The Unrelenting Drive Of Walking Quadriplegic David Mzee

The unrelenting drive of walking quadriplegic David Mzee

At 22 years of age, David Mzee became a quadriplegic after suffering a severe spinal cord injury. 14 years later, he’s represented his nation in wheelchair rugby, is pioneering adaptive sports equipment, and through a life-changing medical breakthrough, is able to walk again. But perhaps most importantly, he never gave up

WHEN HE WAS 22, David Mzee was living a remarkably active life. “My life was all about sports,” he tells Men’s Health. “I’d been studying human movement sciences and I did every sport that I could get my hands on.” Sport was everything to Mzee. He studied it during the day and played it during the night. But that all changed in the blink of an eye. “I only realised after my accident, how active I really was,” he says.

In 2010, during a routine training session at a gym in his native country of Switzerland, Mzee attempted a basic somersault – something he’d pulled off countless times beforehand. This time, Mzee didn’t stick the landing. He immediately knew his life had just changed. “In the moment where I had my accident, I realised that something was really wrong,” he says. “I had some accidents before, and it felt totally different.”

Mzee had suffered a severe spinal cord injury. He’d lost function in his legs, torso and fingers, and was diagnosed with quadriplegia. “There was no doctor telling me that my life would change, but I could feel that this was a big injury and that there would be some severe consequences,” he says. “I couldn’t move nearly everything anymore.”

“It took another three or four months before a doctor finally said that I should get used to the idea of being in a wheelchair for all my life,” Mzee says, speaking to Men’s Health less than two weeks out from attempting to break a personal record, without a wheelchair. Mzee is in Australia for the Wings For Life World Run (WFLWR), a global running event where the funds raised go directly to spinal cord injury research, and he’ll be taking part in the event unassisted.

This won’t be Mzee’s first WFLWR. Having regained a large amount of function in his legs, trunk and fingers, the 36-year-old has participated in the event on a number of occasions, aiming to improve every time. Ostensibly, Mzee has a groundbreaking electrode implant to thank for his recovery, but really, none of it would’ve been possible if he didn’t possess a unique ability to always hold out hope, in spite of the most difficult of circumstances.

 

David Mzee

Red Bull

 

“NO, I ACTUALLY thought that I would walk again,” is what Mzee tells Men’s Health when we ask if he had consigned himself to life in a wheelchair after hearing of his diagnosis. In the months following his injury, Mzee was forced to adapt to a life with limited function. “My fingers were impaired at the beginning, so I couldn’t eat by myself, or brush my teeth or comb my hair,” he says. “But I got that function back, and after some time, I started to hope that my legs would also get better.”

That was a difficult time for Mzee, but even then, he was already setting goals. “I remember in the beginning, there was this mountain when I looked out of my room, and I always thought, one day I’ll walk from here to there.

Six months after his accident, Mzee met with Professor Gregoire Courtine, who was conducting studies on the ability of an electrode implant to restore movement function in rats. At the time, the hope was that the results would prove the implant had applications in humans. “He told me all this preliminary data on the rat trials, and I remember having two ideas at the time. On the one hand, I was really hopeful about the science progressing, but I also knew that it would be a very long process no matter what.”

It took another five years for the implant to be approved for humans. During that time, Mzee spoke to scientists, read up on relevant literature, met the neurosurgeon who would perform the operation, and as a whole, started to hope that he might actually walk again. In 2016, Mzee received the implant.

Mzee’s electrode implant sits on the surface of his spinal cord. It works by sending bursts of electrical stimulation to muscles, mimicking the body’s natural signalling mechanism. Over time, the stimulation is able to engage the brain’s motor cortex through nerves that weren’t damaged during the initial injury. The implant wasn’t a quick fix that would immediately restore function. It took weeks of intensive physical therapy and testing before Mzee could get back on his feet. “In the first week after the implant they did functional mapping where they tried different spots on the electrode and try to find which muscles react,” Mzee says. “Since I was one of the first patients, that process was so tiring and it took very long, but now people who come after me can benefit from it.”

Eventually, Mzee regained some function in his legs and was able to walk again, with the help of a bodyweight support system. The recovery process was lengthy and involved months of physical therapy. As a result, sudden breakthroughs were rare, but Mzee recalls the moment he first walked unassisted with the same sense of triumph he felt all those years ago. “That was one of the few moments that felt like a change from one second to the other, most things were really gradual,” he says. “That was a magical moment because it really felt like walking. It was the first time in the six years since my accident that I was walking hands free.”

 

David Mzee

Red Bull

 

WHILE MZEE’S LIFESTYLE changed dramatically after his accident, his interest – or obsession – with sports remained. “I would say it’s for the same reason it was before the accident,” he says. “It’s just such a big part of my life and it’s so normal for me to train and try new stuff like that.” He would go on to obtain a masters degree in human movement sciences, but studying human movement wasn’t enough for Mzee, he wanted to be physically involved.

