Monique van der Vorst’s competitive spirit thrived even after she lost the use of her legs as a teenager. She won two silver medals at the Beijing Paralympics and hoped to win gold in London in 2012.
Those dreams are gone now, because another was fulfilled: She began regaining feeling in her legs over the summer and now she can walk again.
Van der Vorst savors every step through the snow. Every climb up the stairs. The ability to look somebody in the eye standing up.
The Dutch 26-year-old says she doesn’t need Christmas this year: “Every day was special.”
However, her gift also means that more than a decade after reinventing her life, she has to reinvent it again. At the London Paralympic Games, she had hoped to win gold in both handcycling and wheelchair racing. Now that she can walk, she’s ineligible.
Competing “was such a passion,” she said from her apartment, filled with Paralympic medals and mementos, weight machines and her idle handbike and wheelchair.
“It’s difficult because I need to find a new purpose in life,” she said.
Those who knew her as a competitor understand her mixed feelings.
“It is not easy for her because she must say farewell to the Paralympics, but in this we support her so she can make the transition,” said Andre Cats, head of the Dutch Paralympic Mission.
Van der Vorst was a 13-year-old field hockey standout, but kept on twisting her ankle. She says an operation to correct the problem went wrong and afterward, “my leg swelled up, went purple and cold, filled with liquid that stayed there.”
She said she couldn’t move her leg, even after the liquid subsided and doctors still aren’t fully sure what caused the leg to go limp. The following year, she lost most movement in her right leg, too.
“It affected my muscles and nerves and everything in the leg,” she said. “When I got it, people didn’t really understand it.”
“With my family we tried everything possible, but my leg was paralyzed. So at one point, there is no longer any use” to look for medical explanations. So she never got the exact medical details.
The handcycle, a three-wheeler powered by the arms, helped her rediscover the joy of competition. Van der Vorst competed in her first handcycle race in 2000, at age 15.
“It gave me self-esteem. I learned how to think in possibilities, not limitations,” she said.
She turned out to be so good, there almost were no limits.
“I really missed running, but there were so many things that made up for that. I was independent. I could drive, I could fly. I had a good life,” she said.
Paralympic and international sporting federations certified her paralysis and allowed her to compete in the HC C class for athletes with complete or partial lower limb function loss.
Boards of two or three people, including at least one person with a medical background, conduct such certifications and athletes may be examined several times in the course of their careers, said Robert Balk, head of the Athletes’ Council for the Paralympic Movement.
Van der Vorst can still feel the thrill of the 2008 Paralympic Games, when she missed gold in the 40km handcycling road race by just 0.13 seconds and won a second silver in the time trial.
She medaled in a neck brace. Months earlier while training on her handcycle in Florida, she was hit by a car and suffered spinal cord damage.