Paula Pareto: Physician and Gold Medalist

Roxana Tabakman

August 11, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO — For Paula Pareto, MD, at the end of a judo competition, the cameras often capture an expression that is a combination of total fatigue and the joy of seeing her conquered opponent on the floor. These images of Dr Pareto's triumph over her opponents is one that is repeated multiple times in the photo album of the young judoka, who has stepped up to the podium at the World Championships, the Masters, the Grand Prix, and the Pan American Games.

Now Dr Pareto will have that triumphant photo from the Olympics as well.

Dr Pareto, an Argentinian athlete who competed this week at the Rio 2016 Olympics, earned the gold medal in her category. In addition to being a champion judoka, she is also a medical doctor who just last year took her Hippocratic Oath.

With very Argentine humor, the local media ran a headline on the occasion of Dr Pareto's medical school graduation: "First she beats you and then she heals you."

When Dr Pareto was younger, judo was more of a hobby and medicine her vocation. But the first demanded more time and dedication, and the young student began traveling with her textbooks and notes in tow.

"The key was to make every minute count. When you do one thing knowing you have little time, you do it 100%, you learn to use the time well," Dr Pareto said at the time. In her case it meant that the 3-hour bus trip from the city of La Plata where she began her training, to her home in the town of San Fernando, north of Buenos Aires, was used to listen to recorded medical courses.

Paula Pareto, Río 2016 (Markus Schreiber/AP)

Pau, as her friends and family call her, completed a college degree at the age of 27, 2 years later than her peers. "I always thought study and training at the same time could be done. I never thought of it exclusively,” she told the media. However, the saddest thing for her was not being able to keep up with her peers. "Every year you make new friends. But once you put things into perspective, you see that there is a reason for it."

"La Peque," as she was nicknamed in the sports and media environments, referring to her small stature (4 feet, 9 inches tall and less than 106 pounds), soon became a sports celebrity.

Dr Pareto won her first Olympic medal in 2008, halfway through her academic career. And she did not choose the easy way. She enrolled at the University of Buenos Aires, a public university that boasted four Nobel laureates. Its school of medicine is one of the most demanding: The proof of having studied there is something proudly displayed on walls with gold frames, almost like a title of nobility.

For years, Dr Pareto studied morning, noon, and night, interspersed with two workouts a day. The secret, she told her colleagues, it is to find out the important schedule milestones: when there is a major tournament or when there is an important exam. And then talk to the teachers.

Of all her subjects, the one she recalls being less fond off is microbiology. She studied it in 2007, when she participated in the Olympic trials for the Beijing games, and of the five microbiology tests she took, she passed only four. She failed the course — but brought home a bronze medal.

Despite the difficulty, Dr Pareto never thought of quitting. She was always convinced that a college degree was something attainable with enough effort, even for a dedicated athlete, and that success in a sport is more a matter of luck. "Getting good results in sports depends on oneself, your opponent, and the referees," she explained to friends.

Like many of her generation, Paula Belen Pareto chose ophthalmology as her last university exam. Following local tradition, when she discovered she passed the test, relatives and friends took her to the square in front of the university and covered her in vinegar, flour, mayonnaise, ketchup, paint, and more. Everything imaginable fell like rain on her head to make this moment unforgettable. She laughed, cried, and futilely begged for mercy.

Dr Pareto happily posed for photos, posted them to her Instagram account, but soon showed why she’s like everyone else and yet different. No sooner had she completed the required rite of graduation than she cleaned herself up a little right there on the street with a water hose, someone put plastic bags on the car seat to protect the upholstery, and she went to train. Just like every day.

Dr Pareto compares the diploma the university awarded her in a solemn ceremony in April 2015 to the Olympic medal she won in Beijing. "While it is different, the joy I feel is the same because it was one of my goals."

That same year she won a world tournament and received the award for the most important sportsperson of the year in Argentina, the "Golden Olimpia," in which she prevailed over Lionel Messi, among others.

By then, Dr Pareto had an enviable record of 22 wins and just 3 defeats in a sport that is dominated by men. She began judo at age 9, just to accompany her brother. But her mother, a pediatrician, said she noticed her unusual physical skills much earlier. "As a baby, she fell from the changing table and landed in a seated position," said Mirta Mendez.

This story originally appeared in the Portuguese edition of Medscape. Translated by Fredy Perojo.

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