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Dicing with death on Cape’s steep downhills

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Decio Lourenco flies down Kloof Nek Road. Picture: Brenton Geach

 

As the dust settles on Decio Lourenco’s five minutes of YouTube fame last week, a fellow Cape Town downhill skateboarder who nearly died in The Glenn, above Camps Bay, last year, explains why he won’t skate in traffic again.

 

Downhill skaters push the limits to improve themselves. According to US sports psychologist Mike Boyd, it’s a trait they share with Olympic athletes and other elite sportsmen.

Boyd’s research also shows skateboarders score low rates of depression, tension, fatigue, confusion and anger.

 

But as one Cape Town skater discovered the hard way last year after a horrific accident in The Glenn, the trick is to minimise the risks while pushing the limits.

It means taking some of the crazy out of an already crazy sport that is catching on big time around the world.

Crazy things like “free rides”, a skating reference to chancing an arm in traffic like Lourenco did when he showboated down Kloof Nek Road in traffic at 110 km/h, apparently triggering a speed camera.

Matric student Matt - he prefers not to give his surname - was pulling a similar stunt down The Glenn at midday on a weekday in March last year.

Like Lourenco, Matt, 18, thought he was in control. Then ranked the fifth best junior downhiller in the world, he had skated The Glenn over a dozen times, and wasn’t fazed by its reputation as one of the most challenging hills in South Africa - even though it had already claimed the life of one downhiller.

It certainly looks that way as Matt weaves left and right in his video of that fateful ride - until he slides into the first hairpin at around 70km/h, hits an oil patch and loses control.

“I started sliding and realised in that split second that I was going to hit the bakkie coming up the hill,” he recalled last week.

 

Matt collided with the right front wheel of the bakkie and got his left foot caught in its rim. It spun him around and Matt’s free leg was ridden over about four times. When Matt’s foot did pop out of the rim it was floppy and twisted around 180 degrees.

Matt lay at the roadside with broken legs and ankles for two hours before paramedics arrived. He was later operated on at Cape Town MediClinic, and discharged with metal plates in his right ankle and plaster casts up to his knees.

After a week of excruciating back pain, Matt returned to hospital for a MRI scan that revealed a fractured pelvis and serious fractures of his L3, L4 and L5 vertebrae.

“The orthopaedic surgeon said I was lucky to be alive. About 25 percent of each vertebra was crushed, and pieces had gone into my spinal cord. They didn’t want to operate in case it paralysed me. So I had to lie in bed for six months and wait it out. They were hoping that the bone fragments would disintegrate and that my vertebra would heal enough for me to walk again.”

Miraculously, after surviving a haematoma on his kidney - a delayed reaction to his crash - and a bout of pneumonia, Matt got back onto his feet again last August, on a pair of crutches.

“Initially I couldn’t walk because I have no feeling from my knees down. There’s been too much nerve damage. But after falling and learning, I worked it out. I can walk again.”

Matt has started skating again. “When I got to the bottom of my first comeback hill I was shaking from happiness. I can’t even explain the feeling.”

This time though, Matt has a handle on his elation, or the “stoke” as riders call it.

Near death, repeating matric and losing a world ranking does that to a teenager.

“I’ve learnt my lesson,” says Matt. “I used to do crazy things without thinking to push the envelope. Now I skate within my limits. I’ve learnt I’m not invincible.

“I try to spread the word of caution among skaters. If anyone asks, I tell them it’s always possible things can go wrong. That they must take it easy. I’m a good example of the bravery involved in this sport, but I’m also a good example of when it goes wrong.”

Matt’s advice is to skate sensibly.

“Never skate without a helmet or reflective gear. And if you skate a hill, scout it first for hazards like oil patches. Use spotters to warn you about oncoming cars. And skate early in the morning when there’s no traffic and the visibility is good. Skating in traffic is just not worth it. Our jobs as skaters is not to add another risk to an already risky sport.”

That said, Matt is mindful of his sport’s Catch 22, which carries the potential to claim lives.

“Because we don’t have roads to skate on legally, things can and do go wrong. We have seven races a year and nowhere to practise. The authorities can’t expect us to skate only seven times a year when it’s what we love doing.

“The city needs to help us. We are not hooligans. Skateboarding is a sport. We are sportsmen not troublemakers. We are trying to build our self-worth and excel, and that’s worth investing in.” - Sunday Argus


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