He needed 72 operations following motorbike crash, but Paralympian says 'body and mind is stronger than you can imagine'

    In 2008, Belgian Paralympian Diederick Schelfhout was implicated in a motorcycle accident where 80% of his body was burned, and he subsequently had 72 operations.

    (CNN)Diederick Schelfhout was riding his motorcycle home from training, when everything changed in a flash.

    The Belgian cyclist signed his professional contract several months before, working towards his ambition of becoming a pro rider.
    It was a goal he had nurtured since he was eight years old, having grown up listening to stories of his father, who had also raced professionally.
      But after Schelfhout crashed into a car and then slid into a parked car, his tank burst -- and so did that of the vehicle. He was caught between two explosions and says it took firemen 14 attempts to put out the fire.
        It was then that he knew the career he had once dreamed of was effectively over.
        "I had just one feeling, and it was survive," Schelfhout tells CNN Sport of the 2008 accident. "The pain I felt was not human anymore."

        The aftermath

          Schelfhout sustained multiple injuries and 80% of his body was burned, including his lungs.
          "I had broken bones, my arm was in pieces, my leg, my hands. It was terrible," he says.
          He spent almost three months in a coma, one that was so severe that his body was going to be put down, but as he puts it, "My heart was strong."
          When Schelfhout did finally wake up he discovered the left side of his body had been left paralyzed by the accident,
          When doctors held up a mirror to his face, he could see the physical scarring he had endured. "I take a mirror and they say, 'Look, this is how you look now and that's how you're going to live.'"
          As he recalls, his reaction to his new face was "the first mental breakdown."
          "I didn't think about cycling in the first weeks. I just needed to become stronger," he says. "I was really into learning, walking again, writing and speaking."
          His friends and family offered him an invaluable sense of moral support, something he still cherishes 13 years later.
          "For my parents, it was a really nasty time," he says, "I'm lucky because my parents are supporting me so hard and so well in everything I do."
          "I have a lot of friends that support me [...] I can say I'm a lucky guy. With friends like that and family."
          Schelfhout says he's "a lucky guy" to have such supportive friends and family.

          Fighting to stay in the race

          Medical experts eventually told Schelfhout that he needed to shelve his cycling dream, due to the extensive nerve damage in his left leg and his hip.
          He says that he decided to try to cycle that same day in order to see what his body might be capable of. "The first 20 meters were the most terrible meters in my life. Everything was hurting, and it was like a child of six years that was trying to bike."
          "The doctors also told me total recovery was not possible.
          "I had a girlfriend. She was not into cycling [...] and she said, 'You need to stop everything.' I told her 'No, I want to finish what I started, and I stop cycling when I want, not when somebody tells me I need to stop.'"
          In the months between his coma and rehab, Schelfhout persisted, using a handbike to improve his upper mobility. After two weeks, he says he had a glimmer of hope, when he observed "some strange feeling" in his bicep. A fortnight later, he had a contraction in his muscle.
          Barely a year after his accident, Schelfhout was riding to and from the hospital on his bike.
          "I was riding straight to the room of the doctor and I told him, 'Look I'm back on the bike and I'll become stronger and stronger and I'm going to race again. I don't know when, but I have a feeling it's possible," he says.
          "He told me that it's my mind that's so strong. If I want something, I'll do anything for it."