18-year-old Antonio was Malta's only delegate at the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Bejing. This was the first time in 24 years that Malta competed in the games, and the teenage athlete had even made the news for this achievement.
"I started training with no intention for the Paralympic Games. Back then, I didn't even know they existed. I just really loved the sport," Antonio said. After successfully classifying in Manchester, however, Antonio was off to Beijing, finding himself side by side on the starting line with celebrity Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. "There's only one word to describe the whole experience; transcendence."
A few years later, however, Antonio started feeling a great deal of pain, and his foot started giving him very frequent trouble. "The pain started in around 2010," Antonio told Lovin Malta. Doctors told him there was nothing else they could do; he had to learn to live with the pain, forgetting running in the process.
"I did stop, but I instead pursued other sports which were not a problem to my foot and ankle, like powerlifting," Antonio said. "But running has always been my passion. I tried to start running again, but the pain was just too much. At one point I even had a stress fracture, and I had to stop again."
In 2015, Antonio tried to start running all over again. "I got a custom-made carbon fibre brace and started training again. Soon enough, though, my ankle deteriorated further, spreading to my foot. At a point, there were days where I couldn't even walk, let alone run."
"After discussing my case with various surgeons, everyone agreed that no correction was possible," Antonio said. What he was ultimately given, in fact, were two options. The first involved fusing every joint in his foot and ankle, resulting in what would eventually become a very restricted life. The other, more drastic option, was amputation.
In a way, amputation meant he could start afresh. "Through enough hard work and effort, I could do anything I wanted," Antonio told Lovin Malta. "So I opted for that."
After months of nervous anticipation, Antonio went through the operation this week, on a sunny September afternoon. A Facebook page which was set up to document the young athlete's journey kept friends, family and fans updated with the whole process. One post explained how, hopefully, Antonio would only need a wheelchair and crutches for the first three or four weeks after the operation. "By then, he will have gotten his first prosthesis," the post explained.
By the end of the day, a video update showed Antonio ready from surgery and recovering from anaesthesia. "I am still a little weak, but I'm already looking ahead," Antonio said hours after his operation.
The next day, Antonio was "back to his old goofy self", posing on a wheelchair as he made a few trips around the ward. His secret? A beautiful quote which his fiancée had sent to him on a particularly bad day and which he still holds as his everyday mantra:
Fate whispers to the warrior, "You cannot withstand the storm". And the warrior whispers back, "I am the storm".
"I was having a horrible day, and when Deborah sent me that quote, it hit me hard," Antonio said. Eventually, he even got a tattoo of the quote, to constantly remind him he can withstand and endure anything. "It was also to signify the amputation, and the road ahead," he explained.
This year, Antonio graduated as a podiatrist. "Ironic, isn't it?" he smiles. "The passion I had for running and my inability to carry on a couple of years ago stirred me on to dedicate myself to become the best podiatrist I can be."
"I want to try and help others with any foot problems, and now, I am fully graduated and qualified to do so."
So after such an eventful decade and a half, what's next for Antonio Flores?
"Three major pillars," Antonio said, still in the hospital bed. "Back to running, professional podiatry, and getting married!"