My life in motion

A swimming accident changed Jürgen Winkler’s life completely. One moment he was an active pedestrian; the next he found himself sitting paraplegic in a wheelchair. Faced with the question, “Give up or fight?”, he decided to do everything to become as active and independent as possible again. A story about optimism, training and motivation.

Jürgen Winkler

Even my “pedestrian” life was very active. As an active football club member, I was busy with training and matches several days a week. On other days I was involved with the water rescue service and the THW (German Federal Agency for Technical Relief), as well as the volunteer fire brigade, which also took up a lot of my time. I was involved in most of the fire brigade’s missions – usually between 80 and 120 a year – alongside my career as a carpenter, and it was almost like a second job. When there were no club activities scheduled, I rode my motorbike or took my chainsaw and axe to the forest so I could stay warm in winter. With travel, day trips, friends and parties, my life was pretty well-rounded.

In June 2003, my life changed from one second to the next. I had a swimming accident at Lake Garda in Italy and have been paraplegic ever since – completely paralysed from the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. The life I had been living was turned upside down completely. Suddenly it came to a standstill. Everything I had been doing up to this point was no longer possible. 

During my first weeks in hospital I was completely bedbound. I was then allowed to sit in a wheelchair for a few hours at a time. In this initial period I thought a lot about how to keep going: Should I give up or see what was still possible? Luckily, I met other wheelchair users in the hospital who had been in a wheelchair for years and who told me how worthwhile their lives were in spite of it. 

This made my decision easy: giving up was out of the question – I want to enjoy life! From that point on I did everything I could to become as independent as possible again. For myself, above all, but also for my girlfriend at the time, my parents and friends. So it was full steam ahead for occupational therapy, physiotherapy and strength training. I quickly noticed that I was making progress with the daily exercises and the strength training. I regained more and more independence and life became worth living again. After about 6 months, I was discharged from hospital. 

At home I continued to attend occupational therapy and physiotherapy regularly and continued to build up my strength. After a few months, I got a place in a vocational training centre. Here I not only completed a new qualification as an administrative officer, I did rehabilitation as well. I spent two years at the training centre, and a lot changed in that time. I became fully independent, found a job and tried out lots of new sports.

A life in motion as a wheelchair user

I have been a wheelchair user for about 17 years now. A lot has happened during this time. But one thing never changes: I lead an active life. 

I’m an enthusiastic handbiker, and I enjoy both simple day tours and participating in races. I’ve also been working as a freelance speaker for many years giving talks on motivation to companies, medical and surgical supply stores and insurance companies. As well as that, I provide training courses in paraplegia clinics on the topic of “Everyday life in a wheelchair” for occupational therapists, physiotherapists, sports therapists and nursing staff, as well as for patients. Travelling to cities and scenic places has also become an important part of my life. 

To be able to do all these activities, I also have to stay fit. I train a lot with my handbikes and I use my wheelchair a lot as part of everyday life. This exercise mostly happens outdoors. Of course, I can’t do this in the winter months or when the weather’s bad. Instead, I use my recumbent bike in the apartment to train on a roller. 

From the moment I first started using a wheelchair, the THERA-Trainer has been a constant training device. I first encountered it in the hospital. I then had it prescribed so that I could train at home. In particular I use the cranks for my upper body and arms, so that I can actively maintain and build up my remaining muscles. I try to train with the tigo several times a week. I usually train from 30 minutes up to 3 hours at a time – depending on how much time I have and whether I just want some gentle exercise or a real workout. The passive leg exerciser also gets a lot of use. Although I can’t work actively with it, it’s still good for me because the leg movement reduces my spasticity. It also has a positive effect on my gut health. 

What’s great is that there’s little to no set-up time. For upper body training I simply have to move my wheelchair over to the trainer and I can start immediately. Some manoeuvering is required to move my legs through, but it doesn’t take long. The good thing is that I can manage all this on my own despite my high degree of paralysis. The THERA-Trainer can be easily integrated into everyday life. I keep mine in the living room and often use it while I’m watching television. I usually use the tigo when I’m watching sports reports. I love to watch sports while I’m exercising – it’s fun and the training sessions are over before I know it. I can enjoy myself while doing something that benefits my everyday life and my body feels better for it. Because I’m always trying to increase my numbers, I don’t lose motivation. When I succeed, I feel so much better. 

My life might be different now - but I am totally happy. 

My advice to everyone is to exercise as much as possible. You don’t have to be as extreme as me, of course. The results will simply have a positive effect on your everyday life.