© Philipp Horak

When One is missing

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When Vanessa Sahinovic sleeps, she dreams of a large swimming pool. She stands barefoot at the edge of the pool, checks her tight bun one last time, straightens her swimsuit, and then leaps into the cool water. While going through the first motions, she fastens her nose clip, takes another deep breath, and dives carefully. Underwater, Vanessa moves into a handstand without her hands touching the ground. Her muscles are tense from tip to toe, yet it still feels like she is floating lightly. At least until she wakes up…
The moment Vanessa wakes up, the memories come flooding back and reality kicks in - in her legs. Like every morning, the 18-year-old tries to move them. And like every morning, they remain immovable under the blanket, heavy as lead.

The Tragic Accident of Baku
Even as a child, Vanessa was enchanted by synchronised swimming. “I started when I was nine. The beautiful and elegant movements feel like dancing in the water,” she says during our visit to her home in Vienna. Her eyes light up as she talks about her passion. Her two best friends, the twins Verena and Raffaela, are sitting right beside her. They too have been swimming since childhood and share her enthusiasm. “You need to know your own body very well and be ambitious. Synchronised swimming combines swimming, diving, dancing, and gymnastics. It allows you to express your personality,” they explain passionately. Early on, the friends decided to attend a high-performance sports school, where they trained together several times a day. A bond was created between them.

In June 2015, the three friends were about to take part in their most significant competition yet: the European Games of the Olympic Committee in Baku, Azerbaijan.

“We were so excited to be part of such a huge event.” On the 11th of June, one day before the official opening ceremony, they met up for a final training session. They were keen to ensure that everything was perfectly in synch with the music: the many complicated motions, the twists, and the lifting figures that they had practiced down to the last detail.
The Austrian team, which consisted of the three friends and six other athletes, was supposed to be picked up by a shuttle for the trip to the swimming pool. “The atmosphere was great and we couldn’t wait to jump into the water,” Raffaela recalls. As they approached the bus terminal, fate hit them hard from behind. “All of a sudden and without any warning whatsoever, a bus raced towards us unchecked and knocked us over like skittles. Everything happened so fast. I couldn’t understand what was happening,” Verena says.

The young synchronised swimmers were in shock. They screamed and some burst into tears. One by one they got up and attempted to comprehend the horror accident, the cause of which is still unclear today.
Vanessa remained on the ground; she was badly injured. “My trainer leaned over me and explained what had just happened. It was one of those moments when your brain shuts down and you just can’t think anymore…” Shortly thereafter, the then 15-year-old lost consciousness. When she woke up again, she was in a hospital in Baku. She couldn’t feel her legs anymore. “I panicked and had no clue what was happening.” Vanessa’s trainer was by her bedside and attempted to calm her down. “My hope was that I would swim again soon, no matter what might happen.”
On the same day, the injured athlete was flown to a hospital in Vienna, where she underwent emergency surgery on her spine. After the procedure, she woke up in the intensive care unit. A breathing tube protruded from her throat and her legs remained motionless. “The doctors told me that my 7th cervical vertebra and my 12th thoracic vertebra were broken. My spinal cord was badly damaged at the height of the thoracic vertebra. They told me I would remain paralysed.”

Meanwhile, Verena and Raffaela were sitting in their hotel room in Baku, completely unaware of how dramatic their girlfriend’s situation actually is. “We were so worried. At some point we were told that Vanessa had injured her spine and was being treated in Austria. But we didn’t realise the consequences.” The synchronised swimming team decided to compete as planned. “We wanted to do it for Vanessa…”
Vanessa had to remain in the hospital for weeks. She was visited by her family and by her girlfriends when the athletes finally returned home. “It was awful to see her in such a state, but we were also there when she started improving.” It didn’t take long until Vanessa was able to breathe independently again. “I was so sure that everything would return to normal gradually and that I would be able to walk again soon.” At this point, she was transferred to the rehabilitation centre in Bad Häring.

“I Couldn’t Accept It”
During her stay there, the hand and finger functions of the Viennese girl started improving slowly. She learned how to use a wheelchair and the sanitary aids. “Until then, I had no idea what paraplegia actually is and what effects it has on the entire body. Nothing below the injury sites works anymore.” One day, Vanessa decided to visit her swimming team in her wheelchair. It was a wistful moment. “I wanted to know the new choreography; because I was so sure I’d be alright in a couple of months.”

After three months, the young woman returned home to her parents and her four-year younger brother - still in a wheelchair. The apartment they live in suddenly felt small and impractical. “There were many moments when I was very sad. Everything took so much longer. I couldn’t go out without planning every move in advance. Most of all, I missed synchronised swimming. After all, that was my whole life…” Verena and Raffaela are still dedicated to their sport. They are currently training for the European Championship and show their friend the new choreographies - both in the dry and on mobile phone videos. “We are quite aware of the fact that what happened to Vanessa could have happened to any of us,” Raffaela says. “The accident has cemented our friendship even more,” her sister adds.

In spite of all the changes, the young women still prefer spending their free time together. “When we need to go up or down stairs with the wheelchair, we usually ask someone for help. But we could manage alone too. Our goal is to travel around the world together soon.”
Vanessa smiles at her friends and we ask her what she wants for the future. “It’s often hard to handle it all. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair and I’m sure I’ll be able to walk again one day. The first thing I would do is dive into the water and dance…”

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