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Perilously close to death in June and written off more than once by doctors, Keagan Girdlestone’s recovery from a brutal crash has been nothing short of astounding. The South African rider collided into his team car during the Coppa della Pace race on Sunday, June 5, hitting the rear window while chasing back on a descent.
Suffering huge blood loss due to lacerations to his carotid artery and his jugular vein, he was hospitalised in severe condition. Girdlestone had uncertain prospects of survival and remained in a coma several days.
He exceeded medical expectations in living, and also at several other key points along the way.
On November 5 he reached another milestone, riding his road bike outdoors for the first time. Given that there were doubts about him surviving, then about walking again, his return to coffee shop rides is impressive. However he doesn’t intend to settle for just that.
Girdlestone and his father Wayne both spoke to CyclingTips this week about their perspectives on the accident, the recovery, Keagan’s defying of doctors’ expectations, and the future.
“I remember I had crashed on the descent just before,” Keagan stated, describing the circumstances of his fall just over five months ago. “During my chase back through the convoy, the last thing I remember was seeing the back of my team car before everything went black.
“However I do remember feeling hot liquid – blood – running down my neck. I also remember hearing spectators saying ‘Piano, Piano, Piano [slow down]’ before everything went silent.”
Girdlestone was racing with the Dimension Data for Qhubeka squad, a development team for the eponymous WorldTour outfit. He was quickly attended to by directeur sportif Kevin Campbell. He and paramedics at the race succeeded in stabilising the fallen rider, and he was then rushed to the Ospedale Infermi Di Rimini hospital.
Their collaborative efforts saved his life, although inaccurate rumours at the time blurred information on the matter.
His father Wayne Girdlestone was in New Zealand and said these initial reports caused huge distress to the family.
“Carol Austin, Team Dimension Data’s head of performance and health support, called me from South Africa,” he explained. “She said Keagan was in an accident. She did not really elaborate but said that it was bad. I then called team coach Hein Badenhorst as he and I had been exchanging messages during the race. He was aware of the accident but could not tell me more.
“The worst was when I went on to social media and saw all the “RIP Keagan” tweets… Within the first 30 minutes I must have had 2,000 plus messages come through to my phone. This was extremely traumatic as I needed to try find out more info and could not simply turn my phone off … Hein was able to ‘promise’ me that Keagan was still alive.”
Still, uncertain as to the prognosis or even the extent of the injuries, he was in turmoil.
“Simply put, that was without doubt the worst night of my life …”
Fearing the worst, the family immediately set about arranging a flight to Europe. The long travel time extended the torture and the uncertainty. It was only when they got to the hospital that they got a clearer picture of their son’s condition.
It was grim, but at least he was alive.
“On day one, we met Dr Nardi when we arrived at the hospital in Italy. They wanted to brief us before we saw Keagan. He said simply, ‘We gave your son zero percent chance of life.’ It had taken three days to get to Italy, so he had already proved them wrong.
“At that meeting Dr Nardi said he was not sure if Keagan would be able to communicate due to the length of time he lacked blood and oxygen … A week later Keagan squeezed my hand when I asked him questions.”
For Keagan himself, the slow process of emerging from a coma was a confusing time.
“My first memory was very blurry and is of my doctors, my parents and my agent Robert Hunter, who was translating for me to understand,” he explained. “They were standing by my bed, seeing if I could understand them.
“I don’t recall much and was clearly in no state to understand anything. Afterwards, a couple of weeks later, I was told that my parents were initially informed that I wouldn’t survive the first 24 hours.
“Then when I was still alive they said, ‘If he can survive the next three days we believe he will live BUT won’t have any brain function’. Slowly I began to defy what they were saying.
“As much as I felt like there was little progress, the doctors were amazed at my improvement.”
Onwards, ever onwards
In the days and weeks which followed, the family’s uncertainty continued. Their son spent approximately three weeks in the intensive care unit and his parents were only allowed to see him in the afternoons. That led to anxious times waiting to see him, empty hours filled with questions and fears.
