After a crash left her paralyzed, Kristina Vogel pushes forward

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As one of the most accomplished track cyclists of her generation, two-time Olympic gold medalist Kristina Vogel has spent much of her life under the lights of a velodrome.

But for a few moments on June 26, 2018, things suddenly went dark.

Vogel, then 27, was training for the team sprint on a concrete track in Cottbus, Germany. Another cyclist was standing on the track, but Vogel, traveling full-speed at about 37 miles per hour, didn’t see him, and they collided.

She can’t remember what happened next.

Vogel woke up on the track and saw her teammates running toward her. She asked one of them to hold her hand. Once her track shoes had been removed, Vogel realized she couldn’t feel her legs.

She was airlifted to a hospital in Berlin and placed in a medically-induced coma. When she awoke, Vogel was told she was paralyzed, though she would still have use of her arms and hands. But the news, she said, wasn’t surprising or even alarming. Vogel said she’d known it almost immediately when she opened her eyes on the track. “As fast as you can, [you] push forward,” she said in a recent phone interview. “[That’s] the thing that I did as a cyclist, day by day.”

Vogel, long a dominant sprinter, has one of her sport’s most impressive resumes: she’s a three-time Olympic medalist (two of them gold) and an 11-time world champion across three events: sprint, Keirin, and team sprint. Born in Kyrgyzstan and raised in Germany, she started cycling as a child, inspired by a poster she saw of E.T. riding a bicycle. After trying road cycling, Vogel switched to track, drawn in by its power and speed. At age 14, she moved away from home to attend sports school, and remembers her mother crying as she left.

Vogel’s promising career was threatened in 2009 when she was struck by a bus while pedaling up a mountain road, leaving her in a coma for two days. But giving up the sport she loved never crossed Vogel’s mind during her recovery. Three years later, she won Olympic gold in the team sprint.

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Vogel remembers agonizing pain in the days that followed last year’s accident. When everything hurt, she willed herself to focus on breathing. Beyond the physical ache was the realization that many of the activities she loved were ones she would no longer be able to do. Her day-to-day life, characterized by speed and intensity, suddenly slowed.

Vogel accepted that the next phase of her life would include the use of a wheelchair, but in those first few weeks especially, she said she missed stretching her legs and walking around.

Her partner, Michael Seidenbecher, a former German track cyclist, spent almost a month beside her bed, leaving only for a few minutes at a time.

“The hardest fights I had, I didn’t fight alone,” she said. “He was always sitting by my side. He gave me so much strength.”

She also received an outpouring of support from the cycling community, fans, and others who heard her story. “I was like, I think I have to fight for them,” Vogel said.

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Eight months after the accident, Vogel is keeping busy: she spends three days a week in physical therapy sessions at the hospital, strengthening her core and upper body. She’s channeled her athleticism into new sports, dabbling in archery, bowling, basketball and canoeing, but hasn’t decided if she wants to return to high-level competition. Vogel also said in a recent interview with CNN she is running for city council in Erfurt, her hometown.

She posts frequently on social media about her progress, showing little snippets of her life each time: smiling after lifting herself off the ground and into sitting position, climbing from her wheelchair into bed, and more recently, dancing. “It surprises me that other people come to me and say, ‘oh my gosh, I couldn’t do that,’” Vogel said. “…but that’s me.”

 

Vogel also savors the quiet moments that life as a top athlete didn’t always permit: “The main thing is to have time, just not to be in a rush,” she said. “I can go for coffee and I can sit there for a while, to not have it in the back of my head to go to training.”

She remains active in the cycling community, continuing to serve as a member of the athletes’ commission for the international cycling federation (UCI). She attended her first competition since the accident when the World Cup circuit came to Berlin in late November. “Weeks or months before, I didn’t know if I’d be fit enough to make it,” she said. But with the steely determination and grit that characterized her career as a cyclist, Vogel completed a lap around the velodrome in her wheelchair to an enthusiastic ovation from the crowd. “I had such a warm welcome,” she said.

She’ll be at the World Championships in Poland, which begin Wednesday, in a different role: as a commentator for the UCI. The event will mark the 10th anniversary of Vogel’s first appearance at Worlds, and she had hoped to win her 12th gold medal there.

Vogel admits she still has her lows, or “black moments,” as she calls them. Sometimes it’s when she’s downstairs at home and realizes she needs something on the second floor. Or occasionally, when kindness seems sparse: during a recent trip to the airport, Vogel and Seidenbecher were trying to get up a flight of stairs, needing one more person to help carry Vogel’s wheelchair. A man breezed by without offering to help. But Vogel says these moments don’t come often – once a week, maybe, or sometimes less frequently than that.

More often, Vogel is cheered by notes and messages from the people she’s inspired. Recently, over dinner with her sister, she was recognized by a woman at the restaurant who told Vogel she had cancer, and “…she knows she can deal with it because I’m dealing with my situation,” Vogel said.

“So the thing I say is that I’m not fighting alone.”

 

Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathon champ in 1984, runs London Marathon at 65

Joan Benoit Samuelson
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Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, ran her first 26.2-mile race in three years at Sunday’s London Marathon and won her age group.

Benoit Samuelson, 65, clocked 3 hours, 20 minutes, 20 seconds to top the women’s 65-69 age group by 7 minutes, 52 seconds. She took pleasure in being joined in the race by daughter Abby, who crossed in 2:58:19.

“She may have beaten me with my replacement knee, but everybody said I wouldn’t do it! I will never say never,” Benoit Samuelson said, according to race organizers. “I am a grandmother now to Charlotte, and it’s my goal to run 5K with her.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Benoit Samuelson raced the 1987 Boston Marathon while three months pregnant with Abby. Before that, she won the first Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, plus the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983 and the Chicago Marathon in 1985.

Her personal best — 2:21:21 — still holds up. She ranks sixth in U.S. women’s history.

Benoit Samuelson plans to race the Tokyo Marathon to complete her set of doing all six annual World Marathon Majors. The others are Berlin, Boston, Chicago and New York City.

“I’m happy to finish this race and make it to Tokyo, but I did it today on a wing and a prayer,” she said, according to organizers. “I’m blessed to have longevity in this sport. It doesn’t owe me anything, but I feel I owe my sport.”

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Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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