Coming back from a life-changing injury: Kristina Vogel's next chapter

The Olympic sprint champion refuses to look back in anger after a life-changing crash that left her paralysed from the waist down. Charting her journey from child of a Krzygistan immigrant to decorated athlete, German national sporting idol and commentator

It is astonishing how many memories Kristina has of the day she hit the ground. She remembers it was a beautiful spring day. She remembers how she got on her road bike to ride home after training. How she got out of the saddle for a second and shook her legs. Right, left. She remembers how she took it easy with her three training mates on the long downhill road, where you can easily hit 70 kilometres an hour. How she said goodbye to the others, who all turned off earlier.

But she doesn’t remember how the tyres lost contact with the ground and whether she was still able to brake when the van cut across her. She doesn’t even know it was a van. Her head smashed into its side window so hard it split the skin on her cheeks, her nose and under her eyes. Her jaw was broken in two places, her thoracic vertebrae in one, her wrist too, and she lost five teeth. She also doesn’t know that a passer-by admonished the other first responders to not turn the unconscious cyclist onto her back under any circumstances, or else the spinal cord could be damaged. She only knows all this from stories. 

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Or how the surgeons in the hospital operated on her for six hours. She only remembers that a beeping sound drove her crazy, and she just wanted someone to turn it off. It was the life-support machines beeping in the ICU. The scratching in her throat bothered her beyond belief. It was the tube that intubated her lungs and kept her from choking while she was in a coma. 

That wasn’t even the worst moment in the life of the exceptionally talented Kristina Vogel. It was just her first serious accident.

In the worst moment of her life, Kristina wasn’t unconscious. She was only knocked out briefly when, on June 26, 2018, nine years after the first accident, she wondered why she was lying crooked on the cold concrete of the Cottbus cycling track, with her head facing down towards the track centre. Why everyone was running to her so frantically. She realised at some point that the emergency doctor had arrived. That the Indian team’s trainer was holding the IV drip. And all she wanted was to be sedated. But the coma didn’t come until she was in hospital. In the first moments after the accident, she was wide awake, and it was loud. Just as it had been on the previous days on the Cottbus track, crowded and bustling as riders and teams from Kazakhstan to Colombia prepared for the races, a necessary step towards the UCI qualification events for the Tokyo Olympics.

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She had decided to do an extra lap after finishing a training session and hit a Dutch cyclist, practising a standing start, at around 35mph. He was not seriously injured. “For me, it was immediately clear, especially with the experience of my almost-fatal first fall, that this one was really serious,” says Kristina. “I didn’t feel any pain, but I told myself at that moment: ‘You have to stay awake.’” What she felt was an incredible pressure throughout her body. She felt an urgent need for someone to take off her cycling shoes. “I saw someone walking away with the shoes, and I just hadn’t realised that they must have pulled on my legs before.” Kristina smiles as she continues: “At that moment I realised there’d be no more walking.” 

After arriving by helicopter at the special clinic in Berlin, her fight for survival would last several weeks. 

This is the story of Kristina Vogel, Germany’s best-ever cyclist and one of the most successful track racers in history: a two-time Olympic, five-time European and 17-time world champion. It’s the story of a woman who went from being a well-known athlete to a national celebrity — in a way no one wants. Someone who, more than three years after her last day on a road bike, can be seen making appearances alongside Germany’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel, appearing on television as a commentator, reporter and pundit, and often as a talk show guest. Even people who’ve never seen a team sprint know her. She’s probably Germany’s most renowned ex-sportswoman since Steffi Graf. Because she was so incredibly good on a bike. And because her story is all about a meteoric rise and a cruel fall. That always draws. To this day, Kristina makes headlines on the front pages of major newspapers.

“Some things just matter to me, and I had a big mouth even during my active days,” she says. “I speak my mind. For example, if someone doesn’t get vaccinated against Covid, I have a real problem with that. First, I know how incredibly lousy it is to be artificially ventilated, how it feels to have your breath pulled out of your lungs. Second, I’m a high-risk patient, I’m a high-up paraplegic [who is paralysed from the chest down]. That means my paralysis is from the seventh thoracic vertebra, TH7. I’m pretty mobile for that — which was a lot of work, too — but my lungs wouldn’t handle a disease like Covid on their own.”

