She’s a world champion facing challenges in life everyday following a traumatic cycling accident, but focusing as hard as she can on winning New Zealand a Paralympic medal at Tokyo. Ashley Stanley reports.
Visualising winning is pretty standard for a full-time athlete in any sport.
But there’s nothing ordinary about it when Eltje Malzbender practises the mental technique.
For the New Zealand para-cyclist, it takes a lot more mental energy than for most to imprint in her consciousness the vision of finishing on the podium at the Tokyo Paralympics, after she suffered a severe traumatic brain injury five years ago.
She does visualise that podium success, but “things that wouldn’t be demanding for you, are really demanding for me,” she says. “Like everything, every day is a challenge, but I just take it all in and do it.”
In March 2016, Malzbender was found unconscious on the side of the road near Te Anga in the Waitomo region. A former top runner in Germany, and experienced cyclist, she had been out for her normal cycling routine.
After she was admitted to Waikato Hospital, medical staff apparently gave her the lowest possible chance of surviving.
Despite early predictions, Malzbender made it and would spend two-and-a-half months in a coma and then more than a year recovering in between intensive, high dependency and specialist units in the North Island.
The life-changing accident left Malzbender with ataxia, a degenerative disease that affects the part of the brain responsible for movement. Symptoms can range from not being able to speak, balance or function independently. Most people are confined to wheelchairs or walking frames.
Malzbender had to learn how to speak and walk again and still has ongoing sight issues and short term memory loss.
But the 59-year-old has never been one to give up.
It’s this kind of attitude that catapulted Malzbender into the sport full-time and has kept her on track to being a podium favourite in Tokyo. “I visualise myself winning it,” Malzbender says. “I’m most looking forward to the competition. And hoping just to do well.”
In her first competition after the accident, Malzbender came first in the road race and time-trial at the nationals. She had only registered to race two weeks before the event, after learning how to use a tricycle instead of her old bicycle during rehabilitation.
With no recollection of the accident, Malzbender tried to come to terms with the severity of her injuries during the early rehabilitation stages. Her background as a physiotherapist has helped guide Malzbender with her riding and ongoing rehabilitation exercises.
When issues arise, she’s able to talk through what she’s experiencing with her current physio and together they work out solutions to make things better.
In the initial stages of recovery following the accident, Malzbender didn’t fully realise what had happened. “I thought it was just an injury that I had to overcome,” she says. “It was only later on I realised I would never overcome it.
“But on the other hand it was really helpful that I just did my rehab exercises everyday or several times a day because I would’ve expected my patients to do the same.”
Before the accident, Malzbender worked at Te Kuiti and Taumarunui hospitals for 15 years and was then in private practice covering Te Awamutu and Waikeria prison.
Earlier, getting her German physiotherapy credentials recognised in New Zealand was difficult.
Malzbender had to re-study and pass examinations in order for her to be registered in New Zealand. But like most things she puts her mind to, she got there.
The Cambridge local moved to New Zealand in 2000. She was a former German national running champion. Here, her accident saw her turn solely to cycling.
“Cycling was always part of my life before my accident,” she says. “After I finally survived, I couldn’t ride a normal bike anymore so my coach then suggested riding a tricycle because I have no balance.”
The move proved successful. In 2019, Malzbender brought home two gold medals from the UCI para-cycling world championships in The Netherlands.
She won the women’s T1 road race and time trial. The 22.2km road race was another display of Malzbender’s commitment as she got up from a crash in the final lap which left a cracked tooth and four stitches in her face.
Earlier that year, she also won two gold medals at the para-cycling World Cup in Belgium in the road race and time trial events.
Her achievements can be seen on the para-cycling walk of champions at the Avantidrome in Cambridge. At the moment, nine para-cyclists are spread along the walk, acknowledging and celebrating their successes.
Paula Tesoriero is up there as the first female Paralympic gold medalist in para-cycling. And it finishes with Malzbender’s gold medal haul. Tesoriero, the Disability Rights Commissioner, also won two bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games and will head to Tokyo this year as New Zealand’s Chef de Mission.
Malzbender’s motivation in sport is simple. “I love doing physical activities and I also enjoy being outdoors,” she says.
“In a way, it’s easy for me because I enjoy training so I just keep doing it. And sport has always been a part of my life. Even when I lived two hours away from work, I would cycle to work and then cycle back the next day.”
A podium finish at the Paralympics is her main focus now.
“I would prefer the gold,” laughs Malzbender. “The gold would mean that it’s kind of a reward for all the work I do for it. But as I said earlier on, I’m happy to do the work.” The Paralympics start in 100 days.
Her base training will not change much in the lead up to Tokyo. But there is some incline work being added to her schedule as the race course has steep hills. Malzbender has visited the Tokyo track, so she knows what to expect.
But she also understands the route there is always changing because of Covid-19.
“I am personally prepared to take on whatever they decide. The protocol is quite strict. With self-isolating here first and then tests, flying, then tests over there again,” Malzbender says.
“Then, during the Games there are several tests and we’re also not able to go anywhere except up to the race course. But I’m pretty good with just focusing on my race. It doesn’t matter if I’m racing in Japan or here in Cambridge.” After the athletes compete, they have up to five days to leave Japan.
Good friend John Blake is her support team and is helping with most planning and training requirements.
Her coach Michael Bland, who will accompany her to Tokyo, was with her before the accident, too. Malzbender had competed for more than 10 years and raced in many events like the national championships and the New Zealand Masters Games.
As a High Performance Sport New Zealand supported athlete, her days are dedicated to cycling, even with the shortened bursts because of fatigue.
Malzbender will use all her mental strength to make that visualisation of winning gold a reality.