Reader Profile - Sigi's two loves

Losing a leg in a car accident set Sigi Koehler on an unexpected new course in her life. The destination is possibly Beijing 2008.

Siglind Koehler was born in a small village named Eilte (population 420) near Hanover in Germany. As a teenager she loved horse riding, so after finishing her schooling she studied to become a race horse trainer and breeder. (Picture: Sigi Koehler.)

Driving home after a day’s work at the racetrack, Sigi’s boyfriend lost control on a rain soaked bend and the car hurtled off the road. In the chaos Sigi’s door opened and her right leg dangled out. Then the car hit a tree side-on – her side – and the door crushed her knee, almost severing it. Paramedics arrived within minutes, most certainly saving her life. But her leg was irreparable. She had an emergency above-knee amputation at the age of 22 years. Her boyfriend had minor injuries.

“Immediately when I realised my leg was gone, my goal was to ride again. My boyfriend bought me a horse; I named him Galiano del Capo. He was my therapy.” says Sigi. She was back in the saddle with a prosthetic leg.

Sigi was keen to get back to work, but the German government had other ideas. Because she was disabled, (they said), she could no longer work with horses, and insisted she should get training for an office job. Then her boyfriend, wracked with guilt about what he had done, broke up with her two years after the accident.

A doubly disappointed Sigi pondered her next move. Then she got romantically involved with a young Englishman who was leaving Germany to emigrate to South Africa. She decided to follow him. “The reasons why I left Germany were my disappointment in the government of Germany, and a man.” says Sigi. But there was another, bigger, reason. “I hoped I would find a job working with horses in South Africa.”

The “man” part didn’t work out, but on a country road in Johannesburg Sigi saw a sign that read Shumba Shaba Therapeutic Riding Centre. She asked the owner Sharon Rufus for a job. She ended up moving into a cottage on the property and started work the same day. (Picture: Sigi Koehler instructs her riders during a hippotherapy session.)

Sharon trained Sigi in the techniques of Hippotherapy, derived from the greek word “hippos” meaning horse. Hippotherapy uses the multi-dimensional movements of a walking horse to treat patients with movement dysfunction due to cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, stroke, autism and other disabilities. The therapeutic benefits of the horse have been recognised since 460 BC.

Sigi’s work at Shumba Shaba encompassed many different aspects. She offered various therapies for children with physical and intellectual disabilities, as well as movement rehabilitation for adults with brain and spinal injuries. She also coached riding as a sport skill for Special Olympics and Paralympic competitors. And of course there was a general riding school for able-bodied people. Her Ossur bionic leg got mixed reactions from her pupils and patients; most found it an amusing curiosity.

Within six months of arriving in South Africa, Sigi encountered Carl Schroeder, an amputee rower who noticed her prosthesis and brazenly asked her if she would like to try rowing in a coxed fours boat. She tried the rowing for a while but then stopped – I don’t have time, she said. But she loved the water and the camaraderie at the regattas. Adrian Higgins, the South African adaptive rowing team coach convinced her to start rowing again. She took it up again, joining the other amputee rowers at numerous small national regattas. She eventually became a full member of the South African adaptive team.

In mid 2007 the crew took part in their first international regatta in England and finished second. At the World Cup in Amsterdam a month later, they placed fourth. The World Championships were fast approaching and Sigi was fired up, working out five hours a day in the gym and rowing on the weekends at Wemmer pan. On her horizon she saw the glimmer of gold at the Beijing Olympics. But then that hateful red tape struck again. Sigi would not be allowed to compete for South Africa in the World Championships, nor by extension the Olympics, because she was not South African. Her rowing career was over just as it began to show promise. She was devastated. Her prosthetist, Johan Snyders, generously offered to marry her immediately so that she could compete on a South African passport, but Sigi declined, only because she would lose her German citizenship if she did. (Picture: Sigi Koehler prepares for a training session at Wemmerpan.)

If she wanted to continue rowing internationally, it could only be with a German crew in a German boat. She had to try and qualify for the German adaptive rowing team. And she would have to give up her beloved job at Shumba Shaba and return to Hanover.

She flew back to Hanover on December 12th. Her employer Sharon Rufus said her job was guaranteed; the door was open, she could come back if she wanted to.

After Beijing, whether she makes the crew or not, Sigi is going to write a book about her experiences. Then she definitely wants to work in the disability field, as a hippotherapist, prosthetist and motivator. Is it possible we will see Sigi in South Africa again some day? We’ll have to wait and see.

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