Olympic Cyclist Kristina Vogel on the Aftermath of Her Terrible Accident
'I'm Sorry. I Don't Usually Cry'
Olympic cycling medalist Christine Vogel in Berlin
Kristina Vogel, a two-time Olympic sprint champion and 11-time world champion, is one of the most successful track cyclists of all time. On June 26, she collided with a young Dutchman who was practicing a standing start on a concrete track in Cottbus at a speed of 60 kilometers per hour. He wasn't injured in the accident, but Vogel was. She was flown to a Berlin hospital with severe back injuries. For months, only her family and closest friends knew her true condition. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, she has now revealed the devastating consequences of her accident for the first time. It has left her a paraplegic.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Vogel, what do you remember about the day of your accident?
Vogel: It was a day just like any other. The sun was shining. A few things were planned for the day. We wanted to practice, drive go-karts in the afternoon and have a cocktail at a bar in the evening. It was my teammate Max Levy's birthday.
DER SPIEGEL: But things turned out differently. What happened?
Vogel: I was training with my teammate Pauline Grabosch, doing sprints -- she was ahead of me, both of us were in the aerodynamic position. Then she swung out and I went into the lead, and then everything went black, deep black. My next memory was regaining consciousness on the track.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you wake up?
Vogel: I was lying with my head downhill in the middle of the track, in a pretty stable position on my side. My first thought was just: breathe, breathe, just regain your composure. And then: Please, not again! I had already had a serious accident back in 2009.
DER SPIEGEL: What happened next?
Vogel: I saw them all come running toward me. Then I knew it had been a pretty big crash. And then, suddenly, there was this pressure, this really, really big pressure.
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of pressure?
Vogel: As if my whole body was swollen. Everything was too tight for me, especially my racing shoes. 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.
DER SPIEGEL: Weren't you overcome by panic?
Vogel: No, I just thought: You need to stay calm, the doctors are coming, you're about to get help.
DER SPIEGEL: Who was with you at that moment?
Vogel: My teammates Max Dörnbach and Max Levy. He held my hand. And I remember saying to him: Don't leave me here alone. Stay with me. I needed a hand to hold on to while I was trying to understand what was wrong, what was happening to me.
DER SPIEGEL: Were you in pain?
Vogel: It was incredibly difficult to breathe. But I said to myself: Don't cry, be strong, relax. I felt the first real pain when the paramedics pushed a kind of air cushion beneath me to lift me onto the stretcher. And the ride in the ambulance over cobblestones was terrible. It hurt a lot.
DER SPIEGEL: What happened then?
Vogel: I begged to be sedated. And then things got fuzzy. I know that I was taken to the hospital in Cottbus, that my partner Michael (the former track cyclist Michael Seidenbecher) was there. I apparently told him: I'm quitting this sport, I've had enough. The next image I have in my head is that of being pushed into an ADAC (Germany's automobile club) helicopter and thinking to myself: Thank God I'm an ADAC Plus member, I won't have to pay for this. The thoughts you have! Sometimes people are just dumb, aren't they?
DER SPIEGEL: You were then flown to the Berlin Trauma Center.
Vogel: I only remember two or three things about it. I can remember being in the helicopter, being pushed down a hall in a stretcher and then I can only remember things that happened after I was brought out of an artificial coma, two days after the first operation.
DER SPIEGEL: What was it like waking up?
Vogel: I was in extreme pain. My mom and Michael were there. He wasn't even allowed to hold my hand or stroke me. I can't even describe it. I was completely overwhelmed by the pain. They then told me pretty quickly that I was paralyzed. But I already knew that.
DER SPIEGEL: Who gave you the news?
Vogel: I had my eyes closed for the first few weeks. I only recognized voices. I think it was the chief physician himself. But I no longer remember how and exactly what he said.
DER SPIEGEL: Even if you already had an idea of the seriousness of your injury, how difficult was it to hear it from the doctor?
Vogel: It was good that I had already come to the realization 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? I always think that the sooner you accept a new situation, the better you can deal with it. That's why I tell myself: Okay, this is how it's going to be now, and I need to see how I can move on, what I can make of this.
DER SPIEGEL: Where exactly have you lost feeling?