It’s early summer 2021 and we are meeting at the Andreasried velodrome. It was Kristina’s suggestion. She has done thousands and thousands of laps here and is still doing them, just slightly slower in her wheelchair, when she meets journalists or her manager, who has his offices here. Kristina is still a regular at the track where she knows everyone, greets everyone. She basically makes no effort to avoid the places where she enjoyed her earlier successes. Later in the year, she tells me: “I’ve been back to the track where the accident happened, of course. Doesn’t feel great, but I just went into coach mode there. It’s not hard for me. I’m not a particularly emotional person.”

Related: Fabio Jakobsen, a story of strength, bravery and courage

Her partner, Michael Seidenbecher, was a successful track cyclist himself, a multiple European champion who crashed badly at the World Cup in Cali in 2010, never regained his old form and ended his career shortly after. When he rides at weekends, is it hard or painful? “No, not at all. Then I escort him in the car or cycle along on my handbike.”

The Andreasried velodrome is located on the outskirts of Erfurt, located in the middle of Germany, pretty much halfway between Munich and Berlin. It’s a picture-perfect German city. The restaurants are famous for their sausages and dumplings, the centre is full of quaint alleys, half-timbered houses, small bridges, cosy waterfront terraces and cafes with Fairtrade products. There is relatively little unemployment but a great many votes for radical right-wing parties. The track is on the outskirts of the city, where the grey of the horizon mixes with the beige of renovated apartment-block facades to create a typical German suburban melange. Everything is orderly and well-kept, with new bike paths and a few green areas. In the middle of it all: Turbine Erfurt’s home track, with its elegantly curved roof.

When we asked the taxi driver at the train station if he knew where it was, he looked at us as if we hadn’t heard about German reunification. Then he told us how he had watched races there as a child. The spectators, the atmosphere, the aroma: other race tracks simply can’t compare. Not least because the city’s sewage plant used to be right next door, and if the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, the stench would waft across the oval while the riders hurtled round. It’s not entirely clear how much of the narrative is taxi driver prose, and what is true. But what does become clear is that Erfurt is a city where cycling still means a lot and isn’t just one sport among many. Cycling races are part of the city’s self-image. It was here that cycling took hold of a young Kristina Vogel around 20 years ago — and has not let go since. 

“Cycling totally changed my life,” she says. “After the accident, I’m still benefiting from that. All the effort you have to put in to stay at the top — 40 or more hours of training a week. I understood that early on: commitment, performance and returns are always connected in life. That went extremely well with what my mother always told me: ‘Do something and you’ll get something!’ That’s my rule to this day, no matter what situation I’m in in life. That’s how you become an Olympic champion, and that’s also how you can develop an attitude towards life after such an accident.”

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Her comeback is inspiring, but only part of Kristina Vogel’s story, which has always been one of rising up. For her to become the best track cyclist of all time in the first place is nothing short of a miracle. She didn’t even own a bike as a child. She only got one when she was 10 after flipping a coin when she couldn’t decide whether to go to the cycling club or the dance club. Her mother bought her a mountain bike at a DIY store, a gift that still holds a huge place in Kristina’s heart. Because it was by no means a given. 

Vogel’s mother was born in Kyrgyzstan and she spent the first months of her life there, too. Her father cheated on her mother, so she left him and the country for Germany. Kristina’s first years were spent in a “reception camp", as refugee camps were known for many years in Germany. At that time, in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of so-called “ethnic Germans” came to the country from the Soviet Union. Before and during the Second World War, Stalin had resettled Russians of German origin from all parts of the country to Central Asia. After perestroika, most of them took the opportunity to “return” — even if one or two generations later, many of them no longer spoke German. They were not welcomed with open arms. In the Soviet Union they had been seen as German; in Germany, they were deemed Russian.

