By Michelle Theall
We’ve all heard about accident or injury leading to the end of an athlete’s career, but 27-year old, Paralympic hand-cyclist, Monique Van der Vost’s story has an ironic twist. While training for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, Van der Vost lost control of her hand-cycle when another bike struck her from behind. After fourteen years in a wheelchair and over a decade spent defining herself as a world-class athlete, Van der Vost regained the ability to walk and subsequently found herself out of the Games. Here is her incredible story.
At thirteen years old, Monique Van der Vorst became paralyzed after a surgical mishap. Within two years, she tried hand-cycling—at first as a way to get around her small Dutch community in the Netherlands, and later, as an obsession. Seven-hour rides turned into dedicated training and led to her quest to compete at an elite level.
Five years later, her tenacity paid off; she won the World Championship and went on to defend her title in 2004 and 2006. But she wanted more. She wanted Olympic gold.
She spent the next year and a half in single-minded pursuit of achieving the top honor at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Yet, just five months before the opening ceremonies, an elderly driver struck Van der Vorst while she was out on a ride and left her severely injured, unable to eat or hold up her head. Instead of giving up, Van der Vorst concentrated on rehab to regain as much function as possible in the short amount of time she had left before her event. She flew to Beijing, secured her neck in a brace, and garnered two silver medals for her country. Had she been completely healthy, she might have come home with the gold. Instead, she would have to wait four more years for another chance. And that opportunity would never come.
In 2010, while training for the 2012 London Paralympic Games, Van der Vorst sustained traumatic injuries in a crash with another bike. Rushed to the hospital, she noticed tingling in her left foot. For reasons no one can explain, the crash stimulated some type of neurological connection and within a few weeks, Van der Vorst could move her leg. From that moment on she rediscovered her body in stages: crawling, standing, and walking again. As exhilarating as it was to regain her mobility, Van der Vorst had to come to grips with the fact that she was no longer an elite athlete. Her entire identity as a Paralympian, and her dreams of competing in the 2012 Games in London, had been instantly derailed. It’s a bittersweet tradeoff, and one that most of us would accept readily. But Van der Vost isn’t like most people. She couldn’t give up her gold medal dreams or the sport that had saved her. She would ride again.
People like to say that something is easy by using the phrase: It’s just like riding a bike. In Van der Vorst’s case nothing could be further from the truth. Though Van der Vorst had the keenly honed mind and upper body of an athlete at the top of her career, her atrophied legs belonged to a person who hadn’t stood for over fourteen years. So when Van der Vorst took her first able-bodied ride at the beginning of 2011, she barely kept the bike and herself upright. It was a wobbly start akin to a child riding without training wheels for the first time and certainly not one resembling Olympic aspirations. But it was just that: a start. A beginning.
Van der Vorst recently told the media, “Sometimes you have to fall and rise to get to where you need to be.” That first trip back on a bike led to a 2,000-mile ride just two months later. Today, Van der Vorst is a member of the Dutch professional Rabobank women’s cycling team with a newly minted goal: to compete in road cycling at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.