Injured Spanish cyclist wants to walk on return to Wichita

07/10/2010 9:51 PM

07/10/2010 9:51 PM

The cross-country cyclist from Spain is on his way again.

Diego Ballesteros Cucurull, who had been in Wesley Medical Center since June 16 and who is paralyzed from the waist down after being struck by a car near Benton during the Race Across America, left Saturday for Barcelona.

The 36-year-old law instructor and competitor, who once had goals of scaling mountains and pedaling vast distances, now has a more modest goal.

"I would like to come back to Wichita — walking, of course. It is my dream," Ballesteros said before he left Wichita.

Ballesteros said he likes challenges that demand everything from him. A bicycle race, he said, feels so good when it is over because he knows he has completed something difficult.

So, he said, he is prepared for his new challenge. He will try to walk again after suffering two crushed vertebrae, two broken vertebrae, and a prediction by doctors that if he doesn't walk within a year, he never will.

He is a fighter. He fought all his life, starting as a kid playing soccer and tennis, then as a distance runner and cross-country skier, as a mountain climber and a cyclist.

His new fight will begin today in Barcelona. Ballesteros, who was accompanied on his trip from Wichita by a medical team, will be taken to a private hospital there. He is expected to undergo rehabilitation for at least a year.

Today, while he is in the hospital in Barcelona, people in his home town of Barbastro, 250 kilometers away, will throw a fundraising party for Ballesteros. It will feature a large television so they can watch Spain compete against the Netherlands in the World Cup soccer finals.

Ballesteros is well known in his country for his accomplishments, especially a trip two years ago that recreated Marco Polo's route from Spain to China. Ballesteros biked 8,000 miles in 100 days along a route that took him through Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Accident

It was a smoother and safer stretch of highway that ended the Race Across America for Ballesteros and three members of his Spanish team last month. They had traveled 1,800 miles in three days and were in position to win the team title when it happened.

Ballesteros was riding in the middle of the shoulder on K-254 just west of the Butler County line. He was focused on the road and preparing for a change of riders only a mile ahead.

The escort car traveling behind him pulled ahead to prepare for the switch. It was 6:44 a.m.

Suddenly, Ballesteros was flying through the air. A car driven by a 22-year-old Wichita man, who later told authorities he had been distracted by something in his car, had drifted off the road from the right-hand lane and struck Ballesteros' bicycle.

Lying on the ground, Ballesteros was terrified.

"In this moment, I was crying," he said. "I tried to move all my muscles."

He could move his hands, not his legs.

"I saw in that moment I was paralytic."

His conditioning saved him. Anybody in poorer shape would've been killed, doctors told him.

Ballesteros said he forgives the driver, who sent him flowers, and knows the man feels bad. But he doesn't want to see the driver. He doesn't want to put a face to the accident.

The plan had been to complete the race, meet his girlfriend, Ana, go to Yosemite National Park and San Francisco, and propose marriage to her. Ballesteros carried a diamond ring in his belongings during the race.

Ana came to Wichita, where Ballesteros proposed to her from his hospital bed.

She said yes.

"My life is very broken now," Ballesteros said. "For me it's really hard to think of the future with my girlfriend if I cannot move my legs."

A family in Kansas

After the accident, the local cycling community rallied to his side.

Ben Sciortino, a former Sedgwick County commissioner and avid cyclist who speaks Spanish, was among those who befriended Ballesteros in the hospital.

Sciortino and his wife, Mary, advanced Ballesteros more than $21,000 for his trip back to Spain.

Ballesteros had taken out travel insurance before he left Spain, but the company is claiming that the policy was nullified because he participated in a bike race. His family is fighting that decision back home.

Sciortino said he decided not to wait for the dispute to be settled, so he paid for the trip.

"It didn't seem like anybody had a real urgency in the crisis in front of us. He really needed to get home," Sciortino said.

Ballesteros will face more expenses. The driver had minimal insurance, Sciortino said, and Race Across America's insurance will provide a maximum of only $25,000 for his hospitalization in Wichita, where the tab has climbed to more than $350,000.

Ballesteros' family hopes that Spain's universal health care system will pay for most of his rehabilitation expenses back home.

But once he leaves the hospital in Barcelona, there will be costs to modify his lifestyle. Ballesteros lives in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment.

His family is not wealthy. His father and mother are in their 70s, and retired. His father was a banker, his mother a housewife who raised Diego and an older brother who works at a small radio station in Barbastro.

Fundraising is underway in Wichita. Ruth Holliday set out a jar a few days ago at her bike shop, Bicycle Pedaler, 330 N. Rock Road. By Friday, it had been stuffed with $2,000 in cash. Friday night, Holliday, Sciortino and 15 friends gathered in his hospital room at Wesley for a farewell cake. They presented Ballestreos with a Wichita State University jersey signed by more than 300 people.

"I have been cycling around the world, and I come to the USA, the mother country of the world, and I have a crash. It's hard for me," Ballesteros said.

"But in Kansas, I think I have a family now, because a lot of people help me. And for me, this is huge. I feeling very loved all the time.

"I had the biggest crash of my life, but I found the biggest people, too."

How to contribute

A fund has been established at Carson Bank in Wichita for injured Spanish cyclist Diego Ballesteros.

Contributions may be sent to:

Diego Ballesteros Benefit Fund

Carson Bank

4641 E Douglas

Wichita, KS 67218

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