Paralysed athlete could walk after all

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Last year Monique van der Vorst became an international example of what perseverance can do. Paraplegia cost her the use of her legs at age 13 (or so we reported, and everybody else), but she fought hard and won medals at the 2008 Paralympics in cycling events. Then a car accident allegedly gave her back the use of her legs, and Rabobank hired her for their regular bicycle racing team.

After reporting on Van der Vorst, daily newspaper De Pers was inundated with letters from doctors and handicapped athletes. People asked if the paper believed in fairy tales. Witnesses reported that they had seen Van der Vorst walk after races, stowing away her wheelchair by herself in her car, or showering while standing. Doctors said that she should not be able to control a hand bike if she had paraplegia, because the handicap would also disturb her balance.

De Pers’ reporter Thijs Zonneveld (himself a former professional bicycle racer, and the initiator of the Dutch mountain) asked Van der Vorst what the deal was:

I have only realised myself since yesterday what is going on, when I started digging through my personal archive. […]

Nobody understood me. Doctors diagnosed me with incomplete paraplegia, without explaining what they meant. Others treated me like I was crazy. I really did have some sort of paralysis. Not because of problems in my spine, but because of the way my brain controlled my body. My current physician compares it to a car. My engine wasn’t broken, but I had forgotten how to drive. Sometimes the paralysis would be gone, and then I could stand for a while, or walk, but never for long. […]

I did not lie, but I never found the right words.

The professional racer attributes her mentally induced paralysis to a trauma caused by a difficult birth and the accidents she was in.

Zonneveld concludes: “Maybe we the press should have asked better questions. Van der Vorst gave hundreds of interviews, but nobody managed to unearth the truth. That was her fault, but also our own. We turned her story into a fairy tale. But Monique van der Vorst is no miracle. She is a human being with her own story that is perhaps more complex than we all wanted to believe.”

De Pers probably won’t give Zonneveld another chance to add to that story because the free daily will quit after today. In the past five years it has failed to make a regular profit, and the publisher is no longer willing to operate at a loss.

NOS Nieuws reports that the Rabobank team is still looking into what to do about its recent hire: “We gave her a contract to give her a chance as a professional bicycle racer, and we gave her that contract on the basis of her performances, not because of her history.”

In 2007 Rabobank fired its Tour de France race leader Michael Rasmussen on the spot over unproven doping allegations. The Dane successfully took the bank to court and won 700,000 euro in damages for unlawful dismissal.

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