New sports and feats of athleticism once came easily to Mzee, but after his accident, he had to learn once familiar activites from the ground up. “I started at 0 again. I was always good at sports and they just came naturally to me, so it was an interesting experience to go through that learning process again in my twenties,” he says. “I remember being back on the skiing slopes was humbling, but also frustrating because there were five year old kids racing next to me and overtaking me while I was falling. I was like ‘wow, I was so good at skiing, and now I’m here with these kids learning again’.”

Credit to him, Mzee stuck with it. He kept practicing, kept training, and eventually got back into competitive sports. In 2022, Mzee was part of the Swiss national wheelchair rugby team that qualified for the world championships for the first time in 16 years. He also gained an interest in water sports – something he wasn’t into before his accident – and started wakeboarding and kitesurfing. Although, that was an area where the technology wasn’t quite there yet for all adaptive participants.

“When I was playing wheelchair rugby and doing skiing, a lot of the equipment was already there and the developments had already been made. But in water sports, it’s a whole different story,” Mzee says of his first experience in wakeboarding. “When I started, I realised that the equipment is just not good for me. Most people who do adaptive water sports like wakeboarding and kite surfing are paraplegics, but for me as a quadriplegic, I don’t have that trunk function and my fingers aren’t good, so I had to change that.”

When Mzee got involved in water sports, it wasn’t possible for a quadriplegic like him to wakeboard. To solve that problem, he invented a new type of wakeboarding for quadriplegics that made use of more suitable equipment, allowing people like him to participate in adaptive sports. But that’s not why Mzee created the equipment. “People say that I’m pushing the field forward and helping other people, but for me, I was just thinking this is something I want to do, but it’s not possible, how can I solve it?”

Mzee’s achievements may seem remarkable, given what he’s gone through, but they don’t feel remarkable to him. Instead, Mzee feels that getting back into sport was always going to be inevitable as his condition improved. “Nobody who knows me would be surprised that I’m doing what I’m doing. From the outside it probably seems incredible, but it’s just what I love doing.”

 

David Mzee

Red Bull

 

THIS SUNDAY, MAY 5TH, Mzee will take part in the Wings For Life World Run in Adelaide. The run is unlike any other. For one, it doesn’t take place in a single location. Rather, racers start at the same time in different places around the world. Then, the race doesn’t end at a specific distance or finish line. Instead, a ‘catcher car’ acts as a moving finish line, chasing down racers from 30 minutes after the starting gun. Due to this unique format, Mzee is able to compete alongside ultra-marathon runners as an equal.

What’s more, 100% of the funds raised from the WFLWR goes to spinal cord injury research. Raising money and awareness is great, according to Mzee, but that’s not the primary reason he participates. “The truth is, it’s just a lot of fun to do,” he says. “When I was first asked if I wanted to participate in WFLWR, I didn’t know what it was and I didn’t know how much fun it would be. But after my first year, I was just like ‘this is so cool, I want to do this every year’.”

“It’s just so great to be participating in a race where a guy like me who cannot even do 500 metres before the catcher car comes, can race alongside people who can run for hours,” Mzee continues. “And of course, it’s nice that all the money that’s raised is going to spinal cord injury research. But since nobody’s listening, I’ll tell you, I just love the race.” Sorry David, this writer was listening and you were on the record.

In Mzee’s first attempt at the WFLWR, he was able to walk 390 metres, unassisted, before the catcher car caught him. The following year he managed 467 metres. Now, he’s switching his focus to another feat of endurance. “This year I wanted to think about something different. My goal is to set a new record, not in terms of maximum distance, but maximum time without a break,” he says.

Mzee’s previous best efforts included breaks, giving him time to rest. He was afforded that luxury because the catcher car doesn’t begin its journey until 30 minutes after the start of the run. This time around, he won’t be going easy on himself. “I’ll be trying to walk without a break until the catcher car catches me. That would be about twice the time of my current record, which is around 10 to 15 minutes without a break. If everything works out, I’ll walk for 32 minutes straight.” Given his resounding previous successes, we’d wager Mzee has a good chance of doing it.

So, did Mzee ever climb that mountain that sat outside his window while he recovered? “Even with my electrode implant now, there is no way that I could do it. Two years ago in Switzerland I did 1.8 kilometres and that was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life,” he says, loath to admit that there may be one goal he can’t conquer. “Doing 20km seems impossible, but I’ll never say never.” While he may doubt himself, if Mzee’s story has taught us anything, it’s to never count him out.

 

Red Bull

 

UPDATE: The 2024 Wings For Life World Run attracted a record-breaking 265,818 participants over the weekend, making it the largest running event in the world. In the Adelaide event, David Mzee smashed his previous non-stop walking record of 10-15 minutes with a 32-minute effort without a break, lasting a total of one hour and 11 minutes before being caught by the catcher car.

 

Related:

The jacked paraplegic who just trekked up Everest on his hands

Two young men are proving there is life after a spinal cord injury

By Cayle Reid

Cayle Reid is a fan of everything sports and fitness. He spends his free time at the gym, on his surfboard or staying up late watching sports in incompatible time zones.

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