Austrian pole vault record holder Kira Grunberg had been looking forward to competing at the IAAF World Championships, Beijing 2015 until a traumatic training accident on 30 July in Innsbruck saw her break vertebrae in her spine.
The accident has left the 2014 European Championships finalist, who had finished fourth at the 2015 European U23 Championships just three weeks before the accident, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic and her plight has led to messages of sympathy and support from around the world.
Visitors to the rehabilitation centre where she is based in Bad Haring have included world record holder Renaud Lavillenie.
However, since the accident, Grunberg’s cheerful and resilient response to her situation has also drawn global admiration.
The IAAF is happy to reproduce the first major interview she has conducted since the accident, by IAAF Press Commission member Olaf Brockmann for the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung.
Kira, how was your day in rehabilitation? How do you even have the energy for an interview?
Well, rehabilitation was exhausting today, but it always is. I usually have a nap at lunchtime, that helps me to recover a bit.
What does your rehabilitation focus on at the moment?
Lots of exercises to support my cardiovascular system. For instance, right now if I tried to get up directly in the morning, I might black out and become unconscious. I also do lots of physical therapy so my joints don’t become stiff, and strength training for my upper body.
What have been the most significant moments for you in rehabilitation so far?
It has been that I can now move my wheelchair by myself, just a little bit; that was a real boost to me. Once, I was also able to extend my legs on the physio bed, just for a few seconds, but that was cool. I had done something by myself!
What are your biggest goals in rehabilitation?
I want to be able to eat by myself eventually. I can’t move my fingers, but there are eating aids, loops for the hand, they’re put on there permanently. To cut with a knife and fork one day, that will be difficult, since I can’t put any pressure down.
And I want to learn to brush my teeth, there’s also these loops for toothbrushes, it just means brushing your own teeth is a different. I also want to go around in a wheelchair by myself, be mobile.
How long are you going to stay in rehabilitation?
Between six and 10 months. When they see that I can do everything that it’s possible for me to do, that’s when I’m going home.
Who, apart from your parents, do you lean on most?
Tom (her manager Tom Herzog), who had the most work of anyone in the beginning, my sister, other athletes and, of course, also my boyfriend. It’s cool that my boyfriend supports me, I mean in the end I am still just a regular person. Christoph has been with me the whole time, he’s from the town next to mine.
Among the thousands of supportive messages that you’ve received, is there one that you’d like to mention?
I got a really nice letter from a young girl, she said that I give her strength in her own illness.It’s nice that I give other people strength, it helped her that I’m fighting and not just giving up.
It’s nice that I give other people strength, it helped her that I’m fighting and not just giving up. Everyone who’s in a wheelchair goes through a difficult phase, lots of them say that their life only started in the wheelchair. I still get lots of post, sometimes 10 letters a day. Sometimes people, complete strangers, send me roses, that’s kind of funny.
Which of the events in support of you did you find particularly touching?
‘Running for Kira’ (over 3000 people participated in Vienna and raised €65,000) was extremely cool and of course also the pole vault event in Salzburg, with world record holder Renaud Lavillenie.
Do you still constantly think about the accident, which now happened 10 weeks ago?
Not any more. When I talk about it, it comes back of course, but it’s never so that I can’t sleep because of it or anything, it’s not a nightmare, there are worse nightmares. My head is fine, after all, I didn’t fall on my head, just right on my spine.
Renaud Lavillenie also helped you deal with the accident, didn’t he?
Yes, I was really moved that he came to visit. We watched the video of the fall together (Kira’s father, who was also her coach, filmed the accident). I wanted to know if he saw an error in my attempt, but he didn’t see an error either.
That’s the thing, no one can quite imagine how the fall happened, it wasn’t some grave error, it was some small things that came together. A little bad luck, whatever it was, the vault was with a build-up of eight steps. I have done this vault a thousand times, maybe even more often.
Do you want to go to an athletics event at some point?
Definitely! I want to go to the training sessions of the guys I used to train with, and watch the championships as well.
Would you dissuade young girls from taking up pole vaulting?
No! Pole vaulting is so elegant, it’s still the best discipline; and pole vault isn’t dangerous! Stuff happens all the time, everywhere.
Pole vaulting is so elegant, it’s still the best discipline; and pole vault isn’t dangerous! Stuff happens all the time, everywhere. Bad accidents happen in skiing, it can happen in the 100m, someone stumbles, falls on their head and that person could have a bad injury just like me. Stuff can happen anywhere, things could go wrong when you’re just out for a walk.
What are your dreams for the future?
In the beginning, I didn’t think I’d be able to continue my degree in pharmacy, because there’s quite a lot of practical work involved, mixing things in the lab and stuff like that. But the university has already talked to my parents, I’ll get an assistant who I’ll just have to instruct to do things, so from their perspective I can continue my studies. I would like to finish it. I was in the fourth semester, the degree is for 10 semesters.
I can’t concentrate on reading for long at the moment, I don’t read much, a letter here or there, but when that returns then there’s no question about the degree. Sports? As a hobby, I will definitely do something in the wheelchair. Whether I’ll compete, I really don’t know yet.