Two things were of comfort. Wayne Girdlestone states that he, and Keagan, ‘have a strong faith,’ and that this gave them a glimmer of hope. In addition to that, word had got around about what had happened and the people of Rimini would approach the family on the street.
Despite the language barrier, they would give their encouragement and support, saying things such as, ‘Forza Keagan [go Keagan].’ That led to tears on both sides, but the sense of solidarity was clear.
Others were also doing what they could to help.
“Towards the end some of the staff would text us and say Keagan had a ‘good night,’ etc. For that we were very grateful,” his father said. “Robert Hunter was also really proactive in that he was able to get information for us and always made sure we found the right people to speak to.”
Meanwhile Keagan was continuing to battle. The 19-year-old was making progress, little by little. However he still had a long, long way to go. “I was in bed for so long not moving that my muscles started to fade. I had lost 16kg. Before the accident I was already at 7% body fat,” he explained.
But what were more serious were the effects on his brain.
“I had suffered several strokes due to the lack of blood. My brain started to die. Because of this, the left side of the body had lost strength and coordination. However at the time, because of the extent of my brain damage, they thought the damage was a lot more severe.
“Initially I had to try and sit up. I couldn’t even do that at first as I’d become extremely lightheaded. Then each day I’d sit longer and longer. It started at five seconds. Eventually I made it to fifteen minutes, although at this time I had no strength in my abdominal muscles to hold my body up. It was a terrible feeling.”
He was making progress but doctors were still pessimistic as to the possible extent of his recovery. Having originally said that he might not have brain function, they now told his parents that his mobility might never return.
“The week Keagan left the ICU the doctors again said they felt he would probably never be able to walk unaided,” said Wayne Girdlestone. “Yet if I recall correctly it was about two weeks later that he took his first steps …”
“I eventually stood for two minutes about two weeks after arriving at the rehabilitation centre,” Keagan explained, giving his own recollection. “It was just over a month after the accident. The following day I walked across the room with a walking aid and two physios beside me.
“What helped during all this time were the thousands of messages and videos from Chris Froome, [Mark] Cavendish, my family and friends. Seeing all the loving videos and message made me cry, but helped me get through some incredibly hard days.
“So, if you’re reading this and sent me a message of support, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for saving me from the darkness in ICU …”
Upon his return to New Zealand, Keagan’s fellow students performed a haka at Christchurch airport to welcome him home.
A return to the saddle
Leaving the hospital and starting rehabilitation marked another crucial step towards recovery. So too getting to spend time at home. The initial priority was to relish the freedom and to catch up with friends. They offered encouraging words, but also a distraction from what he had been through.
Still, there was much work to do. One of the most pressing priorities for him was his paralysed arm. He did repeated exercises as part of his rehabilitation therapy and, over time, gradual progress was made.
“My arm is not working anywhere near normal function but for now it’s better than it was,” he says. “In this situation, that is a massive achievement. I also had to work on improving on the strength of my neck as I was only able to raise it off the ground three times after I left hospital. Now I can do it about 15 times.
“It’s amazing how much a weak neck affects you.”
In tandem with that strengthening work, efforts were made to try to regain aerobic fitness. Wayne Girdlestone helped him sit on a home trainer approximately two and a half months after his crash, but warnings that he might faint while exercising meant that actually pedalling the machine was out of the question.
The consequences of falling off the trainer and hitting his head would have been very serious.
And so, rather than turning the pedals, he simply began by sitting in position on the bike. The aim was to see if his body was strong enough to hold him in place. He built up from there and was able begin turning the pedals.
“Over time with supervision I gained more confidence,” he states. “Riding has now almost become a daily routine. On November 13 I rode for 1 hour 30 minutes on the indoor trainer, which was my longest ride to date.”
Girdlestone had been emotional when watching Mark Cavendish take yellow in this year’s Tour de France. That video plus others continue to inspire him to this day. “I see him watching those videos sometimes before he starts his sessions for the day,” states his father. “I KNOW they motivate him.”
