RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - The future looked anything but bright for Brazilian sisters Lohaynny, 4, and Luana Vicente, 6, when their father, a drug dealer, was killed in a shootout with police.
But sixteen years later, the two sisters are elite athletes and rising stars in badminton, a sport little played in a country better known for football and surfing.
They have come so far that Lohaynny, now 20, qualified to compete in the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a city that is not just their hometown, but the host of the first Olympics in South America.
“It’s the first time Brazil will compete in Olympic badminton and I am the first woman chosen to compete,” says Lohaynny, eagerly awaiting the games, which start Aug. 5.
While Luana did not make the cutoff in global rankings, she is proud of having introduced Lohaynny to the sport and playing beside her in doubles, winning a silver medal together at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
“Everyone can go as far as they want,” says Luana, dismissing their early hardships. “You have to want it. I wanted this and worked very hard for it.”
As toddlers, the girls moved around frequently with their father as he hid from police and rival drug gangs in Rio’s notorious favelas, slums that often lack basic services, including police.
After their father died in the western part of the city, the girls’ mother moved them to Chacrinha, a favela in northern Rio. Though badminton rackets and shuttlecocks are as rare as police in some favelas, a coach had set up a programme to teach the sport to kids in the community.
First Luana, then Lohaynny, excelled.
Now, they live in a house paid for by the Brazilian Badminton Federation in Campinas, near São Paulo. They earn a salary from the federation and enjoy sponsorship deals.
After practicing all day, they study. And occasionally, they get home to Rio, where there mother now lives in a house in a middle-class neighbourhood, not far from the favela where they first swung their rackets.
Standing recently under a set of Olympic rings installed in a Rio park, Lohaynny marvels at their good fortune.
“At times I can’t even believe I qualified,” she says. “It will only sink in when I’m there with the other athletes, when I begin to compete.”
Writing by Paulo Prada; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe