Sochi 2014: Paralympian Matthias Lanzinger learns to ski again

Story highlights

Matthias Lanzinger underwent leg amputation after crashing heavily on the World Cup circuit

Austrian skier gave up hope of skiing again but is now targeting medals at the Sochi Paralympics

A three-time medallist at this year's World Championships, Lanzinger is a strong contender

To this day, he still cannot watch back the accident - "I don't see any benefits at all"

CNN  — 

There was no feeling in Matthias Lanzinger’s leg when he regained consciousness in hospital after his skiing accident.

As he blinked and opened his eyes, his first question to his wife, who was sitting at his bedside, was whether he would have to spend his life in a wheelchair.

“She said ‘no you don’t,’” Lanzinger told CNN. “‘Everything is OK, you can get on with your life but they had to amputate your leg. Our life is going to go on.”

He has absolutely no memory of the day five years ago when his life changed forever.

On Sunday March 2, 2008 he was competing in a World Cup Super-G race – in Kvitfjell, Norway – and crashed into a gate, falling down the mountainside, breaking his leg in the process.

“I just don’t remember anything from the accident, it’s nothing. I know until the gate and crashing, then nothing. I think it’s good for me that way right now.”

Lanzinger was once the rising star of Austrian alpine skiing. A junior world champion, he had won the Europa Cup and picked up a podium finish in a World Cup Super-G in 2005.

But his horrific accident brutally halted his career’s rising trajectory.

The resulting damage to his blood circulation in his leg meant the doctors had to amputate below the left knee – had they not done so, he could have died.

“I know that maybe things could have been done differently,” Lanzinger says wistfully.

“But what is the point of thinking about it? The fact is I can’t change my amputation. When I think about it or I’m angry about it, it doesn’t matter as the reality is that would not change a thing. So what’s the point?

“The fact is I have an amputation and I look forward not back. I like to live life in a positive way.”

Most immediately, he is looking forward to the 2014 Winter Olympics, his skiing career continuing but merely realigned after his life changing accident.

Where once he had aspired to compete in both Vancouver and Sochi alongside able bodied athletes, he will instead take part at the Paralympics in the Russian city, and he has modest ambitions.

Despite winning gold, silver and bronze at this season’s World Championships, he has one, simple target.

“When I get to Sochi, a medal is the goal,” he says, “and obviously gold would be nice. But more important than that is the way to Sochi.

“The years have been very tough, so this journey is still the most important.

“For me, the pleasure will just be to start in Sochi. If I could then get a medal – even maybe a gold – that would be the dream coming true. That is the reason why I did my comeback.”

Lure of the slopes

After the amputation, Lanzinger had opted not to return to the slopes and test his skiing prowess once more.

With a new job with the ski manufacturer Salomon, he felt his life had moved on but gradually his view shifted, and the lure of the slopes returned.

“I never wanted to come back to the sport,” he admits. “I wanted to do my new life. I studied in business administration and then onto my work as marketing manager for Salomon.

“Everything was fine in my new life, with many other things other than skiing.

“But then I started to think how I would feel in 30 or 40 years if I did not try it competitively again. So I wanted to answer that question.”

For his first competitive run, he admitted he was awash with nerves, unsure how well he had adapted in training to skiing on a prosthetic leg and of the different technique required to tackle the gates on the course.

“After that first run, the feeling was back,” he says.

“It was the feeling of my last race, like it was a few months ago and not three years ago. Since then, I like racing, maybe even more than before the accident because now I do it for fun, the pressure is gone. This is enjoyment.”

Lanzinger has not watched his accident back, although he is slowly coming round to the idea that one day he will.

“Maybe in the future I’ll watch to find out what happened,” he says. “But right now, I don’t see any benefits at all.

His training for Sochi is currently in full swing and, for now, his stump is in good order, although he has had problems in the past.

Severe inflammation in previous seasons meant he had to undergo further surgery – “the pressure on the stump when skiing is so much” – but he is now on top of the problem, getting the right balance of neither too much nor too little exercise on it.

Guiding him to Sochi is his coach Manuel Hujara, who has worked with Lanzinger since his decision to return to competitive skiing.

Hujara says he has not had to work on his pupil’s mental demons returning to a sport that cost him a leg.

“To be able to come to the team, you have to be able to have worked through that first,” says Hujara. “Matthias has done that. If not, you can’t do the sport at the highest level.”

He has a chance to medal in every discipline. He’s a special guy, with coming back from that bad World Cup accident.”

Both Hujara and Lanzinger are pushing to improve the backing and profile for disabled skiing in Austria.

Hujara describes it as “really bad” while Lanzinger says “things are getting better” but that it is a painfully slow process.

Should Lanzinger, named Austria’s disabled athlete of the year in 2012, win gold in Sochi, that will only help the cause. As for what is in store for him after his Russian adventure, he genuinely has no idea.

“I’ve not thought about it,” he says of life after Sochi. “Let’s see what I do there first.”

A gold around his neck would surely be the perfect outcome to an often long and tortuous journey.

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