“The Accident Just Happened”
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Former pole vault athlete Kira Grünberg sat down with us to explain what a spinal cord injury means for a woman in particular, how a quadriplegic applies her makeup, and why she still hopes to have children one day.
Kira, would you mind revisiting the 30th of July 2015 with us one more time?
I was taking part in a training session. My mum was there to film my jumps, as she often did. I sensed that my take-off was far from perfect during that fateful jump, but I went through with it anyway. I had almost cleared the jump when I realised that I was falling back to the ground on the approach side, towards the vault box.
What happened then?
I smashed into the ground back first and the metal frame of the vault box broke my cervical vertebra. I remained conscious throughout, so I instantly realised that this was a life-changing accident.
What were the first few weeks like?
I was still in the emergency room in Innsbruck hospital when I was informed that I had suffered a cervical spine injury. My mum had already alerted my personal sports physician. It was so important for me to see a familiar face, especially as I could not turn my head due to the stabilisation procedure. I was just happy to hear familiar voices.
How did it feel to see your parents in a situation where they were unable to help you?
That was one of the worst aspects, definitely. I myself was fairly strong mentally from the outset. In hindsight, I am grateful that my parents witnessed the jump live. It means they know that my accident was no one’s fault. It just happened.
What about your friends?
I was transferred to the normal ward twelve days after the accident. When I was strong enough to receive one or two visitors a day, my sister coordinated the visits. The nurses told me later that many had inquired how they should approach me. However, it became obvious after the first few exchanged sentences that our relationships would not change much.
Did you take the initiative?
Yes, I made the first step. Some people need a little nudge before they can pluck up the courage to visit a freshly paralysed person in hospital.
How much did your mental strength developed as a top athlete help?
It felt like a blessing. I am not sure I myself contributed much to that, to be fair. Sure, sport teaches you how to deal with defeats, but if someone had asked me how I would cope with being paralysed before the accident, I would have answered that I have no idea.
At which level did your spinal cord injury occur?
C5, which is at a level comparable to Hannes Kinigadner and Wolfi Illek – including limited hand function.
How does your condition affect your everyday life, particularly for you as a woman?
I work with assistants who do for me whatever I cannot do myself. They help me transfer from the bed to the wheelchair in the morning and assist me in getting dressed. However, I trained incredibly hard to regain the ability to execute tasks that I could not manage after the accident: brushing my teeth or applying makeup, for instance. It simply requires plenty of practice.
You apply makeup yourself?
Yes! I really enjoyed painting my fingernails, even when I was still an athlete. My mum did it for me during rehab, but I was not particularly enthusiastic about the results. So I set myself the goal of re-teaching myself how to paint my nails without gouging my eyes out in the process. Lo and behold, it works!
What about styling your hair?
Handling the hot curling iron is the only thing that I find too precarious.
In the six years since the accident, to what extent have you reacquainted yourself with your body?
I had no relationship with my body at all in the beginning. A sport as motorically demanding as pole vaulting teaches you to steer it very precisely. Yet suddenly my body was almost non-existent from the neck down. Accepting the lack of body tension was difficult at first. I struggled with having to look at feet that no longer served any purpose for me. This phase lasted one or two years.
I am very attentive to my body and take even more care of it than before. I know what harms it and try to avoid such circumstances. To this day, my body sends me messages that I have to learn to interpret. For example that a tight shoe can cause a headache…
Do you want children?
I have always dreamed of starting a family. I asked whether that was still possible just two weeks after the accident. The only difference between me and other women is that I will probably need a caesarean section. But while I was in rehab, I also met women who gave birth naturally.
What is it like to lose some of your privacy?
As an athlete, you are used to undressing in front of others when you shower. There are things I simply cannot do and require help with – that is part of my life. If I need to train a new assistant, then that is what I will do. One thing is certain: being uptight about it helps no one. The more you make an issue of it yourself, the more it becomes an issue for the other person.
How do you solve such situations?
If it is a particularly daft situation, I just laugh it off.
Do you subscribe to a certain philosophy of life?
I believe in the existence of a book of life with certain predestined cornerstones. One of them is my spinal cord injury. There are things you cannot avoid. That may not be the perfect answer, but it works for me.
How have your ambitions changed?
I used to pursue athletic goals such as World Championships and Olympic Games. Currently, my biggest ambition is to make a difference in the field of disability policy. And to start a family with a husband, children, and a dog in our own house, of course. Not really that unusual, but I guess in my situation it somehow is.
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