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Diederick Schelfhout: Paralympian on fighting for his career after a life-changing motorcycle accident

The Belgian bike owner signed his skilled contract a number of months earlier than, working in direction of his ambition of changing into a professional rider.

It was a purpose he had nurtured since he was eight years previous, having grown up listening to tales of his father, who had additionally raced professionally.

But after Schelfhout crashed into a automotive after which slid into a parked automotive, his tank burst — and so did that of the automobile. He was caught between two explosions and says it took firemen 14 makes an attempt to place out the hearth.

“I had only one feeling, and it was survive,” Schelfhout tells CNN Sport of the 2008 accident. “The ache I felt was not human anymore.”

The aftermath

Schelfhout sustained a number of accidents and 80% of his physique was burned, together with his lungs.

“I had damaged bones, my arm was in items, my leg, my fingers. It was horrible,” he says.

He spent virtually three months in a coma, one which was so extreme that his physique was going to be put down, however as he places it, “My coronary heart was robust.”

When Schelfhout did lastly get up he found the left aspect of his physique had been left paralyzed by the accident,

When medical doctors held up a mirror to his face, he might see the bodily scarring he had endured. “I take a mirror and so they say, ‘Look, that is the way you look now and that is how you are going to stay.'”

As he remembers, his response to his new face was “the primary psychological breakdown.”

“I did not take into consideration biking within the first weeks. I simply wanted to turn out to be stronger,” he says. “I used to be actually into studying, strolling once more, writing and talking.”

His family and friends provided him a useful sense of ethical assist, one thing he nonetheless cherishes 13 years later.

“For my mother and father, it was a actually nasty time,” he says, “I’m fortunate as a result of my mother and father are supporting me so onerous and so nicely in every little thing I do.”

“I’ve a lot of mates that assist me […] I can say I’m a fortunate man. With mates like that and household.”

Schelfhout says he's "a lucky guy" to have such supportive friends and family.

Fighting to remain within the race

Medical consultants ultimately informed Schelfhout that he wanted to shelve his biking dream, because of the in depth nerve harm in his left leg and his hip.

He says that he determined to attempt to cycle that very same day with a purpose to see what his physique may be able to. “The first 20 meters had been essentially the most horrible meters in my life. Everything was hurting, and it was like a baby of six years that was making an attempt to bike.”

“The medical doctors additionally informed me whole restoration was not doable.

“I had a girlfriend. She was not into biking […] and she or he stated, ‘You must cease every little thing.’ I informed her ‘No, I need to end what I began, and I cease biking after I need, not when any individual tells me I must cease.'”

In the months between his coma and rehab, Schelfhout continued, utilizing a handbike to enhance his higher mobility. After two weeks, he says he had a glimmer of hope, when he noticed “some unusual feeling” in his bicep. A fortnight later, he had a contraction in his muscle.

Barely a 12 months after his accident, Schelfhout was driving to and from the hospital on his bike.

“I used to be driving straight to the room of the physician and I informed him, ‘Look I’m again on the bike and I’ll turn out to be stronger and stronger and I’m going to race once more. I do not know when, however I’ve a feeling it is doable,” he says.

“He informed me that it is my thoughts that is so robust. If I need one thing, I’ll do something for it.”

After the accident, Schelfhout says doctors told him he would have to forget his cycling dreams.

A bump within the highway

In 2011, Schelfhout’s luck modified when he learn a journal article about Kris Bosmans, a Belgian para bike owner who had began competing after struggling a stroke. Inspired by his story, he determined to succeed in out to Bosmans.

“At that point, I did not take into consideration para biking as a result of in Belgium it is not as well-known a sport,” Schelfhout says.

However, after listening to extra about Bosmans’ story, he started to see para biking as a pathway to competing.

Determined to race once more, he contacted the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) — the game’s governing physique — and, with a purpose to get bodily able to compete, he shed over 88 kilos (40 kg) in three months.

His final racing 12 months had been in 2007, so Schelfhout says he was enthusiastic about his first para biking occasion in 2012 in Rome. “The feeling was good that I used to be again on the bike for competitors.”

Although, the race did not fairly go as deliberate.

Paralympic athletes who use a commonplace bicycle participate in 5 sport classes — C1-5 — with decrease numbers representing extra acute limitation in decrease and/or higher limbs.

Schelfhout, who had been positioned within the C4 class previous to the race, says he was informed earlier than competing that he ought to have truly been taking part within the C3 class.

In his early competitors years as a para bike owner, Schelfhout says essentially the most difficult facet of coaching and competing was having to reconcile the concept that his physique would by no means be as robust because it was earlier than the accident.

“The first 12 months in para biking was a horrible 12 months as a result of I used to be at all times evaluating how I used to be earlier than the accident and after.”

“For me, the principle downside is the nerve downside I’ve in my left aspect of my physique. My left leg is simply a quarter of energy in comparison with the best aspect, and my arm is one seventh of energy.

