Finding the positives

Wheelchair athlete   Heinz Frei ( Yves Bachmann / ETH Zurich)
Wheelchair athlete Heinz Frei ( Yves Bachmann / ETH Zurich)

Heinz Frei is one of the most successful Swiss athletes of all time. He has been in a wheelchair since an accident over 40 years ago. Having originally trained as a surveyor, he now works at the Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Nottwil and serves as a Cybathlon Ambassador.

You might think someone who has spent 40 years in a wheelchair might be bowed by adversity, but not Heinz Frei. His optimism is undiminished, and his mental strength and extraordinary willpower have allowed him to achieve goals he hardly dared dream of. "If I’d spent too long wallowing in self-pity after the accident, then I wouldn’t be where I am today," says Frei. Obviously life hasn’t always been a bed of roses, and it still hurts when he recalls all the emotions he has unloaded on loved ones in difficult periods, especially during the five months of re­habilitation at the former Swiss Paraplegic Centre in Basel. That was where he ended up after a terrible accident in the summer of 1978 when he was inspecting the course of the Seelisburg mountain run. Slipping on the wet grass, he plunged down a gorge. As he lay at the bottom, he realised he couldn’t feel his legs.

Frei was just 20 years old. "I had so many hopes and dreams, so much I wanted to do in life. It was a brutal blow." He was plagued by questions as he chatted to the other young men in the hospital ward, but answers were tantalisingly hard to find. On one occasion, they found themselves wondering whether any of them could ever even consider having children. None of them knew, so the next morning one of the more courageous ones asked the doctor. "It wasn’t me, but I pricked up my ears." Even the doctor was unsure and simply advised them to try. Today, with two children of his own, Frei is no longer in any doubt. "It’s been a real highlight for my sense of self-worth," he says.

To this day, it’s not his inability to walk that bothers Frei the most. Rather, it’s having to constantly stay vigilant about the range of hazards faced by people with paraplegia: for instance, burning himself if he forgets to check the shower temperature, getting frostbite during wheelchair skiing or dealing with bladder problems and pain. Yet Frei’s discipline has largely spared him from the demoralising side effects of his dis­ability. "It helps put my condition in perspective," he says. Perhaps even more importantly, it has provided the basis for his extraordinary sporting car­eer. Heinz Frei is one of the most successful Swiss athletes of all time. He has taken part in every Paralympics since Los Angeles in 1984, winning a total of 15 gold medals. He also has 14 world championship titles and over one hundred marathon victories to his name. "I know how lucky I am, and I’m both humbled and grateful," explains Frei. His body still does what his mind tells it to do. "So I always give my body a pat on the shoulder to say thank you!" Fortunately, technology continues to develop at an equally impressive pace, with wheelchairs getting both lighter and more manoeuvrable. That spurs Frei on, and the 62-year-old is even toying with the idea of taking part in Tokyo 2020, which would be his tenth Paralympics.

Corinne Johannssen