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Sochi 2014: From near death to a shot at Paralympics success

By Matt Majendie, for CNN
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1405 GMT (2205 HKT)
Australian para-snowboarder Joany Badenhorst has come along way and overcome numerous barriers to compete in the Sochi Paralympics. Australian para-snowboarder Joany Badenhorst has come along way and overcome numerous barriers to compete in the Sochi Paralympics.
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Overcoming the odds
Farm accident
'She'll never make it'
Proud Australian
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aged 10, Joany Badenhorst's leg was ripped off by machinery while playing at her family's farm
  • South African overheard medical staff say she wouldn't survive as she was flown to hospital
  • But she recovered, learned to walk and will represent adopted nation Australia at Winter Olympics
  • The 19-year-old will be Australia's first female snowboarder at Games in new event at Sochi

(CNN) -- "I felt a massive cold chill through my body and saw my leg completely missing."

That was the moment Joany Badenhort's life changed, and looking back at the gruesome facts it's hard to believe it was for the better.

But when the 19-year-old snowboarder lines up at the start gate in the mountains above Sochi, less than a decade later, she will be counting her blessings.

"Through this, I've met the most amazing people and I'd never have been able to dream of the Paralympics without the accident," she tells CNN.

"I totally think it's a blessing and, if I got the option to get the leg back, the negative of having one leg as opposed to the positives of this, it would be an easy choice. I'd stick with one leg."

It was a typical sunny South African day when the idyllic world of a 10-year-old girl turned into a nightmare.

She'd been playing with her brothers on the family farm, felt thirsty and went to get a drink of water. The outdoor pump appeared to be broken, so she went to see her father, who was with a farm-hand trying to fix another piece of machinery.

She arrived just as "that stupid machine" was switched back on.

It's not the pain she remembers instantly, nor the sheer volume of blood that pumped out of her body, or even her family's remarkably calm reactions.

Fireworks explode after the Closing Ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday, March 16. Fireworks explode after the Closing Ceremony of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games at Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday, March 16.
2014 Winter Paralympic Games
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2014 Winter Paralympic Games 2014 Winter Paralympic Games
Fireworks explode over Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday, March 7, at the end of the opening ceremony for the Winter Paralympic Games. The Paralympics are in Sochi, Russia, like the recently completed Winter Olympic Games. Fireworks explode over Fisht Olympic Stadium on Friday, March 7, at the end of the opening ceremony for the Winter Paralympic Games. The Paralympics are in Sochi, Russia, like the recently completed Winter Olympic Games.
Winter Paralympics opening ceremony
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Winter Paralympics opening ceremony Winter Paralympics opening ceremony

"I couldn't feel anything, not even the water that my mum gave me to drink. I couldn't feel my fingers or people carrying me back to the house or touching me," Badenhorst recalls.

"But after half an hour, it was like my nervous system switched back on. I started crying -- as you can imagine, the pain was beyond anything I'd ever felt."

Her plight, though, was in danger of getting infinitely worse. There was no option of an ambulance or nearby hospital; a rescue helicopter was unable to make it there.

Eventually, a mercy flight was commandeered and landed nearby.

The plane was so small it could only fit the two medical staff and Badenhorst on board. Her family had to make a five-hour journey by road to Johannesburg, unsure how their only daughter was faring in the skies overhead.

"I didn't go to sleep until I was knocked out on the plane," she recalls. "But just before that I remember one of them saying, 'She's never going to make it with these injuries.' That's a harsh thing for a 10-year-old who's just lost her leg to hear."

That was far from the end of her journey.

The family moved to Australia four years after the accident, partly because of a good job offer for her dad, partly to ensure a safer life for the four children, and partly to ensure better medical care and a prosthetic limb for Joany.

Badenhorst has not been back home to visit the rest of her family in the intervening five years, and she misses many aspects of life in South Africa.

But she has embraced Australian culture -- first taking up athletics before a chance encounter led to her switching to snow sports.

Showing off on high heels to "prove a point" to her prosthetic specialist, she caught the attention of Peter Higgins -- Australia's Disabled WinterSports snowboarding coach.

Higgins, who was aware of her athletics background in the 100 meters, javelin and high jump, spotted something in the teenager that he felt lent itself to Paralympic aspirations.

"He really took a big risk on me but I think it will pay off," she says.

U.S. Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann is determined the fifth anniversary of the accident that paralyzed her won't become a morbid or sad day. Aside from her swimming success -- the 23-year-old currently holds 15 world records -- she has set herself a series of challenges to overcome in that time.
U.S. Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggemann is determined the fifth anniversary of the accident that paralyzed her won't become a morbid or sad day. Aside from her swimming success -- the 23-year-old currently holds 15 world records -- she has set herself a series of challenges to overcome in that time.
Weggemann's world
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Rebuilding piste by piste Rebuilding piste by piste
Amputee skier is ready for the Olympics
Austrian skier Matthias Lanzinger is targeting gold in the Paralympics at Sochi. His journey to the Winter Olympics has been nothing short of remarkable... Austrian skier Matthias Lanzinger is targeting gold in the Paralympics at Sochi. His journey to the Winter Olympics has been nothing short of remarkable...
Back from the brink
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Lanzinger back from the brink Lanzinger back from the brink

On Friday Badenhorst will compete in para-snowboard cross as the first woman to represent Australia at the Winter Paralympics.

"When I started, I was rubbish," she says. "I fell over so many times I think I lost a few brain cells.

"But now when you're going fast on good snow, it feels like you're gliding mid-air. You don't really feel the turns. It's the most freeing aspect, and there's nothing else I know that gets close to it. It's like you're flying."

While she is thankful to many people for helping her get to Sochi, one name stands out in her list.

Jan Kemp did not know Badenhorst nor her wider family, but was so touched by her plight that he came to visit her every day in hospital.

The first time he arrived with a dusty Valentine's Day present to give to her, and was only allowed to visit when cagey hospital staff acquiesced at Badenhorst's insistence.

"It turns out he had a daughter who died in a cycling accident a couple of days before Valentine's Day," she explains.

"He and his daughter were both in the same cycling race. He finished but she got hit by a truck and died, and he never got to give the Valentine's Day present to her."

Each week he would return to visit, usually giving her flowers picked from the hospital garden, and the pair remain in contact to this day.

It was a long road to recovery for Badenhorst -- it took a year before she could walk again after the accident.

"How could I not have got better with amazing support like that? There was just someone there for me every day," she says.

"A lot of people are interested to know what it's like to be leg-less. I was so young, so I don't really remember what it was like to walk with two legs, so I don't miss something I don't really remember."

The fact that she has entertained a snowy sporting career seems remarkable, having grown up in two countries so renowned for their warm climates.

"I never imagined I'd be at the Paralympics."

Read: Double gold for skiing stars

Read: Paralympian Matthias Lanzinger learns to ski again

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