Ionut Preda dripped a blood red drop of hot wax onto my pilgrim credential and then quickly pressed a metal sealer into the congealing liquid. His seal left the impression of two bare footprints on the passport-like credential that I carried with me during this 500-mile trek across northern Spain. This flimsy piece of folded paper proved that I was a pilgrim and allowed me overnight access to albergues or pilgrim accommodations. It was stamped and dated by albergue hosts to ensure that I didn’t sojourn too long in one town and overstay my pilgrim status. The credential was also proof that I had actually been to these places along the route so I could earn a Compostela from the Catholic Church at the endpoint, Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of the bones of St. James the Greater.
“I love looking at my credential,” Robert from Holland had explained earlier. “I can tell you a story an hour long about each one of these stamps. It is such a good way to remember my journey.” And so pilgrims like Robert and me collected stamps or sellos from restaurants, churches and wayside attractions like the one we were at now. Sometimes you had to pay an entrance fee to get the imprint from a rubber stamp, like at the cathedral in Leon. Other times you needed to be a paying customer to receive a stamp as at the bar at Orison.
Yet at this humble wayside attraction, merely two banquet tables set end-to-end at the edge of the roadside, the extravagant wax stamp (the only I saw during my 36-day trek) was offered by donativo or freewill offering. From the table where Ionut Preda performed the stamping ritual hung several newspaper clippings.
“Yo quiero caminar” professed one newspaper headline over a full-color photo of a tired pilgrim in front of the Santiago Cathedral. “I want to walk.” Ionut Preda standing behind the table pointed to the photo and said, “That’s me.”
I bent down to look closely at the newspaper clippings. “But this man has only one leg,” I said.
Ionut Preda stepped out from behind the table and raised his right leg, revealing a clunky prosthesis. “I walked Camino de Santiago with this,” he said. I suddenly felt ashamed that I had been feeling sorry for myself because my feet were sore. I soon learned that Ionut Preda was a very special man, a Paralympic athlete that worked with kids in his gymnasium that was located here, on the edge of the Camino de Santiago between Palas de Rei and Melide, Spain.
The athlete who lost his right foot after an accident with a mechanical crane at age eight has overcome his loss to win more than 100 national and international medals.
“My road was not easy,” the native of Timisoara, Romania said in Spanish on his website. “…Over the years, I came to have a relationship with God, and every time the idea of helping child amputees who need prostheses, motivate them to do sport, to integrate into society, show that you can lead a normal life it grows within me.”
“Traveling, God gave me the opportunity to meet a great woman who today is my wife and Mr. Emanuel rewarded us with our son. They fill me with motivation and desire to leave a legacy, ‘If I can, you can too’.”
On the second table, Ionut Preda sold athletic shirts sporting his logo and slogan “Mas de Camino” or “More than a Road.” My companions and I bought the brightly colored shirts and continued on our way no longer tired, but refreshed from having met the inspiring athlete.
Now when I look at my credential and see the imprint of two perfect bare feet, I think of the man with one foot who inspires children to be all they can be. Like Robert, I can look at that one stamp and tell a story that will last for an hour…or years.
Ionut Preda, Paralympic Athlete
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