The Belgian cyclist signed his professional contract several months earlier, making his ambition to become a professional racer a reality.
It was a goal he had nurtured since he was eight, having grown up listening to the stories of his father, who had also raced professionally.
But after Schelfhout crashed into a car and then slipped into a parked car, his tank shattered – as did the vehicle’s. He was caught between two explosions and said it took firefighters 14 attempts to put out the blaze.
Schelfhout suffered multiple injuries and 80% of his body was burned, including his lungs.
“I had broken bones, my arm was in pieces, my leg, my hands. It was terrible,” he says.
He spent nearly three months in such a severe coma that his body was going to be knocked down, but as he says, “My heart was strong”.
When Schelfhout finally woke up, he discovered that the left side of his body had been paralyzed by the accident,
When doctors raised a mirror in front of his face, he was able to see the physical scars he had endured. “I take a mirror and they say, ‘Look, this is what you look like now and this is how you are going to live.'”
As he recalls, his reaction to his new face was “the first nervous breakdown”.
“I didn’t think about cycling the first few weeks. I just needed to get stronger,” he says. “I was really learning, walking again, writing and speaking.”
His friends and family provided him with invaluable moral support, something he still cherishes 13 years later.
“For my parents, it was a really tough time,” he says, “I’m lucky because my parents support me so strong and so well in everything I do.”
“I have a lot of friends who support me […] I can say that I am a lucky guy. With friends like that and family. “
Fight to stay in the race
Medical experts eventually told Schelfhout that he had to put aside his dream of riding a bicycle, due to the extensive nerve damage to his left leg and hip.
He says he decided to try cycling the same day to see what his body might be capable of. “The first 20 meters were the most terrible meters of my life. Everything hurt, and it was like a six year old trying to ride a bike.”
“The doctors also told me that a full recovery was not possible.
“I had a girlfriend. She didn’t like the bike […] and she said, ‘You have to stop everything.’ I told him ‘No, I want to finish what I started, and I stop cycling when I want to, not when someone tells me I have to stop.’ ”
In the months between his coma and rehab, Schelfhout persisted, using a handcycle to improve his superior mobility. After two weeks, he says he had a glimmer of hope when he observed a “strange feeling” in his biceps. Fifteen days later, he had a muscle contraction.
Barely a year after his accident, Schelfhout was cycling to and from the hospital.
“I was going straight to the doctor’s room and I said, ‘Look, I’m back on the bike and I’m going to get stronger and stronger and I’m going to race again. I don’t know when, but J I have the feeling that it is possible, ”he says.
“He told me it’s my mind that’s so strong. If I want anything, I’ll do anything for it.”
A bump in the road
In 2011, Schelfhout’s luck changed when he read a magazine article about Kris Bosmans, a Belgian paracyclist who had started competing after suffering a stroke. Inspired by his story, he decided to reach out to Bosmans.
“At that time, I didn’t think about para-cycling because in Belgium, it is not such a famous sport”, explains Schelfhout.
However, after hearing more about Bosmans’ story, he began to see para-cycling as a path to competition.
Determined to race again, he contacted the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) – the sport’s governing body – and, in order to prepare physically for the competition, he lost over 88 pounds (40 kg) in three months. .
His last year of racing was in 2007, so Schelfhout says he was excited about his first para-cycling event in 2012 in Rome. “It was nice to be back on the bike for the competition.”
However, the race did not quite go as planned.
Paralympic athletes who use a standard bicycle compete in five sport categories – C1-5 – with lower numbers representing a more acute limitation of the lower and / or upper limbs.
Schelfhout, who had been placed in the C4 category before the race, says he was told before the competition that he should have entered the C3 category.
During his early years of competition as a para-cyclist, Schelfhout said the most difficult aspect of training and competing was having to reconcile the idea that your body would never be as strong as it used to be. ‘accident.
“The first year in para-cycling was a terrible year because I always compare how I was before and after the accident.”
“For me, the main problem is the nervous problem I have in the left side of my body. My left leg only has a quarter of the power compared to the right side and my arm has a seventh of the power.