Vogel: My spinal cord is severed at the seventh thoracic vertebra -- i.e., approximately from the chest down. The border between feeling and numbness is gradual. It runs a little way further down on the left side than on the right.
DER SPIEGEL: What does it feel like when you touch your legs?
Vogel: I can feel my skin, but there is no feedback. My legs don't feel the touch. It's hard to describe.
DER SPIEGEL: "Why me?" How heavy does this question weigh when something like this happens to you?
Vogel: There are some questions that don't do anything to help you move on -- not emotionally, not in your mind and not in the situation. To me, "Why me?" is one of those questions. It is what it is.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you religious?
Vogel: I was baptized and given communion, but am not a believer. But my mom is religious. She once said that God only gives you as many tasks as you can accomplish. Going by that, the Lord in heaven had a plan for me.
DER SPIEGEL: What are the biggest challenges you have had to overcome since the accident?
Vogel: I had to fight harder than I have ever fought before during the first two weeks. For survival. I then had a second operation and a violent case of pneumonia and repeatedly had to be put into an artificial coma for a few days at a time. I was in pain -- and there are no words to describe it. The doctors had a lot of trouble getting me adjusted to painkillers. My body absorbed the drugs like a sponge. But they also couldn't give me too many because it would have paralyzed my lungs. At times, I really thought I was going to die. But I said to myself: You can't give up now. You have to carry on (she begins crying and wipes the tears away with her thumbs). I'm sorry. I don't usually cry.
DER SPIEGEL: You just mentioned a second operation.
Vogel: That one, too, was about stabilizing my spine. They had to go in here on the right side, past the ribs. And now I've got some metal in there, so I'll beep at the airport for sure.
DER SPIEGEL: When was the first moment you thought things were starting to look up again?
Vogel: My first big highlight was a bowl of blueberries when I was allowed to eat on my own again for the first time. My sister laid the bowl on my stomach, and then I ate them one by one with relish. Those were the tastiest blueberries I have ever had. The next highlight was after the second operation, when the physiotherapists put me on the edge of the bed for the first time and Michael could take me in his arms.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you feel at that moment as if you were slowly regaining control of your life?
Vogel: Actually, it was quite the opposite. That's when I first realized just how paralyzed I was. I had no strength whatsoever and I sat there like a little baby with my head wobbling back and forth. My upper cervical vertebra was broken, so I was completely unstable in the neck area.
DER SPIEGEL: What were the next steps forward?
Vogel: That I could hold myself up in bed while twisting and turning. Brushing my own teeth. Washing my upper body. And then, of course, after clavicle surgery, that I was moved to a normal ward after three weeks. Away from the big equipment, the constant monitoring.
DER SPIEGEL: When was the first time you sat in a wheelchair?
Vogel: On July 19, three weeks after the accident, buckled up with a belt so that I wouldn't tip over. It was pretty quick, but I just want to move on. Sometimes, I lie in bed and train secretly with a Theraband (she laughs).
DER SPIEGEL: You can't be serious.
Vogel: Yes! I'm not building any muscles or anything, but at least I'm doing something. Just lying there waiting for someone to turn you from left to right every couple of hours, I can't stand it. I always tell everyone: I have to go, I have appointments, I have to go (she laughs again).
DER SPIEGEL: Patience doesn't seem to be your strong suit.
Vogel: The doctors here found that out very quickly. And they are amazed at how quickly some things go with me.
DER SPIEGEL: You seem so positive. How real is it?
Vogel: I have always been convinced that positive thinking influences the body. I just try to do things. To see what works and what doesn't. How does the saying go? Doing is like wanting, only more extreme. But, of course, there are also times when I have five minutes where it can be incredibly hard and I'm just devastated. But then I say to myself: Don't cry. Usually, I call a friend when that happens.
DER SPIEGEL: After your accident, your teammates even started a fundraising campaign -- #staystrongkristina, and they raised 120,000 euros for you. What does that mean to you?
Vogel: It means a whole lot. Although I was a little worried when I first heard about it. I thought: Oh great, now they're making such a fuss with your name, and in the end they'll only raise 500 euros. It's like inviting people to a big party, and then nobody comes. It's embarrassing. But when I began to understand what was happening out there, it was incredible. To realize how important you are to people, how much sympathy they feel for you (she wipes away her tears again). It's too bad you have to have an accident like this to realize it.