In 1991, Kristina’s family moved into a flat near Erfurt that was so small she and her three younger sisters slept in a homemade triple bunk bed. The Vogel family had to fight for their place in society and had as much to do with cycling as the Bolts had to do with figure skating in Jamaica. “Pocket money didn’t exist in our house, and yes, I thought a lot about what I’d buy if I had money like the other kids in class,” says Kristina. This desire to fight her way up, to receive nothing as a gift, to work for everything herself, is deeply anchored in Kristina’s mindset. It is what drives her. “I still call myself privileged. I’m free, I can do whatever I want, and still have a lot of opportunities. I think that if you’re one of the privileged people, can reach others and have a standing as well, it’s your job not to complain, but to do your bit to make the world a better place.”

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In the winter of 2018, when Kristina Vogel’s own journey back to her new normal began, at first she did what she’s good at: worked, fought and trained harder, with the goal of once again being faster than the others. That had worked once before, when in 2009, just eight months after her first crash, she won her first World Cup and pulverised all national records shortly afterwards. She claimed her first world championship two years later and rose to become the exceptional racer for which she is admired to this day. A near-death experience had turbo-charged her career. 

Even after her second crash and the paraplegia diagnosis, she made surprisingly fast progress. After six months, she had reached a level doctors hadn’t expected her to be at for 12 months, given the severity of her injuries. But when she went home and sat in her newly-built house while her husband went to work, a great emptiness loomed. “I now understand why so many athletes fall into a hole after their careers end. I’d been doing competitive sports for 18 years, since I was a kid. In those days, someone always made you a plan: training, competitions, travel. Then came the accident – and the absurd thing was that it went on in exactly the same way. Someone was again making plans for me, although this time they were rehab plans. When I was released from hospital in January 2019 and arrived home, suddenly it didn't matter whether I got up at eight, nine or 11 o’clock. It was a really disconcerting moment for me.”   

While other top athletes consider how they can make the most of their fame post-retirement, Kristina’s mind was thinking about how to deal with spastic twitching in her legs and an artificial bowel outlet. 

Her manager enforced a news blackout, as rigorous as it was successful, for the first few months after the accident to protect her and give her time. And she made a decision: she didn’t want to be a victim, or an accident victim. She chose to be a public figure again.

Every time Kristina rolls down to the Andreasried cycling track, she sees a light at the end of the tunnel. “I can get down alone,” she says. She rolls down into the steep, narrow, freshly-painted tunnel that leads riders to the track centre. She sets off for a wheelie, rolling gracefully down. “Push me up the other side, please. There’s too much of a slope,” she asks. Shortly after, she rolls across the track finish line. She's comfortable out here, more so than sitting at a conference room table during an interview.  

What kind of surface was it back then in Cottbus?

“Concrete. Just like here on the track. Really fast, really hard.” 

How long did it take you to accept your new life? 

“Want an honest answer? Not one day. It’s just the way it is. Once I got out of the ICU and internalised the diagnosis, hour zero started for me. I thought to myself: ‘Now just see what you can make of it.’” 

What’s the question you're tired of hearing? 

“Why don’t you want to compete at the Paralympics? That’s by far the most annoying question I get asked all the time. Because it’s so obvious. And doesn’t in any way take account of what I’m doing today. I work as a coach, I commute between Berlin and Erfurt, I’m currently doing my coaching licence at the country’s most important sports university in Cologne — I don’t want to say goodbye to top track cycling at all. This is my world, my home.”

You published an autobiography this year. When you spent months revisiting your entire life, your career, the goals and dreams that ultimately can no longer be fulfilled, wasn’t that stressful?

“Not at all. For me, it was like cleaning out my head. I’m clearer than I've been in a long time.” 

Do you have a clear goal today?

“I’m enjoying trying out a lot of things right now. I don't even know if I need a clear goal at all. While training to be a police officer, I heard a phrase I think about a lot. It’s actually a military phrase about how you deal with unpredictable situations you can’t prepare for: they call that ‘living in the situation’. I find that quite appropriate for me right now. I want to make this work, to live my life in my situation."

How much do you miss the feeling of cycling on the track?

“To be honest, track cycling is a bit like riding a rollercoaster. It’s great, it’s fun when you come out of the corners. But miss is too big a word.”

What happened to the bike you crashed?

“I picked it up a few months ago. It had been in a police evidence room for almost two years. After all, it was evidence in an accident.”