“My again on the left aspect is partly paralyzed. I’ve much less energy to speed up.

“There are athletes that earlier than their accident by no means raced, and they do not know the chances of their physique. I do know what I might do earlier than and I needed to do the identical.”

After reading a magazine article about Belgian para cyclist Kris Bosmans, Schelfhout was inspired to pursue the sport.

Chasing a Paralympic dream

Since then, Schelfhout has been in a position to regain his confidence by focusing on the psychological and bodily edge he might need over his friends. For instance, he says the best aspect of his physique is stronger than that of able-bodied athletes.

“When I’m competing, there’s like a button in my head, and positively in huge races, that tells me simply go for it, simply fly and see what you will get.”

In 2016, Schelfhout skilled one more setback when he had a crash, breaking his collarbone and his hip.

He subsequently discovered himself omitted of Belgium’s first choice for the Paralympic Games in Rio. “After a few weeks, I used to be again on the bike however I wasn’t in a good situation for racing.”

After 4 years of working in direction of a Paralympic dream, he determined to take a break. But two weeks earlier than the Rio Games, he obtained a telephone name from the federation, saying a spot had opened up for his choice.

“I wasn’t in a fine condition for the Games,” he says. “Normally on the observe if I’m beginning, I’m at all times racing for the rostrum. Now, I needed to make tenth or eighth place. In Rio, I made tenth place. I used to be not blissful about it.”

“Mentally, it was a little bit unhappy, but it surely made me stronger.”

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, Schelfhout says that despite the fact that he was disillusioned, he felt it essential to prioritize security over competing.

“It’s […] higher to avoid wasting our households and mates from the pandemic. It was only one 12 months and one 12 months would not make you worse or higher. When you are on the highest stage, you possibly can come again the 12 months after.”

Now, he hopes to make his comeback at Tokyo 2020, the place he’ll be competing in 4 occasions, together with the 3km particular person pursuit observe race, the 1km time trial observe race and the time trial and highway race occasions.

After all of it, Schelfhout’s wanting ahead to representing Belgium on the Games. “For me, it is a good feeling, it is a golden feeling as a result of not everyone can say they will do it. I really like my nation and I really like exhibiting the folks of Belgium a nice biking marketing campaign.”

Schelfhout says having the opportunity to represent Belgium at the Tokyo Paralympic Games is "a golden feeling."

The energy of visibility

In retrospect, Schelfhout says psychological fortitude has carried him by means of essentially the most difficult moments of his career.

“Mentally […] I’ve one slogan, and that is ‘It’s not how onerous you hit. It’s about how onerous you will get hit and maintain transferring ahead.'”

“I need to turn out to be stronger,” he says. “It’s not about the way you look, it is about how you are feeling and what you need to obtain and turn out to be.”

The greatest facet of competing as a para athlete? Schelfhout says it is discovering power in group.

“I feel that is the good factor in para sports activities, everyone is mates with one another as a result of they understand how onerous life is.”

Since making his option to the world stage, he has devoted his platform to rising the visibility of burn victims in sport.

“I need to present folks on the earth that as a result of you could have a actually nasty accident, […] that you must nonetheless go on in your life. I need to encourage folks to play sports activities once more, stay once more, like earlier than,” he says.

“I’ve a lot of scars over my physique. Everywhere I’m going, folks have a look at me as a result of a lot of individuals in Belgium do not understand how folks with burn marks look. I need to present them that I do not care.”

“I need to present that I’m Diederick and I battle for my life, however I nonetheless take pleasure in life.”

Schelfhout hopes that by sharing his story, he can inspire others not to give up hope.

‘I’m robust sufficient’

Schelfhout says he would not have been in a position to fulfill his childhood dream of being a world class bike owner had it not been for his shut knit community of family and friends.

“The folks that assist me, the federation, it is actually essential to have good folks round you to realize one thing good and nicely in your life,” he says. “I’m so grateful to have that, it is so necessary.”

“Everybody round me is absolutely pleased with me, however I’m additionally pleased with myself as a result of I’ve proven the world that I’m robust sufficient to turn out to be a bike owner once more. I need to present the world it is doable.”

Competing as a para athlete has given Schelfhout a new sense of respect and gratitude for his physique. “I’ve realized that your physique and thoughts is stronger than you possibly can think about.”

“Before my accident, I at all times needed to win. I’ve the identical feeling. But the massive distinction is when I’ve a prime ten place, I’m additionally blissful. I need to do higher. It’s to not say, ‘OK, I’m blissful.’ No, however I can perceive and stay with it.

“I do not want something greater than my bike, my girlfriend and my canine to be blissful.”

From residing by means of a terrifying accident to present process 72 operations, it is honest to say Schelfhout has been knocked down greater than many in life.

But if there’s something his journey from Belgium to Japan has confirmed, it is that the ability of getting up, fighting again and sustaining self perception — particularly when the percentages are stacked towards you — will at all times trump a spell of unhealthy luck.

“When one thing goes mistaken, that you must battle for it.”

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