Water - my element

Kirsten Bruhn learned to swim when she was three years old. Just like the rest of her family. Not even a motorcycle accident in 1991 could destroy her love of water. Despite being a paraplegic, Kristen Bruhn feels truly comfortable in the pool. Unlike in "real life", there are no barriers or limits there.

Swimming provides a sort of outlet for me to leave off steam, says the 36-year-old sportswoman and Paralympics gold medal winner. It feels like a part of her and represents the intersection in her life before and after the accident. "When I'm in the water, I don't have a disability," she said. Her strong will to be active and do only what she enjoys is one of the defining characteristics of this exceptional sportswoman from Neumünster.

"Always active"

Despite the perpetual presence of her wheelchair at the pool edge, one can still feel the enthusiasm in Kirsten's voice when she speaks of her unbroken passion for swimming.
"I've always been extremely active," she said. "If there was something I couldn't do, I'd always pick it easy, be it surfing or skiing. I never experienced any limit to my agility. Today, I feel that kind of freedom in the water. Anyone watching me doing lengths of the pool would never think that I could possibly have a disability, even though swimming is a kind of battle for me; a battle to keep me from going under."

Water, the elixir of life

Since early childhood, water has played a central role in Kirsten's life - not surprising in a family passionate about swimming as a competitive sport. Born in 1969, the youngest of five children, Kirsten discovered a love of swimming at an early age. She learned to swim when she was three, and by the time she was ten, was already regularly participating in competitions. After finishing high school and spending a year in the USA as an au pair, she was making some ambitious plans outside the pool: In 1991, she planned to move to Hamburg to study graphic design. This was however, not to be.

The turning point

It was supposed to have been a carefree holiday in Greece in 1991. Kirsten and her then boyfriend planned a motorcycle trip on the island of Kos. They were driving up the highest mountain, so that they could enjoy the views, when their motorbike veered off the road. Immediately after the fall, Kirsten realized that she was unable to move. Her boyfriend had luckily escaped unhurt. Even the first aid team could not change the situation. "I had a comminuted fracture", (the bone is crushed or in many pieces) she explained. The fragments of bone were pressing on my spinal cord."If the blood clot had been cleared immediately it wouldn't have been as bad as it is now." She was flown to Kiel in a German rescue aircraft. The diagnosis was incomplete paraplegia. Two weeks later, she was transferred to Boberg/Bergedorf.

Confronting boundaries

For Kirsten, this period marked the beginning of the real saga: the conflict within herself. This energetic woman was suddenly confronted with limitations, which she had never before imagined. Unrestricted movement was no longer possible. Even though she sometimes could, and still can walk using crutches, Kirsten refuses to accept these restrictions. "I have always worked hard to overcome my disability," she said. Incomplete paraplegia means that there are still some muscles that have feeling. "The muscles at the front of my legs are still there, but the ones at the back have gone." During her two-year rehabilitation period, she began to fight against her fate. From that moment on swimming was no longer a competitive sport, but rather a way of staying fit and mobile.

Creative movements

Things were also happening in her professional life. In 1993, Kirsten started training as a social insurance specialist with the state health insurance office in Schleswig-Holstein. She has now abandoned her plans of becoming a graphic designer, but still nurtures her artistic streak. The swimmer creates oil paintings, designs items of clothing, for instance unusual T-shirts, and jewellery and sees this as an opportunity to do something completely different. "The good thing about T-shirts is that they have two sides," said Kirsten. "You always need to look at both sides - just like in life."

A fresh start

Kirsten Bruhn does not have a lot of time to give expression to her creativity, swimming takes priority. In 1992, with encouragement from a swimming colleague, she hesitantly signed up for her first disabled sports competition. She didn't really plan to become a disabled sportswoman. Now she trains four to six times a week, including athletics and strength training. One training unit is between three and four kilometres, and trains a range of aspects such as stamina, sprints, breathing, turns and starts. She has achieved this thanks to the support of her family, in particular her father, and also her employer, the Schleswig Holstein state insurance office which always allows her special leave, to compete. 

Sport is fun

The highlight of Kirsten's sporting career to date was the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where she came home with four medals. Gold in the 100 m breaststroke, silver in the 100 m backstroke, silver in the 50 m freestyle and bronze in the 100 m freestyle. Kirsten really enjoyed the Olympic Games. "The competitors are far more communicative, less driven and more open," she said. "We're just happy because we know it's not the end of the world if you don't win."

Undiminished lust for life

Her enthusiasm in the water also influences her creativity. "Competitions are an opportunity for me to measure my performance," explained Kirsten. "I feel fit and happy in the water and this has a positive effect on other areas of my life." Kirsten had, for instance great fun taking part in a somewhat unusual photo session. It was her trainer's idea, to have four swimmers participate in a nude photo shoot. After the first ten minutes, which Kirsten described as strange, the atmosphere relaxed and the result was some amazing photos of exceptional human beings. Kirsten Bruhn still gets enthusiastic about new things. Water-skiing and downhill skiing are just two of the pursuits she wants to try out. "So much has happened since Athens," she said. "I'm experiencing things that are completely new to me. At a day for wheelchair users held by the company Schwalbe in Gummersbach, I met Reini Sampl (www.rs1.at), a successful mono-skier who is also a wheelchair user. His sporting career is funded solely by sponsorship . I can learn a lot from him. I have had the good fortune of seeing my dream come true at Athens. I am now looking forward to new challenges."

Peking - and then trainer

In the meantime she sets one world record after another. In 2006 she won six German champion titles and won 2x gold, 3x silver and 1x bronze medals at the world championships in Durban. A sporting highlight to come will be the European championships 2007 and the Paralympics 2008 in Peking. What comes after that is also already clear: "I have promised my father that when I retire from competitive swimming that I will become a swim trainer myself", says Kirsten. Ultimately I have learned one thing: "when you don't help yourself, nobody will"

Source: Deutscher Behindertensportverband