And how did it feel, collecting it?

"It was perfectly okay. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t get into the building with my wheelchair because, like so much else of the world, it wasn’t step-free. But the moment itself didn’t emotionally affect me in a bad way. Sure, the bike looks brutal, like a folding bike. You can immediately see the forces that must have been at work. I first thought I might hang it on the wall at home, but Michael, my partner, didn’t think that was at all funny. That’s when I understood that my story doesn’t just belong to me alone, but that those close to me also suffered incredibly while my life was on the line. The bike is now going to the UCI in Lausanne.” 

It is autumn 2021. We are at Tegernsee, just outside Munich. An idyllic lake in Bavaria’s Alpine upland, surrounded by golden-brown deciduous forests, mountains and farmhouses that look rustic from the outside, but have been converted into magnificent villas belonging to, in many cases, Bayern Munich footballers. By the water, we see the signs for Entrepreneurs’ Day, an exclusive conference with lectures and panel discussions where former European prime ministers meet philosophers and hectic start-up entrepreneurs. Kristina is here to tell her story. She’s the final speaker of the day.

She rolls onto the stage and starts off by saying: “It’s great to be standing in front of you today.” She’s poised, charming, funny, winning. She has her audience gripped after a few sentences. Some enthusiastically interrupt her talk with questions. A former CEO of a DAX-listed company raises his hand like a primary school pupil. After the presentation, the audience gives a standing ovation. Kristina thanks them, is approached by some on the way to the taxi and is then off to catch her plane. “Tomorrow I’ve got lessons at the university for my coaching licence,” she says. 

At such appearances, Kristina Vogel tells her story with an often bewildering detachment. She has worked out phrases that always hit home, that are part of her standard repertoire — for example, “Machen ist wie Wollen — nur krasser.” Doing is like wanting only more blatant. Mostly strong statements, sometimes bordering on poetry album slogans, but the impression remains of a person who knows very well what image she wants to convey of herself to the outside world. It is certainly not the image of a young person who has surrendered to her fate. 

Most stories about Kristina Vogel are about how amazing it is that this little woman — only 1.6 metres tall — has fought her way back into everyday life so quickly after such an accident. And of course, it is amazing. An outsider can only guess how long the journey must have been for her — from the moment she was lying on the track in Cottbus to her current status as a self-confident sports personality and businesswoman with a packed schedule of coaching jobs, keynote speeches, moderations, TV appearances and other jobs. She’s on the road non-stop.

When Kristina Vogel comes to an appointment, she usually rolls up in her converted Skoda estate car. The sticker on the rear reads: “We Love Cycling”. She parks and turns off the engine. Then it takes her a few minutes to hoist the wheelchair — which she christened “The Beast” — over the driver’s seat to the outside, attach the backrest and pull herself onto the seat. This is the new daily routine of an ex-speed junkie for whom everything in life had been too slow. Getting out of the car now takes about four minutes.

“Track cycling is never just about absolute speed,” Kristina says just before we say goodbye. “When everyone is chasing you, you only win if you have the right tactics. And stay cool.”

Related: Issue 103, Speed

During the track cycling events in the second week of the Tokyo Olympics, the commentator on the women’s team pursuit observes just after the start of the preliminary heat that the German foursome has made a tactical change and start at a ferocious pace. Their lead rider drops off after a kilometre. Yet at the end of the heat, there is a new world record for Brauße, Brennauer, Klein and Kröger. Not by a few hundredths but by almost three seconds. In the final against Great Britain, it’s the same picture.

She doubts whether the riders will be able to keep up the pace. When the German quartet crosses the finish line — again in a world record time — her voice goes wild. She yells into the microphone and you can hear the tears of joy as she speaks. It’s one of those Olympic moments where spectators are spellbound in front of the screen, but it’s only through the commentator’s empathy that you’re so moved you want to cry with her. It is Kristina Vogel commentating on a cycling race for the first time in front of an audience of millions. Live from Tokyo.   

“I was at the Olympics,” she says. “I made it. A little bit different than originally planned. But I was there.”

This is an article from Rouleur Issue 109, available to purchase here