From paralysed to completing the Dakar Rally

Posted on 9 May 2018

Lying there in the red dirt in the middle of the veld I had no idea what a spinal cord injury was. I had seen people in wheelchairs and heard the terms quadriplegic and paraplegic but I didn’t really know what they meant. It never crossed my mind that something like that would happen to me.

Later I would be told that I would never walk again.

I have always loved bikes. From Grade 1, I would ride my second-hand red Raleigh Strika to school and back each day. We would practise our wheelies, bunny hops and skids on the sandy pavements of Kempton Park.

I was 26 years old before I could afford to buy my first motorbike, a red Honda CR250. I loved the places it took me and the challenges of rocky climbs, thick sandy paths, winding through forests, river crossings and mud pits.

It was around this time that I first heard about the Dakar Rally. I’d always loved camping, hiking and the outdoors. This race seemed to combine outdoor survival with harsh elements, racing dirt bikes in faraway mysterious countries and extreme landscapes.

“One day,” I thought.

On Saturday, 13 October 2007, I lined up with about 20 other riders for a race at the Heidelberg Hare Scramble. It was known to be a tough one, with jagged rocks and steep technical climbs.

Within minutes I would drop the clutch, roaring off to a perfect start and racing towards the end of my life as I had known it.

And that’s the last I can remember.

I didn’t understand my injury.

I constantly asked the paramedics what the problem was and how long until the feeling and movement would come back to my legs. I’d ask the same questions over and over, sometimes forgetting the answers.

My body, as I had known it for the past 32 years, remained behind on that start line.

Once we arrived at Mediclinic Muelmed, my wife, Meredith, had been there for three hours. Her eyes were red and her cheeks stained with tears as she peered over me.

There was so much uncertainty; the full extent of my injuries was unknown. I held her hand and squeezed. “I can handle this; don’t worry.”

But the seriousness of the ordeal was written all over every teary face that came into view.

Within the first hours of arriving at the spinal unit I learned I had head trauma with severe swelling and 12 broken teeth. I had broken the T8 and T9 thoracic vertebrae in my back, and they had become separated from my ribs, crushing my spinal cord and leaving me paralysed from just below the chest.

A few days later, after more MRIs and X-rays, the surgeon suggested we fuse my T8 and T9 vertebrae to stabilise my back in an attempt to relieve pressure on my spinal cord.

It was about this time I felt a small “flicker” in the big toe of my right foot. If I focused hard I could make it twitch, ever so slightly.

Having the operation was a massive, life-changing decision.

In the end, I decided to go for it and Meredith backed my decision.

I experienced many challenges while in hospital. One of them was the way I dreamed, as I always had: I was able-bodied and strong. I could run and jump, play sports, hike, play with my kids.

The person I was in my mind didn’t match my body.

The pain was always there.

It eroded my resolve to be positive. For the first time in my life, I knew how it felt to have no hope for the future, the sure knowledge that my life would be unbearable forever without any hope of change.

Over the next few weeks I gained slight movement in my left ankle and started to feel something in my quads.

In daily physiotherapy sessions I would stare down at my legs, my teeth gritting and sweat beading on my forehead as I tried to move them, just a little. At the end of each session my shirt was soaked.

At night I lay in bed, flexing what little muscle I had left in my quads. I would tighten and release, counting out reps while praying for a miracle.

I went home, now in my own wheelchair, to find some of my buddies had put wooden ramps up in my house to help me get around. Those ramps were a very “in your face” realisation that life was going to be very different from now on.

2008 was the most difficult year of my life. My body from my chest downwards wasted away completely and my skin hung loosely from my bones. I looked down on a body I couldn’t feel or even recognise.

Slowly things started to get better. As I began to get more movement in my legs and was learning to stand I would insist on walking through the mall with Meredith and my girls, dragging my feet and losing my balance. I always took the stairs, even though they took forever to climb.

When I collapsed, I could hear the sound of my kneecaps colliding with the tiled floor and although I couldn’t feel the pain, I knew it should’ve hurt.

The first time I rode a bike again was almost by chance.

It was probably close to two years after the accident. I saw a friend, Neal, showing another guy how to ride an old bike. We chatted about rides we had done together, which now seemed a lifetime ago, and I watched him teach his friend the basics of riding a motorbike. “You should give it a try,” Neal joked to me.

“Cool, let’s do it,” I replied. It was not the response he had anticipated.

I found I couldn’t hold the weight of the bike and I fell over with the bike on top of me. They helped me back on, and Neal gave it a few good kicks. I slowly released the throttle and took off. I rode only a few hundred metres and headed back, but the surge of adrenaline flooded through my veins making my legs spasm and jump around.

The moment I returned Meredith knew by the grin on my face what had happened. I was back on the horse and wanted more.

Each time I would ride my bike after that I would think about the Dakar. It still seemed impossible, but then again, just riding a bike had seemed impossible just a few years before too. I would fight to make it real.

I had a lot of time to think about my dream.

I was paying a price just to get there. I second-guessed the sanity of the whole thing and the risks I was taking. Was it time to give up? Did I need to find a new dream? In the more difficult moments, I considered calling it a day. But I still wanted to race. I wasn’t done yet.

Taking anti-inflammatory tablets and painkillers messed with my digestion.

Still not having proper bowel control complicated things even more. I was frustrated, miserable and grumpy. And Meredith had had enough. She took me by the shoulders and said, “Go ride your bike and come back the man I married.”

Physically, I felt I was ready.

I’d been training for the Dakar Rally five days a week for a year. I had raced every week and done a lot of multi-day trips.

I knew I would need to dig deeper than I could train for, but I hoped I had done enough.

I knew I was in for the test of my life.

Every Dakar competitor makes sacrifices to be there.

Each one has forfeited holidays, relationships, homes, jobs and worldly possessions to take part in this daring, crazy adventure. All of us have trained for years to reach the level required to compete in this race.

But it seemed different for me.

It had taken me nearly 10 years to recover from the accident that had paralysed me, 51 nights in hospital, over 350 physio sessions, countless hours in the gym, more than 30 000 kilometres of hard training.

My final overall position was 94th out of 96 finishers. My racing time was more than double that of the winner. But in my mind, I had won the race. ●

Extracted from From Para to Dakar, by Joey Evans, and published with permission by Tracey McDonald Publishers. Available at good bookstores nationwide.


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