South African motorbike racer Joey Evans is currently competing in the gruelling Dakar Rally across South America. While being in the race, running from 2-14 January 2017, is an achievement in itself, Evans’ journey to this point has been a remarkable story in which he beat the odds after a life-changing accident.
An avid rider in his 20s, participating in local road and off-road racing events, Evans had always aimed to become good enough to do the Dakar. A serious accident during a race in 2007, however, left him a paraplegic. He broke his T8 and T9 vertebrae, crushed his spinal cord and was paralysed from below the chest down. He had little hope of even climbing back on a bike again.
Writing on his website, From Para to Dakar, Evan explains: “I was told by the two previous hospital specialists that I would never walk again in light of my spinal cord injury that appeared to be ‘complete’. A few days later, after many X-rays and CAT scans, the doctor recommended that we fuse my T8 and T9 vertebrae to stabilise my back and attempt to relieve pressure on my spinal cord. This was a big decision to make as other doctors had recommended that we leave the area to ensure no further damage.”
If the operation was successful Evans would have a small chance of walking again – but never, the doctors said, the possibility of riding a motorcycle again.
This did not deter him though, and while slowly building up his strength to start walking again, the dream of riding the Dakar was always in the back of his mind.
“After the operation,” Evans writes, “lying in that hospital bed, I decided that this was not going to beat me… I would work as hard as I possibly could to walk again. I had so much support from my wife, my family and friends. Everyone pushing me to keep going and always full of encouragement.”
Following extensive physical therapy, Evans was walking again and less than two years after his accident, he climbed back on a bike.
“I was determined to try to get back on a bike. The first time I tried to throw my leg over I could not support my weight and the bike on one leg and ended up falling over with the bike on top of me.”
After enough practise and more than a few falls, he mastered the motorcycle enough to be able to ride over long distances. “Words could never describe the feeling of being back on the bike again. Alone in my helmet I felt my eyes well up knowing that this was truly a miracle to have come what seemed full circle and be back on the bike again.”
A decade after being told he may never race again, Evans was at the Dakar starting line, on his trusty KTM, feeling that whatever happened next, just making it this far was a victory in itself.
“Physically,” he writes, “I can now walk quite well and sometimes people don’t even notice I have a problem. My legs still don’t work properly; they are a lot weaker and slower that before and spasm a lot when I’m tired or when my adrenalin is going… But I can ride.”
As of 9 January 2017, after the completion of the sixth stage of the Dakar in La Paz, Bolivia, Evans is in 102nd place in the motorcycle category, and is one of only two South Africans remaining in the race. The other is Giniel de Villiers.
The epic 9,000km race ends in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 14 January.