Kristina Vogel on crash that left her paralysed: 'I've learned it is OK to cry at how bad it is'

By Tom FordyceChief sports writer
Kristina Vogel
Kristina Vogel won 11 world titles, two Olympic gold medals and three European golds in her cycling career

"The big deal was learning that crying is OK. I never was a person who cried a lot. Especially not winning the Olympic gold medals in 2012 and 2016. I never cried. Never cried.

"A lot of my friends and family had not seen me cry. But it's OK to cry, and to feel how bad it is.

"It is bad. I can't walk any more.

"Sometimes I call my friend and we cry for a few minutes. And then it's fine, and I dry my tears and I go on."

Kristina Vogel was a remarkable woman in her first life, as a superstar track cyclist, and she is turning out to be more remarkable still in her second.

On 26 June this year, during a regulation training session at the Cottbus velodrome in her native Germany, Vogel collided with a Dutch cyclist who was practising his standing starts. She was travelling at close to 40mph.

The impact severed her spinal cord at the seventh thoracic vertebrae. A straightforward, impersonal medical phrase for the most catastrophic of outcomes.

"It was a normal day. We had planned a few things in the afternoon for [fellow cyclist] Max Levy's birthday. I was training with my team-mate Pauline Grabosch. She was in front, and then she passed... and then there's nothing. Just black.

"I woke up on the track, lying. I said to myself: 'Breathe, just breathe…'

"They took off my shoes, and I couldn't feel it when they touched my feet. I saw a team-mate take the shoes away. And in that moment I thought: that's it, I don't feel my feet, I don't feel my legs.

"There was no panic. I just said to Max Levy: 'Hold my hand.' I think I was pressing too hard. 'Max, don't leave me alone. Don't let go of my hand.'

"I was more scared of being alone in that second than I was of not walking any more. I just wanted somebody to stay by my side. Stupid, huh?"

Vogel was always about speed. Eleven times a world champion, twice Olympic gold medallist, the German loved swooping off the steep banking, hammering along in the slipstream of a rival, popping out to overpower them.

When we talk she is tired, her morning spent at a news conference, her afternoon now with me, concentrating hard in her second language. She sits in a wheelchair, and she remembers.

"To be honest, I thought I might die. After the first operation, it was hard to select the right medication for me. The first two days after waking up from the coma, it was the hardest fight in my life I have ever had. Every breath I had so much pain.

"I have no idea how I got through it. There was one night when the cleaning woman came round. Normally when they clean the rooms in the hospital they know that there are people lying there in pain. So she asked me if everything is good.

"I said, 'No, please call the doctor, please call the doctor.' And she cried next to my bed. Just the cleaning assistant from the hospital. That's how hard it was in the first week."

Kristina Vogel
Kristina Vogel won gold and bronze at the Rio Olympics

Vogel is 27 years old. Her partner Michael Seidenbecher, a former track rider himself, has barely left her side for the past two months. Their friends have been active on their behalf, setting up a fundraising campaign with the hashtag 'staystrongkristina'.

"It is the second big accident I have had in my life [she was hit by a minibus in 2009 and placed in a medically induced coma], and it is the second time I've given him so much pain," she says. "It was very hard for Michael, because his life changed in that moment as well.

"I'm so happy that I have him, because without him I wouldn't be the person that I am. In the first week he slept on a chair next to my bed. Holding my hand all night."

She laughs. "It's crazy, isn't it? Maybe it's love, but it's the second time I've put him in this bad, bad situation. I'm so thankful for him.

"It is stupid that you need these life-changing moments for you to realise how many people notice you and what you are doing. I cried when I saw that and I cried when I saw that Chris Hoy gave some jerseys to raise money for me.

"I don't know how I can give it back to all the people, to say thank you. It's impossible to say thank you in the same way that they have helped me."

It's a curiously selfish instinct that, faced with the tragedies of others, we can tend to start thinking of ourselves. How would I cope with this? Would I be able to be this candid, this rational, this strong?

You are an elite athlete. Your body has been your livelihood, your greatest pleasure. In one moment that has gone. How can you hide from the obvious reaction - why me?

"I never think that," Vogel says firmly. "Never. It's a question you can't answer.

"It's shit that it's my accident and I can't walk any more, but asking why helps nothing. I'm really proud that my mum gave me so much strength that I can handle this.

"I knew in the first seconds that I was paralysed, that I would never walk in my life again. It sounds bad, but I liked knowing, because there was no struggling in my head. You can accept it and you can straight away go forward."

Was she not angry? At fate, at the poor guy she collided with, at the alternative future she had been working for so hard?

"I never was that angry person before. I was always happy, I always loved my life.

"I still love my life. So nothing changed, really. Just how I move. I'm going to do a lot of things in my wheelchair. It's different, but it's still my life, so why not be happy?

"Maybe I'll feel it when the World Championships come round in March next year. That will be 10 years after my first elite Worlds, and it was my plan to collect a 12th gold medal. Now I can't, but there is no place in my mind for that right now.

"Maybe there is another way to reach a gold medal in my life. And if not, I reached so many things in my life."

Vogel's fund has so far raised 120,000 euros (£107,000). She is looking forward to getting carbon wheels for her chair, an adapted car. She is looking forward, but all you can think is how much you would be looking back.

"I'm feeling free," she says, with a smile. "Because I don't have to do anything. It is the first time that my decisions in my life are just for me. There is no pressure from outside or from me because I want to show how good I am. I will find my way back, maybe to sport, maybe not.

"I am a world champion since 2012. From competition to competition, everyone just expects that I will win the gold and I will do good. Before the competition, you're asked, how are your tactics, and how is your form? When I enter a track everyone looks to see if I am in a good condition or a bad condition. Then you see how the press is writing about you, and there's a lot of pressure on myself. Every move I make in my life, everyone sees.

"Now it's like I have stepped out of the circle. I can create something really new and really nice. It's hard to explain how it feels, but my decisions are just for myself. I'm really happy, and I want to go forward to see something really great."

When we say goodbye I ask if I can come out to visit in a few months' time, see how she's getting on at home, what she does next. Vogel is a woman in a hurry. She always was.

"My left collarbone was broken, so there were eight weeks when I couldn't have any pressure on it. The doctors said I was faster with one arm than most people using two arms. I'm a freak!

"Maybe it's because I'm still a fighter in my heart. That I still want to go fast. That when the doctors are standing by my bed saying, Kristina, you need time, I'm saying, 'No! No! I will show you how fast I am!'

"The tiger is still in my heart. Once a fighter, always a fighter, huh?"