“I still have one item on my bucket list”
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We meet up with Marc Herremans in Salzburg. He had just attended a Wings for Life World Run meeting. In his capacity as the sport director for wheelchair athletes, he plays an important role within the organisational structure of the event. In two hours, he will be sitting on a plane en route back to his home country of Belgium. He’s on a tight schedule. “I don’t even have time for my usual training regime today, which is why I will put on my orthotics for the interview,” he explains while expertly applying them. Then the 44-year-old stands up with effort. He is much taller than one would expect.
“I’m glad that I can stimulate my circulation in this manner. It was a huge challenge in the beginning. Being paralysed impacts the whole body. But more about that later.”
Marc, let’s start at the beginning. How were you as a child and teenager?
With pleasure. My parents ensured that my two siblings and I had a happy childhood in Belgium. I wasn’t a very good student and my teachers slapped me repeatedly. It was bad and felt wrong. Some people enjoy studying, some don’t. Everyone has individual talents. It became apparent very early that my talent was sport. I saw the movie “Rocky” when I was 16 and was fascinated by how hard Rocky trained and worked on his dream of being a boxer. After that, I started rope skipping for hours in my room. I worked with weights and did sit-ups. However, I have never boxed competitively to this day. I enjoyed the training, but I could never use violence on someone else.
How did your professional life develop?
After finishing school, I joined the military when I was 18. That was much better than school. I finally didn’t have to sit still and was allowed to move. I signed up for the “Para- Commandos” and was part of the National Army Running Team. When I was 20, I started working as a construction worker and fire fighter. I always trained a lot and I soon found out to which end.
For your triathlons?
Exactly. I saw photos of the Iron Man on Hawaii in a magazine. Swimming through the deepblue ocean, cycling through lava fields in the scorching heat, and running a marathon – I thought it looked absolutely amazing! I was not required to fight an opponent, but against myself, the heat, the distance, and the forces of nature. I was fascinated by it and started training 20 hours per week. I cycled and ran for hours at a time. I soon took part in the Belgian Championships and came twelfth.
How was that compatible with your jobs?
(laughs) It became increasingly difficult. My parents afforded me the opportunity to concentrate exclusively on my career as a professional triathlete. I won the Belgian Championships twice and improved my results in the World Championships constantly. I put everything I had into this sport: physically, mentally, and financially. I soon realised that I needed to the best triathlete in the world in 2002.
But that didn’t happen…
In January 2002, I attended a training camp in Lanzarote to prepare for the Iron Man in Australia. Everything was falling into place and I decided to take a break from training for two days. However, my friends persuaded me to go climbing and cycling. During a descent on my bike, I failed to navigate one of the turns. I fell and my back smashed into a rock.
Can you remember the incident?
People always say that one sees one’s life in images when one dies. I too had the feeling that I was seeing images of my past for hours. In reality, it was all over in a few seconds. Then I woke up and realised that I could merely move my head and arms. I turned to my colleagues and said: “Something has happened. I can’t feel my body anymore.” I was then rushed to the hospital in Lanzarote.
What happened there?
They did an MRI and saw that my spine had literally splintered. The nerves were destroyed and the diagnosis was clear: a complete spinal cord injury at the level of the fifth thoracic vertebra. The doctors were overwhelmed, so I was flown to Las Palmas. The hospital there reached the same conclusion and I had to be transferred to Belgium.
Can you remember what went through your head at the time?
Yes. I remember thinking that one hears about spinal cord injuries quite often. But I am a future world champion in triathlon. This surely can’t be happening to me. They are all wrong and I’m going to be fine. When I heard the same diagnosis a third time in my home country, I started panicking at the thought that the doctors might be right after all. They screwed my vertebrae together in a surgical procedure that lasted nine hours.
How did the time after that feel?
My family really suffered. They knew how much time I had invested in my sport and they suffered with me. I was suddenly like a small child; I required assistance all the time. After the operation, I was constantly asking myself what would happen if it were to stay like this forever.
How did you break free from this vicious circle of thought?
It was my sister’s five-year-old son. He leapt onto my bed, hugged me, and said: “Uncle Marc, I’m so happy that you’re still here!” That was the moment when I realised that I am very lucky to be alive. I was given a second chance.
Which you wanted to take…
Exactly. Nobody can change the past, but the present and future are in our hands. I started thinking about my bucket list. It lists all the life goals I wanted to achieve. 1. Win the Iron Man on Hawaii. 2. Take part in the Crocodile Trophy, the most difficult mountain bike race in the world. 3. Become a dad. A week after my operation, I sat down to talk about it with my doctor. He said: “Marc, forget it. You are so badly injured and still have so many problems. Find new goals!”
