413 days spent in Intensive Care after a paragliding landing gone wrong. Nine resuscitations. 75% of his body burnt. By the numbers the odds were stacked against Kelvin van Baalen. But mathematics doesn’t account for the strength of the human spirit to live to fly another day.
Find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time and the complexion of your life can change in a matter of moments. For Van Baalen the place was the Mpumalanga town of Barberton and the time the 29th of June 2018.
Coming into land during an ongoing paragliding competition, the view of his intended landing area was obstructed by a mountain, trees and bushes which meant he didn’t see two or three powerlines ahead of him. Knocked unconscious by 12000V of electricity which coursed through his body, harrowing falls some way short of describing the moments which followed.
“I woke up on the ground and I was fully engulfed in flames so I had to unclip my paragliding harness and then I had to roll away to sort of get the flames out and try to survive,” Van Baalen recalls.
A fellow competitor who witnessed the impact with the powerlines later told Van Baalen that it was as though he’d become a massive fireball which is a horrifying thought indeed. Fortunately an ambulance was radioed and within 15 minutes arrived in the remote area and transported Van Baalen to a nearby hospital.
The months which followed would be a litmus test of his resolve. Confined to an Intensive Care Unit bed from the day of the accident till the middle of August the following year, the physical toll was staggering. Standing at 6ft 4-in tall, the former King Edward School pupil could do little but watch as he lost both muscle mass and weight – eventually dipping to an alarming 55 kilograms.
Three months of rehab followed – Van Baalen didn’t have the grip strength to open a coke bottle let alone feed or wash himself. Borne out of the doctors’ skepticism around his ability to care for himself in the years to come was a hard-nosed determination that has helped Van Baalen piece his life back together.
“I wasn’t really given much of a chance. I was told I would need care for the rest of my life and I decided, **** you, I’m going to get better and I started walking and cycling in my wheelchair and doing things like that to get myself out of the situation.”
Four years on from that life-changing flight, Van Baalen is still grappling with the after-effects of the electrocution. His mobility has been adversely affected, making climbing stairs an arduous task. Chronic jerks mean that he has been diagnosed with epilepsy but thankfully he hasn’t had a fit in the past four years.
Unable to walk for the first two years following the accident, the challenges Van Baalen faces on a daily basis may have broken the spirit of lesser people but the 25-year-old’s passion for life and sport burns brighter than ever. At the start of 2022, Van Baalen had an ankle brace fitted which helped him combat his “drop foot” and get reacquainted with golf – a game he’d played in his Primary and High School years.
On a family trip to Sabi River Sun, Van Baalen didn’t just dip his toe back in the golfing pool – he dived right in, playing every day for a week. His best score over those seven days was 82, a remarkable feat when you consider that not only had he not touched a club for a few years but returned to the game with a litany of physical limitations, compromised balance among them.
“I wasn’t going to play golf if I was shooting like 110, I’m too competitive a person to want to play if I’m playing like that. I looked into joining SADGA and then my first event was the Ebotse Disabled Open.
Van Baalen has been incredibly competitive in the four SADGA Opens he has played to date – finishing 8th in the Physically-Disabled Medal at the Ebotse Disabled Open, 5th in the Irene Disabled Open, 2nd in the KZN Disabled Open and 2nd in the Tshwane Disabled Open.
Having knocked on the door in recent times – and held the first round lead in Tshwane – it’d come as little surprise if Van Baalen managed a victory in the Cape Town Disabled Open hosted by the City of Cape Town. Were he to lift the trophy though, he’d only be satisfied if he played the type of golf he knows he is capable of.
“I don’t really play for the leaderboard, I play for myself so I’m happy if I come stone–last and shoot 75-75. I’m not happy if I win and I shot 85-85 so it’s not really about the placing, it’s more about how I feel I did personally.”
As wonderful as success on the golf course would be, a burning desire to strap into the paragliding harness and take to the skies once more still lives within the fiery competitor.
“I still want to paraglide which shocks people. They think that for some reason the passion for paragliding was electrocuted out of my body when I hit that powerline but I don’t believe if you actually have a passion for something that it can ever go away. I still want to fly!
*Drop Foot: Difficulty lifting the front part of the foot
Photo: South African Disabled Golf Association
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