Impossible made possible
Posted on 12 December 2016
South African ultra-endurance cyclist Grant Lottering has proven time and again that he can climb every mountain. Even after a near-fatal accident.
‘Tell me I can’t do it and I’ll find a way to do it – I’m just one of those people,’ laughs Grant Lottering. The former professional cyclist, now an ultra-endurance cyclist, motivational speaker and Laureus Sport for Good Ambassador, needed that fighting spirit when he crashed in the Italian Alps in 2013. He was taking part in the Charly Gaul cycling race, an annual event for professionals and amateurs that climbs the 2 180m Monte Bondone.
Grant, now 48, recalls the accident. ‘I came through the corner and realised I wasn’t going to make it. I remember thinking, “Don’t hit your head”, so I turned my body towards the rock as I crashed into the embankment. I fell onto the side of the road and started coughing up blood almost immediately. I was in terrible pain and I was bleeding. I couldn’t move and I was curled up in the foetal position when another cyclist crashed into me, breaking my leg. Next thing there were all these faces around me trying to help. My thorax had collapsed so I couldn’t breathe. All I was trying to do was suck in some air.
‘Then I lost all sensation – there was no pain, no feeling in my body. I started losing my hearing and my sight faded. I knew I was dying. I was a believer before the crash, so I said a prayer.
I lost consciousness and only came round days later in the ICU and on a ventilator. I’d been given an epidural so I couldn’t move – I thought I was paralysed. I panicked and lost consciousness again. When I came round after that the doctors revealed the extent of my injuries.’
Grant’s heart had stopped and emergency surgery was performed at the scene to aid his breathing. He was airlifted to hospital, facing life-threatening injuries and the prospect of never riding again. But he had other ideas. His determination kicked in and he almost immediately started plotting a comeback course.
After 21 days in hospital abroad, Grant was flown back to South Africa. In less than a year he underwent five surgeries and 83 rehab sessions to regain strength and movement so he could ride again. Since then he has undergone two more surgeries.
Grant had 22 broken bones, including his sternum and 12 ribs that fractured on impact, puncturing his lungs. His back was broken in two places, so too his right femur. His right shoulder was crushed and he had multiple fractures of the shoulder blade and clavicle.
There were extensive internal injuries, bleeding to his abdomen and spleen, his thorax and lungs had collapsed and there were ruptured arteries in his neck and right arm.
The Italian doctors told Grant that his cycling days were over for the foreseeable future. ‘I felt lost, but you’re in extreme pain, you’re sedated, you can’t think straight and so you’re not in a position to argue.’
While in high care, a surprise visit from the emergency surgeon who saved his life on the side of the road helped shift Grant’s thinking.
‘He said to me, “Do you realise you cheated death? There must be a reason for that.” That’s when the lights came on and I stopped feeling sorry for myself,’ says Grant. ‘I lay there thinking about how I could start over and use this terrifying thing that had happened to me to make a difference in people’s lives. It was a profound experience and that’s when I decided on making a comeback within a year.
‘From then on I completely took my focus off what had happened and set my sights on getting out of hospital as soon as possible. Five days after taking my first step with a walker, I walked to the door and back. Each day I was pushed on by visualising myself riding again. Sometimes you’re required to make a decision to move on instead of staying in your comfort zone. I felt the need to fulfil my purpose because I knew there was a reason I’d survived.’
With renewed tenacity, Grant formulated the idea for the Im’Possible Tour – an annual fundraising cycling tour where he uses his second chance at life to push the boundaries of what’s thought possible.
‘For my first Im’Possible Tour I decided to do whatever was necessary to get back within a year as I wanted to finish the next Charly Gaul and use it to raise money. I had a bigger purpose,’ he says. ‘I started riding at the age of 12 and sport had changed my life. I thought of working with the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation because I knew their work involves using sport to give hope and meaning to the lives of underprivileged children and uplift communities.
‘The moment you give your endeavours a purpose bigger than you, then you’re doing it to make a difference and it’s all worth it.’
On his return to South Africa, Grant met with representatives of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and pledged to support them through his cycling.
Getting back on the bike
Several doctors told Grant his idea of making a comeback within a year was basically impossible. But Dr Phillip Webster, an orthopaedic surgeon at Mediclinic Sandton, agreed to help him – although he also thought the timeline was ambitious.
‘When I first saw Dr Webster in August 2013, just a month after the crash, I arrived weighing about 58kg – in a wheelchair, with crutches and my arm in a sling. I looked terrible,’ Grant admits. ‘I said to him, “Doc, how soon can you sort me out? I need to be back in the Alps in a year.” He looked at me and said, “It’s unlikely to happen considering the extent of your injuries, but it might be possible.”’
He became a pivotal person in Grant’s eventual success.
‘Dr Webster put me in touch with the best pulmonologist, biokineticist, physiotherapist and lower-limb surgeons – all at Mediclinic Sandton. He performed three surgeries on my shoulder in less than three months. He’s since done another two – a bone graft in 2014 as well as a second bone graft to my collarbone and nerve decompression in my elbow in 2015.’
Grant was highly motivated, but getting back on the bike so soon was extremely challenging. ‘It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, not just physically, but mentally, because of the trauma.’ Increasing road distances was gruelling. ‘As I built confidence on the bike and grew stronger, I knew I had overcome the mental challenge – the fear of falling. I just had to take that first step.’
Just 11 months after his accident, Grant realised his dream of completing the 140km Charly Gaul – in a remarkable eight hours. He knew that if he fell again it could cause irreversible damage.
‘I worried how my body would respond. But giving up was never an option. Racing past the corner of the crash was incredible. I’d been there the day before to get some closure, but I had tears in my eyes. It was a sense of victory, knowing I’d overcome this and I was there because I refused to give up. Crossing the finish line was fulfilling and emotional because my family and my Italian doctors were there.’
As an ultra-endurance cyclist, Grant has since completed two of his solo Im’Possible Tours to date.
In August 2015, he did a solo non-stop 418km ride through the French Alps in 19 hours 30 minutes. In August 2016 he became the first person to ride 962km in just over 46 hours non-stop. He plans even greater distances in 2017.
Through sponsorships and donations, Grant’s Im’possible Tours have raised almost R2 million for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation. He’s become a professional speaker, sharing his story to encourage others to tap into their unlimited potential.
‘I’m also expanding and working on organising corporate events,’ he says. ‘There’s a reason why so many people are inspired by my story and building on that is a huge privilege.’
Dr Phillip Webster, Grant’s orthopaedic surgeon at Mediclinic Sandton, says, ‘Everything Grant has accomplished since the accident is really amazing because he nearly died at the scene. It is highly unlikely that anyone could have done what he has, considering his injuries.
‘The key to his survival is the quality of acute care that he received at the scene in Italy, because the injuries he had – especially to his chest – were devastating. A broken sternum, ribs, scapula, femur and vertebrae – all high-impact injuries.
‘Grant is not only an ultra-endurance cyclist, he’s also an exceptionally determined man. His achievements are beyond what most of us could ever hope to achieve! And he’s done it all despite his enduring injuries from the crash and what must have been considerable pain – you can’t ever be 100% after the injuries he had, so for him to achieve what he has is remarkable.
‘Grant’s recovery, rehab and subsequent achievements are largely due to his positive mindset, a considerable component of any patient’s journey back to wellness. If patients are positive and they want to get better, they will. You need the appropriate surgery and treatment, but if you’re mentally motivated you can expect a better outcome in terms of making a high-level recovery.’
- Words Gillian Klawansky; Photographs Diaan de Beer