So too the ongoing support from Hunter, who continually calls up to check on his progress and to offer encouragement.
Keagan reached another milestone on November 5 when, five months after his crash, he rode his bike outdoors for the first time. His father accompanied him on a half hour ride, staying close and making sure he didn’t do anything to risk falling.
“I’m very nervous of him on the road as I know he CANNOT fall,” he explained. “So I’m continually talking to him and warning him of potential dangers. He says that I’m painful, but it’s tough being dad and coach.
“Once I’m satisfied he is in control of his bike I will let him ride with others but at this stage it’s just the two of us.”
Still, even with that close guidance Keagan has got a huge kick out of being back outdoors on two wheels.
“For the moment I’ve only ridden outside twice. The first ride was 30 minutes and the second 55. It was incredible!
“The last few weeks have been tough. Being stuck at home is incredibly difficult and finding the motivation to do the physio every day on my own for the most part is difficult. But riding on the road for the first time made all these tough days’ worth it.”
Needless to say, the doctors who believed he wouldn’t survive and who then feared he would be brain dead are staggered.
“I love showing them the videos of him on the bike, or simply doing an exercise that they said he will not be able to do,” says his father. “The look on their face says it all…”
What does the future hold?
So where now for Keagan Girdlestone? As those doctors will readily admit, the progress he has made is stunning and has defied expectation.
He’s in a far better place than was envisaged. He is also setting an example which will doubtlessly motivate others in the future.
However he’s frank in saying that he’s still a long way off where he used to be.
“I have a paralysed bicep, and partially paralysed shoulder,” he explains. “Through rehab the shoulder is getting stronger but not enough to lift my arm. The bicep is ‘never’ – to quote the doctors – going to work again. However hopefully through surgery I’ll be able to flex my bicep and lift my arm up. The time frame is said to be around three years.
“I also have approximately lost 30% of the right side of my brain during the strokes. So, the left part of my body is significantly weaker and has little coordination. This is an unknown timeframe and might probably never come right again.
“I guess time will tell.”
While he’s made huge progress in light of those injuries, his father admits he is personally feeling a lot of frustration.
“To be honest I think Keagan has handled everything better than I have. I’m angry, I’m frustrated and continually asking the question why,” he states, emphasising the final word.
“Please don’t get me wrong … Keagan’s recovery is nothing short of a miracle. But when you know what he was capable of, I do struggle to accept where we are now.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and without doubt Keagan was born to do this. His physical and mental attributes were second to none.
“It’s a long road ahead but if anyone can do it he can. We have spoken about a path forward and continually set goals. The first goal was to do a coffee shop [ride] with me by the end of the year … Well, he beat that by two months …
“Looking ahead to the New Year I think we may do a ‘ride with Keagan,’ either with an established event or even just a local coffee shop. I believe it will be good for his morale and also good for him to give back to the sport.
“If his recovery continues like this the plan will be to do some local club TT’s then a few road races here in New Zealand before heading off to Oz. If all goes according to plan we can then look to continue his career in Europe after that …”
While Keagan is uncertain about a return to high level racing, his father has a strong belief that this is possible. He’s encouraging his son to have faith in this, although he says that not everyone is in agreement with this approach.
“For me from day one I have said I will ONLY accept a full recovery … a full recovery means he is able to race and be competitive at the top level of our sport. I have taken a lot of heat from family, friends and the medical community, but it has to be like this.
“At the end of the day if Keagan decides he does not WANT to race again that’s fine. He is my son and I will always love him. The key though is that HE must have the choice to ride or not to ride. As I said before, he was born to do this …”
As for Keagan, he says he’ll do what he can. He knows nothing is guaranteed and recognises that his body has been badly hurt.
Still, he takes encouragement from what he has already achieved. That motivates him to keep trying, to enjoy his sport again while also seeing what his limits are.
“Luckily for me I can still keep fit by riding indoors and on quiet flat roads outside, he states.
“I am still young, so cycling professionally is still a small possibility. Going by what was a small chance of me surviving, I believe in my small chance to get to a strong level in cycling.”