Three years ago, there were fears British cyclist Victoria Williamson may never walk again after she broke her neck, back and pelvis in a horror crash.
Williamson was racing at the 2016 Rotterdam Six Day event, but she remembers nothing of the omnium final, where she collided – in dramatic fashion – with home-favourite Elis Ligtlee.
Despite numerous fractures and dislocations, her skin being “torn” open and suffering a cut so deep it exposed her spine, the cyclist has defied the expectations of medical experts.
On Wednesday, the 25-year-old will complete a remarkable comeback by racing for Great Britain at the Track Cycling World Championships in Pruszkow, Poland.
“If you look at my hospital discharge sheet I shouldn’t even be here,” she tells BBC Sport.
“I am proud of myself, but more thankful for all of the support from everyone who’s helped me get back here.”
After the crash – I wanted a photo!
Crashes aren’t uncommon in track cycling, where bikes can move at speeds of up to 50mph, but such was the extent of a collision in which Ligtee was also left unconscious that racing was abandoned and spectators asked to leave.
Paralysis was a real concern for medics treating Williamson at the scene.
However, Williamson, who was in and out of consciousness and “dosed up on Fentanyl”, a drug around 100 times stronger than morphine, had two very different concerns.
She says: “The first thing I asked was: ‘Did I win?’ And then it was: ‘Can you take a picture for banter?’
“I was out of it. I didn’t really know the diagnosis and just thought it was hilarious at that point.”
The rehabilitation – mental and physical
Williamson insists returning to cycling was “always” on her mind throughout the gruelling rehabilitation, but she was initially struggling with even basic tasks.
“I was told I may not be able to walk, then that it would be a fight to walk without a stick and next there was a doubt I’d ride again,” she recalls.
“It wasn’t just the physical pain that was tough, it was the mental as well with having things you’d taken for granted taken away like going to the toilet and being able to wash on your own.
“I had to lay flat for over three weeks and when it came to sitting up even the slightest degree I’d pass out. At that point I knew I wasn’t in a good way.”
After four weeks in hospital, Williamson returned to the UK and spent a record nine-month intensive rehabilitation period at the internationally renowned Bisham Abbey Sports Centre.
She required further surgery to remove screws in her pelvis in September 2017, but began light cycling again later that year.
“I don’t remember anything of the crash, which is a blessing in disguise as it means I haven’t had any psychological issues back on the track,” Williamson says.
‘Vogel’s injury reminds me I’m lucky’
In June last year, German Olympic champion cyclist Kristina Vogel, a friend of Williamson’s, was paralysed in a training crash.
The news, unsurprisingly, hit Williamson hard.
“It made me realise how lucky I was,” she adds. “One of my injuries was two millimetres from my spinal cord so it could have been a lot worse – all movement gone.
“Kristina messaged me a few times when I was in hospital and said ‘oh, you’ve done amazing’ when I came back – but I’m more in awe of her.
“She was one of the icons in women’s sprinting, but how she’s come to grips with a life-changing injury is incredible and she’ll always be a role model to everyone.”
World and Olympic targets
Williamson says she’s a “little bit off” being back to full capacity on the bike and believes she can still improve on her speed, but is now lifting heavier weights in the gym than before her crash.
In January, she made her international comeback at the Hong Kong World Cup and a second-place finish in the women’s team sprint at the National Track Cycling Championships just days later secured her a place at the Worlds.
In Poland, she will race in the women’s sprint – an event in which she secured her sole World Championships bronze medal in 2013 – as well as the individual 500m time trial.
“Expectations-wise, I’ve nothing set in my head as I just want to lay down a good performance. If I can get a personal best and deliver our absolute best it’s another step to Tokyo,” she says.
Tokyo 2020 – the next Olympics – is her long-term target.
Those Games have added significance to the Great Britain women’s sprint team as it was the only track cycling event they failed to qualify in for Rio 2016.
“I’d crashed just before qualifying for Rio, but we now have a really strong group of girls pushing one another and I’m confident we’ll qualify [for Tokyo],” she says.
“Obviously it’s a dream for me to compete for Great Britain at the Olympics and it would be perfect to finish off this stint of hard work.
“Whatever I achieve now is a win already.”