Did that deter you?
No, I was determined. The accident may have broken my back, but not my will. My family supported me completely and I started training while I was still in the hospital. They allowed me to go home after three months. Three months later, I was swimming again, as well as riding my hand bike and sports wheelchair.
That sounds like a picture-perfect rehabilitation process.
I was highly motivated, but let’s not gloss over anything. Most of the body functions I lost never returned. I had to learn to live with the fact that my bladder and bowels no longer work. My bodily functions cannot regulate warmth and cold anymore. I first got pneumonia, then a bladder infection. I really struggled with open sores on my skin. I was aware that my muscles would shorten in the long term and I was suffering from unspeakable pain. The list is endless. The wheelchair is the smallest problem after a spinal cord injury. I had to distract myself from all this, which is why I focused on my bucket list.
Yes. I took part in the Iron Man on Hawaii eight months after my accident. There was only one category for the disabled. I had to compete against athletes who had lost their lower legs, but could still move their thighs. It was like fighting the same battle with different weapons. Everyone – including myself – thought it was a miracle that I won anyway. Four years after the accident I won Ironman Hawaii. My next aim was the Crocodile Trophy in Australia. Nobody had entered the bicycle race through Australia’s outback in a wheelchair before. I pushed my limits to the extreme and five years after the accident I finished the Crocodile Trophy, but I had health problems for months after that. I decided to end my sports career after I finally recovered.
The third item on my list was to become a dad. I wanted to be healthy in that role. However, I haven’t turned my back on sport completely. I have started coaching other athletes both physically and mentally.
Isn’t it difficult for you to motivate healthy athletes?
No. It’s not their fault that I’m injured and I am happy to assist them in achieving their own dreams. I strive to convey to them that all aspects of life are decided between the ears. You need to believe in yourself. My life is no longer about collecting models to hang on my wall, but about helping others. That’s why, for the first few years after my accident, I worked as a motivational speaker all around the globe and earned more than a million euros in four years.
That’s a lot of money…
Money I needed desperately to launch and promote my foundation “To Walk Again”. We focus on rehabilitation. We motivate people suffering from spinal cord injuries to remain in shape. Just a few weeks ago, we opened our first large centre with eight employees here in Belgium. Everyone is welcome there. The training with electro-stimulation or exoskeletons is virtually free of charge. Today, we enjoy the support of sponsors and the government.
How are you feeling today – 15 years after your accident?
I am still plagued by severe pain. Sometimes it feels as if someone is stabbing me with a knife. My girlfriend knows that I’m having a really bad day when I start rolling my eyes. The pressure in my lower back is unbearable at times. It is particularly tedious at night, because I can’t simply turn around. I need to shift one leg to the side, then the other. Then I lie awake in pain. I need to live and deal with this disability day and night.
So what about that third item on your bucket list?
(smiles) Three years after my accident, I met my girlfriend Griet. She was willing to accept me as I am. After spending some time together, we decided to become parents. With artificial help, our first daughter Anne-Lou was born five years ago. Sue was born two years ago.
Do you feel restricted in your role as a parent?
Not in terms of raising them, I’d say. My girlfriend is a psychotherapist and often works late. I spend a lot of time with our girls; I take care of and provide for them. It works just fine and they give me so much joy in return. My wheelchair is perfectly normal to them. They jump onto my lap, they love sitting with me, and enjoy playing with me on the couch. It makes me incredibly happy and that’s what I want to focus on now. Finding a cure is out of my hands, so I rely on spinal cord research in that respect. With our help, a cure will be found. I am convinced of it. What is important is that our bodies are fit when that cure is found.
Is that what motivates you to take such an active role in the Wings for Life World Run?
Naturally. Research requires money and thanks to the Wings for Life World Run many are helping. As the sport director for wheelchair athletes, I am both contact person and insider. It is very important to us that many people run for a common cause on May 6. This year it’s even easier to participate thanks to the app, no matter where in the world you are. During my personal journey, I was often told that I am a dreamer and that miracles don’t exist. But that’s not true. I know that there is hope for a cure. That’s why I have added another item to my bucket list. I want to walk again.
On May 6th we are running for those who can´t. 100% of the entry fees and donations go directly into spinal cord research. Learn more here: www.wingsforlifeworldrun.com