MALI POZAREVAC, Serbia (Reuters) - Left without the use of both legs after a car struck him in 1996, Mile Stojkoski turned to sport as his rehabilitation -- table-tennis, target-shooting, kayaking, gymnastics, swimming.
But the former administrative clerk’s signature discipline became his long-distance wheelchair “marathons” which he undertakes to raise awareness about the plight of disabled people in the Balkans, where they are marginalized and often stigmatized.
If all goes to plan Stojkoski will roll into London on July 27th for the opening of the Olympic Games, at the end of a 3,500 km (2,175 miles) trip by wheelchair from his native Macedonia.
“At first I was in shock and angry,” he said of the day he was confined to a wheelchair. “But then I realized I had to do something to improve the situation.”
This is the 46-year-old’s 10th long-distance wheelchair journey, although he has never officially raced.
Stojkoski and his support team of two will travel through 15 European countries -- Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Britain.
“I became interested in this because it’s a combination of strength, stamina and psychological persistence,” he told Reuters this week during a brief highway stop in Serbia.
Stojkoski, who has a wife and a daughter, has travelled to the Olympics before.
In 2004, he made a 20-day, 704-km trip to the Games in Athens, but failed to complete the trek to Beijing in 2008. He was running low on funds by the time he was turned back at the Syrian-Jordanian border due to an unresolved visa issue.
Unlike his aborted 2008 state-funded trip to Beijing, the Macedonian government has only supported him this time by obtaining visas. Stojkoski collected the rest of the money.
“A company donated food, others, including friends gave me some money but most of it I had to cover from my own pocket,” he said.
Unlike other disabled athletes, who favor light-alloy wheelchairs designed especially for sports, Stojkoski uses an ordinary wheelchair.
“I want to show people that it can be done,” he said.
He had an escort of police and local bikers through Serbia as he headed north for Hungary.
“This man is amazing,” said Milan Janjic, a biker from the Serbian capital Belgrade. “I‘m not sure I could muster the strength and determination after such an injury.”
In 2009 Stojkoski initiated the Civic Caravan project to campaign for more rights and awareness of people with disabilities in Macedonia which ended after a travel through 24 Macedonian towns with a total length of 1,000 km.
In 2005 he campaigned for raising 10,000 signatures needed for the Macedonian parliament to pass a bill for the protection of the disabled. Stojkoski lead a caravan through Macedonia resulting with a 1,500 km trip and raised 19,000 signatures. The parliament still hasn’t voted to pass the bill.
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Reporting By Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Matt Robinson