"What he likes best is being lifted up”, says Johanna Welin as her six-month-old son, Ilja, grizzles. But the 31-year-old can’t get up to comfort him, having been in a wheelchair ever since a snowboarding accident in 2004.
“Before my accident, I was all about football and snowboarding, they were my identity. As soon as I finished school, I started work in a skiing resort. It was totally my thing,” says the Swedish-born sportswoman, with a smile as she talks about her past.
“Don’t tell Mum”
In January 2004, she landed on her back after a small snowboarding jump.
“I noticed straight away that I couldn’t feel my legs, but I didn’t want my mum to know how bad it really was, so I said nothing.”
But in the days that followed, there was no more hiding. “An x-ray in the hospital revealed that my 12th thoracic vertebra had slipped back and damaged my spinal cord.” Then aged just 19, Johanna was forced to lie still for two weeks. “I didn’t understand at the time exactly what had happened. It took me a long time to process it. A year at least.”
She spent almost six months in rehabilitation in Gothenburg, learning how to adapt to her new circumstances and how to use a wheelchair, but “A lot worse than not being able to walk was the fact that my bladder and bowel no longer worked like they used to. That was a really big deal. That was a lot worse than not being able to walk.”
Back to a different life
Ever ambitious, Johanna wanted to go back to the ski resort where she had the accident, so when she had finished rehab, she rented a flat and started work selling ski passes. “That helped me deal with it, somehow.”
She started playing wheelchair basketball at the same time, and really got into it: “I liked straight off that people in wheelchairs played alongside able-bodied players. It made no difference.”
She threw herself into training, and even when she moved to the student halls of residence at the University of Innsbruck to start her degree, she commuted by car from Austria to Bavaria, Germany, to do her basketball training at the University Sports Club in Munich. “I moved up from the second to the first team within one and a half seasons.” She now lives in Munich and trains with the national team for 12 hours a week, alongside studying medicine.
Pram and wheelchair
“I postponed all my end-of-semester exams this time round, though,” she says, smiling at Ilja, who has just fallen asleep.“There was no other way.”
Johanna met her son’s father playing basketball. “We played on the same team, but he doesn’t have an injury.” Johanna knew that she could still get pregnant despite the paralysis. Yet they were still both surprised at first.
“I was happy about our child, but it was really tough too”, she says when she looks back on being pregnant in a wheelchair.
“Of course I sought the advice of a number of other mothers in wheelchairs. I wanted to know exactly what I was in for, but it’s hard to make predictions because it’s different for everyone.” The baby put increasing pressure on her bladder and towards the end of the pregnancy, Johanna was forced to lie down the whole time. “No one could say exactly how my body was going to react. But then I had a natural birth, and I was so happy when I held Ilja in my arms.”
A future for three
Six months down the line, they have settled well in to family life. “My boyfriend, Benni, is at work all day. I manage to combine looking after our child, basketball training and university pretty well”, she says. But there are everyday situations that take a lot out of Johanna.
“I am very impatient. I often get depressed that there are certain things I can’t do or which take a long time, especially with the baby. Many things are just really awkward.” Ilja, she is sure, will become independent quickly and realise that there are certain things his mother can’t do. Johanna would have loved to teach her son football or snowboarding. “It’s a shame I won’t be able to now, just like I won’t be able to carry him around the house.”
But Ilja will also see an inspirational woman who pushes against the odds to make the very best of the life she has.
Join thousands running for children, men and women – mums like Johanna – whose dream is to take just one step again. Sign up for Wings for Life World Run at a location near you or make a donation to Wings for Life.
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