Stig Broeckx’s long road back to life
Do you remember where you were on May 28 in 2016? I do, very vividly. I read the news about a huge crash in the Tour of Belgium and heard the name of the man who was most heavily affected: Stig Broeckx. His story is a miracle, and the film ‘De Stig’ tells that story in a moving documentary that is now available with English subtitles.
Stig’s crash shook the cycling world. I remember chatting with him a few weeks before in the Tour of Turkey – his comeback race after another crash in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne where a motorbike took him out. Stig told me at the Istanbul airport about his plans and how he was looking ahead to everything his cycling life would bring him. His smile was radiant and his eyes gleamed with the joy of living his boyhood dream.
Stig’s crash particularly rattled the cycling community because it came less than two months after the death of two other young Belgian riders: Antoine Demoitié who crashed in Gent-Wevelgem, and Daan Myngheer who suffered a cardiac arrest in the Criterium International.
Stig looked like he would be the third Belgian rider to die in less than two months’ time and the cycling world was once again plunged into mourning. But Stig survived and was left in a coma. For the time being, he was alive but the news that came in wasn’t all that positive. A vegetative comatose state for the rest of his life seemed the only outcome.
But Stig would prove the medical team wrong. His case became the exception to the rule. Against all the odds, he woke up after six months, learned to speak again, to walk, to live again. The documentary takes us along every step of the way: all the hardship and all the victories.
The documentary shows a story about love first and foremost. The love of a normal farmers’ family from a small town in the north of Belgium: a mother and a father, three sons and a daughter. Ordinary, hardworking folk. Stig Broeckx was that kind of cyclist, too – he rode his heart out for his team captains.
“I am a lucky man,” he said to me from his home in Belgium. He lives there with his fiancée Marlies and he just finished peeling the potatoes for the night’s dinner when I visited.
“I like cooking for Marlies and she eats almost everything I make her too,” he says, his face lighting up with that well-known smile of his. “She works as a pharmacist and has a very busy job, especially now during the pandemic. I love it when she comes home, sits at the table and I bring her dinner,” he says.
That love story via Tinder has changed his life, but so many things have changed in his life in the past four and a half years. The damage done to his body on that stretch of road in the Belgian Ardennes has never changed his personality or his intellectual capabilities. He has trouble speaking because all those little muscles in his face and throat were inactive during the six months of coma and intubation, but his mind is as bright as it ever was.
“As a pro cyclist I was always working my muscles, of course, but I never knew there were so many muscles in your face. I still work with the speech therapist regularly to improve my speech, to use my lips correctly to form the words. Walking and talking are still my biggest things to work on,” he says.
The truth is that it’s sometimes hard to understand what he says and that it takes some time to get used to his way of communication. But even without words it’s clear that Stig Broeckx is a special guy. He has an incredible, positive outlook on all things in life.
“I know I am still improving, but it’s a marathon while I sometimes want it to be a sprint. That can be frustrating at times but I always try to look at it from the positive side. When I woke up from the coma, I developed as a child would develop: with huge leaps forward. Now I am doing baby steps – but baby steps are still steps. Every day I get a little better,” he explains.
“It’s a shame what happened to me but I survived. I was lucky it happened in 2016 and not three years earlier. The medical developments improved greatly. I was lucky. I am lucky and I don’t want to mope about what happened.”
His positivity is contagious, as is his laugh. It’s loud and energetic. For someone who has been through so much, his outlook on life is admirable. It’s not a role he plays for the media. He has always been a positive man, seeing life in terms of what he can do, not what he can’t.
“Life is just so beautiful,” he states without an inch of doubt. “When I just woke up from the coma I couldn’t go outside. The only thing I saw was the world from the hospital window. I saw nature change with the seasons. As a cyclist, I had always loved being outside. I grew up on a farm and we lived with nature and the seasons. Seeing that from the hospital was great,” he tells me.
“I have been a positive guy for all my life, all of my family, but the feelings have become more intense after the accident. The relationship with my family has become more intense. Thanks to them this was never a lonely process for me to go through. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my family.”
His life philosophy is to sometimes stand still and look in the rear-view mirror of his own life. It’s always one step at a time, a step that’s sometimes wonky because his right foot is still contracted from the long period of inactivity.
“I want to motivate and inspire people but when I look at my own progress, I motivate myself too,” he states. “The motivation and inspiration were also the reason to make the documentary and write the book. It’s great to hear that so many people find it inspirational and it’s amazing to know that now many more people get to see it.”
The documentary ‘De Stig’ was produced in 2019 by Eric Goens and director Diederd Esseldeurs. It aired in Flemish cinemas and was shown on the Belgian TV channel Sporza, where it had a huge impact. Broeckx got many reactions from both inside and outside of the cycling world.
The documentary shows the path Broeckx walked after his crash. He literally walked back into life, and completed a three-kilometre charity walk which took him almost a day, an emotional part of the documentary. Nowadays, three kilometres are just a warm-up for him.
“When I was a pro cyclist, I weighed about 71 kilos. When I woke from that coma I was 45 kilos. I ate and ate and ate in the months after I woke up. I devoured chocolate and ate kiwi fruit with peel and all. I did peel my bananas though,” he says, laughing loudly again.
“Now I try to watch my eating habits and try to stay fit. When it’s not winter, I ride like a tourist on 20 to 30-kilometre bike rides. I also take my bike to the supermarket and I walk. I do Nordic walking with two of those poles. It’s a complete workout and in the beginning the poles improved my balance as well. I now do ten kilometres easily.”
Family is very important to Stig: before, during and after all that happened. The family dairy farm is just a short ride away and he visits his mum and dad often. They are down-to-earth folk and a film about their lives was something completely out of their comfort zone. What stands out in the documentary is the love of this family for each other, and for Stig. His former girlfriend Tilly features as well.
“We talked about the documentary plans a lot. I am an introvert, and have never been outgoing in public. It took me some time to get out there to share my story. I also thought at the beginning that people would maybe be fed up with my story, that there would be a Stig overkill – but we had many good reactions,” Stig says.
“My mother didn’t want to be on camera too much but in the end, everyone was happy with the result. It was good to watch it together as well and hard at the same time to see how Tilly and my family were in so much pain when I wasn’t aware of it. We could ask the directors what we wanted and, in the end, everyone was happy with how they came across. I am also happy my former girlfriend Tilly was portrayed as she was. I am thankful for what she did for me. We walked together in an important period of my and her life.”
It seems like Stig sees no obstacles on the road ahead and never feels angry about the turn his life took. It makes him a lovely person to be around. He has friends he has known since he was a child and a close-knit family around him. He is happy the balance is restored between him and his siblings; that life is not only about him anymore.
Stig Broeckx turned 30 this year and is full of plans. He wants to get his driver’s license, he asked Marlies to marry him, he wants to maybe go back to school to become a physical therapist, he wants to coach people who have been through the same, and he wants to motivate and inspire.
“Sometimes I am frustrated, but it’s about things I can’t control. I want to get my driver’s license but my exam has been postponed due to Corona. We will also wait with our marriage because of the pandemic. If the day is there, I want it to be outside because I love nature so much. I live by the day and moping doesn’t help anybody,” he says.
He smiles a lot. It was and still is his trademark. That smile gets even bigger when I ask him about kids. He is an uncle now, and his friends have children too.
“I would love to. My first cousin was born when I was in a coma. A while ago I became an uncle again. It’s such a beautiful thing. Children are so honest. The other day one of my friend’s kids told me I speak so well now. Kids always tell the truth. They just say what they feel. I would love to one day be a father myself. I have seen many wishes come true so far. I never say never in life.”