Dutch wheelchair athlete could walk after all

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

It recently emerged that wheelchair athlete Monique van der Vorst, the Dutch success story at the Beijing Paralympics, was actually able to walk at the time of her sporting triumphs. Monique’s story reads like a fairytale, but one with very real consequences. Will she be allowed to keep her Beijing medals or not?

“The problem was not in her spinal cord but in her head.” That is the conclusion reached by Monique van der Vorst’s supervising physician now it’s clear that she was not actually paralysed when she won her international medals as a handcyclist. Yet the disabled Dutch athlete was subjected to comprehensive testing at the time.

At the end of 2010, Monique van der Vorst was the toast of the Netherlands. Her story was undeniably a spectacular one: the transition from a paraplegic confined to her wheelchair forever to a healthy cyclist with powerful leg muscles and a professional contract. It was a fairytale, too good for the national and international media to pass up on, including Radio Netherlands Worldwide

Complications following an ankle operation back in 1998 left Monique van der Vorst in a wheelchair at the age of 13. Undeterred by her situation, she devoted herself to the handcycle. Her talent soon became obvious and she went on to win a string of European and world titles as a disabled athlete.

In early 2008, Monique was involved in a serious road accident, which left her with incomplete paraplegia. After five months of intensive rehabilitation, she managed to qualify for the Beijing Paralympics where she became a double silver medallist.

But her story doesn’t end there: in March 2010 Monique suffered another road accident. Not long afterwards she began to regain sensation in her legs and she gradually learned to walk again. She was given a racing bike, began training hard and won a contract with a professional cycling team. Her goal – to take part in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The sky seemed to be the limit for Monique van der Vorst.

In the meantime, the account of her miraculous recovery has had to be revised. Last Friday, it emerged that Monique had been able to walk at the time when she was winning medals as a disabled athlete. She couldn’t walk far, but she had regained sensation in her legs. This means that the improvement was not a result of her accident in 2010. Her paralysis symptoms are thought to be the result of a trauma, caused by problems when she was born, the accidents she underwent and a near-death experience.

Monique told freesheet De Pers: “The symptoms of paralysis were not the result of problems with my spinal cord but the connections with my brain. My current rehabilitation physician compares it to a car: my engine wasn’t broken, but I had lost the ability to drive.”

Did Monique exaggerate her paralysis? Her supervising physician at VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam, Professor of Rehabilitation Research Thomas Jansen, doesn’t think so. “Dystrophy affecting her left leg meant she was confined to a wheelchair as an adolescent.”

Following her accident in 2008, she had all the symptoms of incomplete paraplegia. “From that time on there was clearly something wrong with her. Her legs were very thin and she was always in her wheelchair. But the problem was not in her spinal cord but in her head.”

Professor Jansen does not believe that Monique should be forced to give back her medals. “They tested her paralysis at the Paralympics. She passed all those tests with flying colours. She really was suffering from those problems.”

At the Dutch federation for disabled sports Gehandicaptensport Nederland they know that Monique was also tested in the Netherlands back in 2002, to determine whether she would be allowed to compete as a disabled athlete.

Monique herself is confused by the whole situation. She herself does not fully understand what was wrong with her.

“The doctors did not recognise what I was suffering from. It’s only now that I’m beginning to form a picture of what was wrong with me. I didn’t lie; I just didn’t express myself properly. With hindsight what I said was wrong, but at the time I didn’t know any better.”