Te Awamutu Sports cyclist Eltje Malzbender says she has to consider herself lucky to have a second chance to reconstruct her life after a serious crash.
Her unwavering determination and work ethic have been critical to her ongoing recovery after crashing off her bike on an isolated King Country road on March 5 last year.
The Waikato Westpac Rescue Helicopter airlifted Malzbender to Waikato Hospital in a critical condition. She was riding alone along Te Anga Road, near the Marokopa Falls, when the accident occurred.
There were no witnesses to the fall. The cyclist was found by a motorist lying on the road.
St John Ambulance staff responded to the emergency call and the Waikato Westpac Helicopter was called to assist.
After a short stay at Waikato Hospital, Malzbender was transferred to ABI Rehabilitation in Auckland with a severe traumatic brain injury and fractures in her neck.
This resulted in difficulty coordinating and controlling movement, she had double vision, fatigue that became worse as the day progressed, difficulty with memory, multi-tasking and some problem solving.
On October 18, Malzbender was transferred from ABI Rehab to the Laura Ferguson Rehabilitation in Auckland, established in 1967 by a group of supporters who were determined that people with disabilities should have a choice about where they live, work and lead their lives.
"When Eltje came to us she was walking with a high gutter frame. She could walk with crutches sometimes, but only with supervision," senior physiotherapist, Heather Gordon, who worked with Eltje, told the Courier.
"At Laura Ferguson Rehabilitation (LFR), she had regular physiotherapy, some weeks daily, and also attended the gym twice daily, often for up to two hours.
"She had some assistance from the fitness trainer, although she worked hard on her own gym programme much of the time."
Gordon said Malzbender had regular occupational therapy and speech language therapy and assistance from the rehab coaches and nurses as needed.
She also had great support from her friend and cycling buddy John Blake who takes her most weekends to the velodrome to get back into her cycling.
Malzbender was discharged home from LFR on May 26, 2017.
"Eltje will be able to walk around inside the house without a walking aid, but for some time she will need to use a crutch or stick when mobilising in the community," said Gordon.
"She may well get to walking without a walking aid as she works so hard and her rehabilitation will be ongoing.
"At this stage, it is uncertain whether she will return to work or in what capacity, but rehabilitation is working towards this."
Malzbender was at the height of her cycling powers when the accident happened, having just won the hotly contested C grade division of the Harcourts KDRE Bev May Women's Tour in Morrinsville.
She enjoyed getting stuck into multi-distance races, like the gruelling K2 (200km) race in the Coromandel, rated the toughest one-day event in the Southern Hemisphere and the Dynamo Events Wellington to Auckland Seven-Day Cycle Challenge.
Having enjoyed her debut appearance in the 2013 Wellington to Auckland, Malzbender was back firing on all cylinders again in 2014 - finishing fourth female, 52nd overall and second in the women's 50-59 age group - a big improvement on the previous year when she placed 77th overall and seventh female.
In an ironic twist, the 2013 Wellington to Auckland Tour supported the charity Think - The Head Injury Network for Kiwis.
Think is working hard to get the message across that head injury is a silent epidemic.
A traumatic brain injury (TBI), including concussion, occurs on average every 15 minutes in New Zealand.
This far surpasses the number of heart attacks and more than five times the number of strokes.
Brain injuries, including strokes and TBI, are the leading cause of disability and death in New Zealand, according to lead researcher professor Valery Feigin from AUT University's National Institute for Stroke and Applied Neurosciences.
It has been a long, hard battle over the past 15 months as Malzbender fought to overcome her traumatic brain injury with the same courage and spirit she has shown competing on her bike.
She says the three major points that have helped her cope have been a positive attitude, lots of help from friends in both Otorohanga and Te Awamutu, especially her friend John Blake, and her faith.
What she has learned is that you should not take things for granted.
In August last year, only five months after her horrific accident, Malzbender made an appearance at her Te Awamutu Sports Cycling Club's annual dinner and prizegiving.
"It was a very moving experience to see how determined she is and how far she has come," said club secretary, Melinda Loader.
Nine months further down the track, on May 11 this year, the gutsy cyclist received one of the biggest rounds of applause all weekend at the Grassroots Trust Age Group Road Cycling Nationals in Cambridge after winning the Para Trike T2 time trial, then rode her way to another Para Trike T2 gold medal the following day in the road race.
"Staying as physically fit as possible has been a game-changer for me," says Malzbender.
"I have to consider myself lucky to have a second chance to reconstruct my life and part of that is riding a tricycle.
"The staff at the Avantidrome in Cambridge have been instrumental in getting me back on a bike, especially Michael Bland and Vicki Wade. Michael spends every Saturday morning riding with me, helping me re-gain my balance to ride again and progress to a stage where I can once again ride on the road."
Malzbender says she is steadily getting faster but still freaks out a little riding on the road when there is a buildup of traffic.
She has been selected in the New Zealand Paralympics prospective squad. Her courage and determination to overcome the odds is reaping rewards.