DER SPIEGEL: Your teammates Max Levy and Max Dörnbach, who were with you right after your accident, started the campaign.
Vogel: They experienced everything first hand. I think it helped them to deal with what happened to not feel powerless. I could also use the money to buy a custom car and a cool wheelchair with carbon rims (she laughs).
DER SPIEGEL: A gag order was imposed after your accident, preventing any reporting on your condition. Nobody knew how you were really doing. Why was that done?
Vogel: So that I could heal a bit on my own. I didn't want anyone to see me so injured. Now, I'm at the point where I can say: Here I am, and I'm doing well. I'm still here and I'm still the same crazy girl. I want to be motivational for others. No matter what fate has in store for you, life goes on -- in my case on four wheels rather than two. My arms are also my feet now.
DER SPIEGEL: How are your family and friends dealing with your paralysis?
Vogel: I have a very strong family that provides me with a lot of support. And Michael is my Rock of Gibraltar. During the first nights in intensive care, he slept on a chair next to me, the crazy dog. I don't know where he finds the strength. This is the second time he's had to go through all this.
DER SPIEGEL: You had another serious accident in 2009. What happened then?
Vogel: I was on my bike on my way home, and someone ignored my right of way. I was unable to swerve away and I flew into the side window. I lost five teeth, and since then I've had false teeth and these scars on my face. I actually should have been left paraplegic at the time, because my fifth thoracic vertebra was broken. But my strong back muscles protected me. Compared to now, it was all relatively minor.
DER SPIEGEL: How quickly were you back on your bike after that accident?
Vogel: I spent four weeks in the hospital and three months in rehab. Then, in March 2010, I rode my best performance in a world championship to date. At the time, I didn't want the person who ignored my right of way to determine my fate. So, there was only one thing for me to do: Get back on my bike, full speed ahead. When I woke up from the coma, I immediately asked about my bicycle.
A 2012 archive photo of Kristina Vogel
DER SPIEGEL: Have you seen the bike that you had your recent accident on?
Vogel: No, but I would like to so that I can better understand how bad the collision was. In the first x-rays, my spine looks like a folding IKEA table. I'm very lucky to still be alive and to have fully functioning arms. I could have been left paralyzed from the neck down.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you already have anything along the lines of plans for the future?
Vogel: 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. My employer, the Federal Police, has been highly supportive and has shown me various employment options that would still be possible with my paralysis. Patrols with a gun are no longer possible. I'm just glad I'm a civil servant for life.
DER SPIEGEL: In terms of your care, the question will arise as to who is to blame for your accident.
Vogel: I don't know who was standing where, when or how. So, I can't really blame anyone. But, of course, that will be looked into. What I do know is that there have been thousands of close calls on the the track. At one world championship race, someone pushed the starting gate, a large metal contraption, onto the full track during warmups. I was going 70 km/h and I just thought: Okay, where to now? It was a very close call. In Colombia, René Enders left the turn at 80 km/h, and someone was standing there with a broom. If there had been a collision, he would have been killed! These things happen, but they shouldn't happen. Maybe that's my calling in life. To make sure that something like what happened to me never happens again. So, in that sense, perhaps I already do have a small plan.
DER SPIEGEL: After a close call like that, are you a bit afraid the next time you get on your bike?
Vogel: 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.
DER SPIEGEL: How did you get into cycling?
Vogel: I saw a poster for a cycling club posted at my elementary school. Then I signed up with two friends, did the first laps on the track. I liked the duels, and I wanted to be the fastest even then.
DER SPIEGEL: There are also Paralympic sports -- is that an option for you?
Vogel: I don't know if I ever want to get back into competitive sports and, if so, in what discipline. It's not a question that I'm asking myself at the moment. If I don't yet know what I am actually able to do, how can I know what I am going to have a passion for? 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.
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DER SPIEGEL: Do you know yet when you'll be able to leave the hospital?
Vogel: My ambitious goal is to be home again by the end of the year.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that depend on?
Vogel: I have to be able to take care of myself on my own again -- to be able to get dressed on my own or to get in or out of the wheelchair on my own, for example. Our house also has to be remodeled for accessibility -- the bathroom, the kitchen and a solution has to be put in for the stairs. 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.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Vogel, we thank you for this interview.