'They'd tweeted at the time that I had died': cyclist Keagan Girdlestone races in Australian pro event a year after crash
Professional cyclist Keagan Girdlestone carries two very visible legacies of the cycling accident that claimed his life — before he claimed it right back.
There's the two long, intersecting scars on his throat, a permanent reminder of the moment he smashed through the back window of his support car during a world pro tour race in Italy less than a year ago.
The other legacy is the tattoo emblazoned on his left forearm of a wooden cross, a cycling helmet and glasses. It also bears the date and the location of the accident: June 5, 2016, Rimini.
This was the time and place when Girdlestone died. It was also the time and place when the Christchurch rider came back to life.
"They'd tweeted at the time that I had died because of how much blood I lost," Girdlestone, 20, said. "I went for two and a half hours without oxygen to the brain. That's what the doctors told me. I needed about eight pints of blood, which is about your whole body's supply. And I went into cardiac arrest on the operating table. Apart from that, I only remember feeling hot liquid — blood — running down my neck when the accident happened."
On Saturday, Girdlestone completed his remarkable resurrection in Australia when he competed in the gruelling 228km road race from Grafton to Inverell, his first professional race since the accident.
He finished 55th – about half an hour behind winner Neil Van Der Ploeg — but if you consider Girdlestone's story in the past year you can understand if he felt as satisfied as the winner.
"On the start line, I was quite cheerful," he said. "It was quite special, because a lot of riders were saying how happy they were to see me again. At the finish, I don't know why but I started getting quite teary and emotional. At the 130-kilometre mark I hit a bad patch. The legs were aching, the neck was sore and the body was quite sore and there was another three hours to go. It was brutal."
On June 5 last year, during the Coppa della Pace race along Italy's Adriatic coastline, the South African-born New Zealander was flying through the field on a descent before he crashed through the rear window of his support car.
The result was devastating. He cut his carotid artery and jugular vein and then almost bled to death.
"I recall hearing spectators saying 'Piano, Piano, Piano [slow down]' before everything went silent," he said.
His father, Wayne Girdlestone, told cycling website cyclingtips.com, last year: "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 2000 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 … [team coach] Hein Badenhorst was able to 'promise' me that Keagan was still alive."
When his father arrived at the hospital where his son lay in a coma, the prognosis from the doctors could not have been bleaker: "We gave your son zero per cent chance of life."
Since then, Girdlestone has been defying medical opinion, from walking again, to riding again, to riding on the pro tour.
Of all the tough times he's endured, the toughest has been knowing he might never be fully functional again.
"The toughest thing initially was adjusting to not having any proper function in my arm," Girdlestone said. "And getting used to the fact that I could potentially never lead a normal life again. I was optimistic that I could improve but it was hard to lie there and try to move my right arm, and doing everything I could to move it, and it doesn't move at all. There is nothing worse. It kills your soul."
His body is still on the mend and he has limited movement in his right arm after a series of strokes following the accident. His speech is also quite slow and slightly slurred.
But there is no questioning his heart.
"The Grafton to Inverell race is a crazy race," Team Ultra Racing team boss Zac Naumcevski said. "I can't believe he finished it, given where he has come from ... This is the hardest one-day race in Australia. I was just happy to see him get out there and finish.
"We had no pressure on him. It was more just about him seeing how he stacks up against the rest of the boys. For a first race back, he did exceptionally well. He had never raced over this distance before, even before his accident. He picked the worst and hardest possible race he could pick to have a crack at it."
- Sydney Morning Herald