© Andreas Hechenberger

Between Flying and Falling

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I’m not having a very good day today, to be honest. I can feel the change in the weather and I’m finding it rather difficult to move around.” Ever since his serious fall, Lukas Müller, a former professional ski jumper, has become used to updating others about his health. The Austrian media’s interest in him was – and remains – strong. Everybody wants to know how the athlete is feeling, what the diagnosis means today, and whether he is making progress on the road to recovery. We met up with Lukas in the federal sports centre of Rif almost a year after his accident. This is where he comes to train several times a week. “I come from a very active family,” the Carinthian explains. “Sport became an important part of my life at an early age.”

Nothing but ski jumping
Lukas strapped on skis for the first time at the tender age of three. “Following a recommendation from a friend, I started ski jumping when I was 12,” he says. It didn’t take long for him to win his first federal cup and break his first records. Lukas then transferred to a ski school, trained intensively, and improved constantly. At the age of 16, he won the Junior World Championship in two disciplines and earned his first World Cup points. “The beginning of my career was packed with highlights and successes,” he says.

At the beginning of his career, the young Lukas Müller was regarded as a high-flyer and hope for the future of the sport as a whole
At the beginning of his career, the young Lukas Müller was regarded as a high-flyer and hope for the future of the sport as a whole 

After his A-levels, he moved to Salzburg and joined the sports division of the army. “In 2012, I won a few Continental Cups and joined the World Cup circus,” he says. “Then it became increasingly difficult for me.” Lukas won his last World Cup points in 2013. “I worked really hard, but I simply wasn’t as good as I wanted to be…”

Public fall
On January 13, 2016 – during a practice session for the ski flying World Championships on the Kulm in Styria – Lukas was overcome with ambition. He was so eager to compete with the best again. “When I think back to that moment now, I can feel butterflies in my stomach again,” he says. Lukas propelled himself forward from the joist and launched into the jump. Everything seemed perfect at first. “During the jump, I could feel that I was slowly slipping out of my left shoe. I don’t really know why it happened. It may have been due to a loosened latch or because the test shoe was too big for me.” The professional ski jumper grasped the seriousness of the situation instantly. “I had a thousand thoughts about how to get out of the situation in one piece. My brain was working overtime.” While still in the air, Lukas flapped both arms in an attempt to protect himself in some way, but to no avail. He hit the snow hard in front of his colleagues, coaches, and fans at a speed of more than 100kph. “I immediately became aware of the fact that I couldn’t move my legs. It felt as if someone had turned off the lights. I lost all feeling within seconds.”

Hospital and flashlights
Lukas was rushed to a clinic in Graz, where he underwent emergency surgery. When his parents arrived, they were confronted with what one can describe as a real horror scenario. “A doctor told them that I might only be able to move my head. It was truly terrible for them.” Lukas woke up after surgery. In the ICU, his doctor explained that his spinal cord was contused at the lower cervical spine (level C6/C7), which meant that he had suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury. “It’s a bit like a garden hose with water running through it. In the event of a complete spinal cord injury, nothing can pass through anymore. In the case of an incomplete spinal cord injury, a limited amount of information can still travel to the brain via the spinal cord,” says Lukas. He remained composed. “I had my suspicions, to be fair. It’s like a school test that didn’t go according to plan. You kind of know that you’re going to fail, but you still hope that you’ll pass right until the last minute. When my suspicions regarding paralysis were confirmed, it was obviously a real blow.”

Rehabilitation with a purpose
Lukas tried to accept his new situation. “My family was really supportive. Everyone understood immediately that pity wouldn’t help me at all. I rejected pity.” After six weeks, Lukas started his rehabilitation in Bad Häring. “I had a lot of time to think. My goal was to leave on my own two feet,” he says. The incomplete spinal cord injury meant that Lukas was a little better off than other patients. His body allowed him to make good progress and he soon made his first attempts at walking.Nevertheless, there were moments when the sportsman really struggled to accept his fate. “Naturally, I cursed my situation from time to time,” he says. “For instance when I tried to tie my shoe laces, but spasms didn’t allow me to. That was – and still is – insanely annoying…” After 149 days, Lukas left the rehabilitation clinic. He needed crutches, but he did leave on his own two feet.

 The end of the rehab process in Bad Häring: Lukas’ nephew holds his uncle’s hand as he cautiously sets one foot in front of the other
The end of the rehab process in Bad Häring: Lukas’ nephew holds his uncle’s hand as he cautiously sets one foot in front of the other 

Different body sensation
At home, Lukas was confronted with the trials and tribulations of everyday life. In his converted home, his room was moved to the ground floor. “That was incredibly expensive. The insurance companies tend to forget this aspect…” Lukas started to settle in. Even though he lost some bodily functions, he had quite proficient motor skills and managed to walk a few metres on crutches. “I can pinpoint my body sensations precisely,” he says, while explaining how his body feels today. “However, I can’t feel temperatures on my legs at all. It makes no difference to me whether the water is ice cold or boiling hot.” Lukas needs to interpret the signals from his body to determine how long he can stand or walk. “If I overdo it, I get cramps and – at times – experience severe pain in the groin area.”
He returned to Rif in 2016 and moved into a room for handicapped students. “This morning, I wanted to flip one of the light switches, but I couldn’t manage to stretch far enough,” he says. “At the end of the day, I do have a spinal cord injury, even though it is incomplete. It affects my hands, arms, and legs…” However, an impairment that is not immediately visible is what Lukas struggles with the most. “I can usually go to the toilet without any problems. Accidents do happen, though. This is the most unpleasant way I am reminded of my spinal cord injury. The fact that I – as an adult – cannot fully control this aspect of my body is a great burden to me.”

Different routine, new perspectives
It pains Lukas that Wikipedia lists him as an ex-ski jumper. “It is true, I suppose. However, I will always be a ski jumper at heart. People think I’m crazy when I say that I miss the flying. One cannot blame anyone for what happened to me. I was incredibly unlucky that day. Ski jumping was – and always will be – my passion.” Sport will continue to play an important role in his life. “I don’t know how my body will develop. The Paralympics are most certainly an option,” he says when cautiously thinking about the future. Lukas participates in the training sessions of his former group every week. “I definitely want to train to become a coach. I know a lot about analysing jumping techniques, for instance. It doesn’t matter whether one is standing or sitting.”
On the May 7, 2017, Lukas will participate in the Wings for Life World Run in Vienna again. “Our aim is to cover 15km,” he says. Lukas plans to team up with Thomas Morgenstern, his friend who is also a former ski jumper, to collect donations for research and create awareness for spinal cord injuries in general. “It’s essential to take a stand and to show presence. Such a life-altering injury needs to become curable in the future.”

Lukas Müller and his friend Thomas Morgenstern at the Wings for Life World Run in Vienna. The two ski jumpers will return as a team on the May 7 (Mike Groessinger)
Lukas Müller and his friend Thomas Morgenstern at the Wings for Life World Run in Vienna. The two ski jumpers will return as a team on the May 7  © Mike Groessinger