“My back on the left side is partially paralyzed. I have less power to accelerate.
“There are athletes who have never run before their accident, and they don’t know the possibilities of their bodies. I know what I could do before and I wanted to do the same.”
In pursuit of a Paralympic dream
Since then, Schelfhout has been able to regain his self-confidence by focusing on the mental and physical advantage he could have over his peers. For example, he says that the right side of his body is stronger than that of able-bodied athletes.
“When I’m competing there’s like a button in my head, and certainly in big races, that tells me to go out there, fly and see what you can get.”
In 2016, Schelfhout suffered another setback when he suffered a fall, breaking his collarbone and hip.
He then found himself excluded from the first Belgian selection for the Paralympic Games in Rio. “After a few weeks I was back on the bike but was not in good condition to race.”
After four years of working towards a Paralympic dream, he decided to take a break. But two weeks before the Rio Games, he received a phone call from the federation, telling him that a place had opened for his selection.
“I wasn’t in good shape for the Games,” he says. “Normally on the track if I’m at the start I always run for the podium. Now I had to take tenth or eighth place. In Rio I made tenth place. I was not happy.”
“Mentally it was a little sad, but it made me stronger.”
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020, Schelfhout said that although he was disappointed, he felt it necessary to prioritize safety over competition.
“His […] best to save our families and friends from the pandemic. It was just a year and a year doesn’t make you any better or worse. When you are at the highest level, you can come back the year after. “
Now he hopes to return to Tokyo 2020, where he will compete in four events, including the 3km individual track pursuit, the 1km track time trial, and the time trial and racing events. on the road.
After all, Schelfhout is eager to represent Belgium at the Games. “For me it’s a nice feeling, it’s a golden feeling because not everyone can say they can do it. I love my country and I love showing the Belgian people a great campaign. cyclist.”
The power of visibility
In retrospect, Schelfhout says mental toughness has brought him through the most difficult times of his career.
“Mentally […] I have a tagline, and it’s “It’s not how hard you hit”. It’s about how hard you can be touched and keep moving forward. ‘”
“I want to get stronger,” he says. “It’s not about how you look, it’s about how you feel and what you want to accomplish and become.”
The best part of competing as a para-athlete? Schelfhout says he finds strength in the community.
“I think it’s the right thing in parasport, everyone is friends because they know how hard life is.”
Since making his way onto the world stage, he has dedicated his platform to increasing the visibility of serious burns in sport.
“I want to show people around the world that because you have a really nasty accident, […] you have to continue in your life. I want to motivate people to do sport again, to relive, like before, “he says.
“I have a lot of scars on my body. Everywhere I go people look at me because a lot of people in Belgium don’t know what burns people look like. I want to show them that I don’t care.”
“I want to show that I am Diederick and that I am fighting for my life, but I still love life.”
“I am strong enough”
Schelfhout says he couldn’t have fulfilled his childhood dream of being a world-class cyclist without his network of friends and family.
“The people who support me, the federation, it is really necessary to have good people around you to achieve something good and good in your life,” he says. “I’m so grateful to have this, it’s so important.”
“Everyone around me is really proud of me, but I’m also proud of myself because I have shown the world that I am strong enough to be a cyclist again. I want to show the world that it is possible.”
Competing as a para-athlete gave Schelfhout a new sense of respect and gratitude for his body. “I have learned that your body and mind are stronger than you can imagine.”
“Before my accident, I always wanted to win. I have the same feeling. But the big difference is that when I have a place in the top 10, I am also happy. I want to do better. am happy. ‘ No, but I can understand and live with it.
“I don’t need anything more than my bike, my girlfriend and my dogs to be happy.”
From experiencing a terrifying accident to undergoing 72 operations, it’s fair to say that Schelfhout has been bowled over more than many in life.
But if there’s anything her trip from Belgium to Japan proved, it’s the power to stand up, defend yourself, and maintain self-confidence – especially when the odds are stacked against you – the will always outweigh a spell of bad luck.
“When something is wrong, you have to fight for it.”
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