How Dror Cohen went from a hospital bed to Paralympic gold
A life-altering car crash hasn't slowed him down. And now, he's in Rio trying for his second gold medal.
It was a 45-minute drive that turned into a lifetime.
Dror Cohen was riding in the backseat of a car with friends en route to an airbase in Israel. He was a typical 24-year-old with a passion for outdoor sports – bungee jumping, scuba diving, rafting, kite surfing, off-road racing, water skiing, sailing. If it involved competition, he did it – and he was good at it. All of it.
He was in the prime of his life – a great career, a great girlfriend, an all-around great life. It was 1992.
Cohen dozed off in the backseat. So did another passenger in the car. And eventually, so did the driver. The car slid on gravel; the driver, now fully awake, tried to correct and get back on asphalt. It didn't work. The car rolled over twice. Cohen was thrown out and into a ditch. He landed on his back.
He woke up a day later in a hospital, disoriented and badly bruised, with no memory of the crash.
"I tried to raise up and I couldn't," he recalled. "That's when the doctor said, 'Listen to me. You were in an accident. Your back is broken. You are paralyzed. You will not be able to use your legs for the rest of your life.'"
Cohen looked at the doctor, bewildered. It just couldn't be true. "What? What are you talking about?"
The doctor said it again. It still didn't sink in. "No, no, no."
Dror Cohen, a lifelong extreme athlete and outdoorsman, lost the use of his legs in a car crash in 1992. (Photo: Softwheel)
Cohen would spend the next five months in the hospital recovering from his injuries and learning to live without the use of his legs. Even now, 24 years later, he has trouble accepting that someone like him – someone so physically fit, so strong, so active – could be struck down.
"I was a young guy with a lot of ambition," Cohen said, in an interview with From the Grapevine. "One second, you're on top of the world, and the next you're in a rehab learning how to go to the bathroom. Even now, I've learned to live with my accident, but I don't think I can ever fully embrace it."
In the beginning, Cohen struggled with letting other people do things for him. At times, he didn't think he had a reason to live. It took "a couple of years and a lot of falling down," he said, to come to terms with life in a wheelchair and gain the skills and strength to live independently.
But he wanted more than just getting by every day. He missed his old life. He missed being out at sea, the waves crashing underneath him. He missed swimming, surfing, sailing, racing. He missed competition.
"Those extreme sports were just a way of living for me, and I believe it makes you a better person," he told us. "I wanted to have that back."
He decided to try out all of the activities he used to do, only this time, with special accommodations for his disability. He took up surfing again, using an apparatus that keeps him upright and the surfboard attached. He started racing off-road again, using a car fitted with hand pedals. Eventually, he got back on a boat, but with an even bigger goal than just learning to sail again – this time, he wanted to win a gold medal.
And that's exactly what he did, in 2004, after years of grueling training and travel. He and his team, representing Israel, took home the gold in the sonar sailing class of the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
"Amazing," he said. "I had so much pride for myself and for my country, and my team. For a certain time, in 2004, you're the best in the world. A lot of fun, a lot of pride."
He would go on to win a handful of world sailing championships after 2004, but Cohen knew he wouldn't be satisfied without another shot at Paralympic glory. And along came Rio.
The Paralympics, starting today in the same city that hosted the Summer Olympics just three weeks ago, is a worldwide competition for athletes with disabilities. Cohen will be competing with a three-person team in the Sonar racing class, one of three sailing classes in the Paralympics.
Cohen described his class of sailing as more of a strategic competition than a physical one. Of course, speed is a major factor, but in other ways "it's like playing chess in the water," he said. "The wind is always moving, and the force of the wind is always changing. Everyone goes in the water when the light turns green, and everyone goes to the buoy. You have to figure out who has the right of way. It's a lot of strategy. You have to get ahead of that, even just one centimeter over your rival."
Just last week, Cohen and his sailing team arrived in Rio to prepare for competition – and do a little sightseeing.
When he's not competing at elite levels, making motivational speeches or working with Softwheel, a wheel-development company, Cohen can be found spending time with his 4-year-old twin girls.
"I hope that as they get older, they learn from (my experience)," he said of his daughters. "I really believe that if you want someone to do this or that, you have to show them an example. If I want my daughters to learn that they can do anything they set out to do, they can see me every day doing it. I believe that's the best way to teach them."
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