• Good as gold... Kristina Vogel won the women's sprint event at the Rio Olympic Games. (Getty Images)
It's a sad fact of life, but it often takes a tragic twist before one understands and appreciates the meaning of sacrifice, writes Anthony Tan.
By
Source:
Cycling Central
12 Sep - 6:35 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep - 11:03 AM

It's already hump day so you've probably forgotten about your weekend, though I'm sure it's not too difficult to remember.

With Spring having reared its head, many of you probably got up for an early morning bunch ride Saturday, which, after a few hours' pedalling and nattering, you finished off with a couple of traffic light sprints. Of course, no bunchie is complete without the obligatory post-ride park-up at your fav' cafe or bakery.

After a cappuccino and brioche, and having mused over, in no particular order, the latest from the Vuelta a Espana, the latest from Canberra (who's our PM, again?) and the latest bike porn at your LBS, you likely threw a leg over your blingy steed and headed home for a nice hot shower.

"I'm very lucky to still be alive and to have fully functioning arms."

Slipping into your tracky dacks (aah... that's better!), if you planned to ride to ride Sunday as well you might've engaged in some stretching or callisthenics. If you've got kids you probably needed to drive or accompany them to Satdee sport. If you've got a wife you probably needed to suggest going shopping at Westfield (and no, not Coles or Woolies) or face the silent treatment the rest of the weekend. If you've got a hubby who doesn't like cycling but some other pastime, you probably needed to spend at least an hour stroking his ego, asking if he killed his mates playing [insert chosen pastime], which of course he didn't but would've lied about it anyway and said he did. And if it's just you, well, count y'self bloody lucky because you probably did whatever the hell you wanted to do... Maybe you went for a swim at the local ocean pool to freshen up the pins for your Sundee club meet.

In fact, if you did any of those things you should count yourself incredibly fortunate, because right now, twice Olympic sprint champion Kristina Vogel can't do a single one.

"Everything was too tight for me, especially my racing shoes," she told Der Spiegel of her initial sensations after regaining consciousness in the aftermath of her crash. "They are fitted precisely so that you have the optimal power transfer. I said: 'Take my shoes off, just take my shoes off.' That took a moment because of the special lacing. And then I saw someone walking away with my shoes. But I hadn't felt it when they took them off. It was immediately clear to me: That's it. Now I'm a paraplegic. I won't be able to walk again."

It was June 26 this year, a routine training session, when the 11-time world champion was zipping around the Cottbus outdoor concrete velodrome in Germany at 60 kilometres per hour. The speed was nothing new to her - she was used to going 70km/h or more - nor was there any fear. Track cycling was a large part of what kept her feeling alive, emboldened to take on anyone and anything in life. "If you're afraid when you're on the track, then you're doing the wrong thing. This is a tough sport. Sometimes you have to stick your elbow out so you have room to pass someone. I wouldn't have been able to win a single sprint if I had had any fear," Vogel, in her first interview since becoming a paraplegic that fateful Tuesday in June, said last week.

"It was good that I had already come to the realisation myself, right on the track, so the news didn't completely overwhelm me. But of course: It sucks. There's no other way to say it. It sucks. No matter how you package it, I can't walk anymore. And that can't be changed. But what am I supposed to do?"

"For the first time in my life, I don't have to do anything. It's a situation I want to enjoy. I'm basically free for the first time."

That same grit, that same stick-your-elbow-out fearlessness, must now be channelled in a completely different way. Two months shy of her 28th birthday and presumably with most of her life still ahead of her, Vogel must find the courage and strength to recover as best she can, get out of hospital, and, even though she's got her partner Michael Seidenbecher and family and friends by her side, learn to live as independently as possible. Dependency - or rather the lack of it - will be the crux to her ability to handle life "on four wheels rather than two". "I want to depend on help as little as possible. Because, yeah, I can't walk anymore, but the worst thing for me is being dependent," she says, having already bought a customised car and "a cool wheelchair with carbon rims" with the 120,000 Euros raised by her team-mates Max Levy and Max Dörnbach, who were there when the accident happened.

Ignoring the chasm-sized gender pay gap for the time being or the fickle-as-hell nature of a career in track cycling in general, two words come to mind when I ponder cycling as a career: extreme sacrifice.

There is little need to watch the Extreme Games on ESPN or the latest Red Bull-sponsored sporting fad when you read and hear what professional cyclists endure on a daily basis. The speed. The weather. The traffic. Other than a foam lid, the lack of protection. Couple all that with the day-in, day-out regularity and the commitment required to push body and mind to its absolute limits, often beyond what many deem safe, and one can only be in awe for choosing, then pursuing, such an unforgiving and rarely rewarding metier.

It's sad, but sometimes it takes events like the death of Wouter Weylandt at the 2011 Giro d'Italia or Anna Meares breaking her neck at the 2008 Track World Cup in Los Angeles or Vogel's permanent paraplegia, now unable to move from the chest down (her spinal cord is severed at the seventh thoracic vertebra), to fully appreciate just what these amazing athletes do for a living, and acknowledge and applaud their extreme sacrifice. There are few, if any, other sports - or professions, no less - that routinely require such unwavering bravery.

And now, even though it's been only a week since she's told us, despite it all, hints that the old Kristina Vogel still exist have emerged - "I'm still here and I'm still the same crazy girl" - but with a twist. "I'm very lucky to still be alive and to have fully functioning arms. I could have been left paralysed from the neck down," she says.

"I'm actually comparing myself these days to a baby who has to learn to turn over and sit up on its own. And it's nice that I can take my time doing that. For the first time in my life, I don't have to do anything. I can just be. It's a situation I want to enjoy. I'm basically free for the first time."

And this isn't her attempting to sugar-coat the situation, either. There's not a skerrick of false hope. Reality has well and truly bitten.

"My whole life, I've always had five-year plans. This is the first time I don't have one - and that's a good thing. I first need to come to terms with my paralysis. I also don't know what I want to do later, either."

Not once in the interview does Vogel use the word regret, or harbour any feelings of animosity towards the profession that has rendered her permanently disabled, nor anyone else involved in the accident. "There are some questions that don't do anything to help you move on... It is what it is."

From someone who less than three months ago had their world turned upside down and almost lost their life, what extraordinary mettle. Initially, after I read the interview, I felt crestfallen for Kristina and her family. Yet the more times I read what she has to say, the more hopeful - cautiously excited, even - I am at for what life may bring her and those she may affect.

Whether she wants to be one or not, I think we've found a new hero.