Crash left King’s Lynn Stars’ speedway rider Rory Schlein ‘one cough’ from being paralysed
- Credit: Ian Burt
Popular speedway rider Rory Schlein is on the road to recovery following a serious spinal injury. He met Gavin Caney to tell the full story of his traumatic experience.
As paramedics surrounded his stricken body, Rory Schlein began to fear his life had changed forever.
The King's Lynn Stars' skipper, like all speedway riders, is used to having crashes and breaking bones. But this time it was different. And as the excruciating pain in his back was replaced with complete numbness, it dawned on the 30-year-old that this accident may well have been his last.
Taking a deep breath, Schlein – recalling the high-speed accident in Poland last month – said: 'As soon as it happened I knew it was serious and I had a problem with my back.
'The pain was different, just really bad. I wasn't knocked out. So for a good 10 minutes the pain was pretty intense. I knew something was wrong, I couldn't tell you what exactly. And it got worse when they went to roll me. All the pain went and I lost the feeling in my legs. I don't know, I guess it was 10 minutes. I started to freak out a little bit – which I think anyone would – and I got a bit upset. I can't explain it. There's no words.
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'For 10 minutes I could understand how Garry Stead (paralysed rider) feels – but I obviously haven't had to go through anywhere near what he has. But it was just a life-changing feeling.
'I respect him and guys whose life has changed (through back injuries) because of the sport we love. And I almost followed suit.
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'It was a very dark time.'
The Aussie had fractured his L2 (vertebrae) and completely destroyed the lower L5 part of his spine after flying off his machine at around 60mph. Parts of the shattered bone were propelled into his lung and kidney. Within an hour of the sickening incident in Lodz on May 24, the father-of-two was on the operating table for surgery that experts hoped would save the use of his legs.
'They told me 'your L5 is an absolute mess and your back's not stable, it's not even in line',' said the man who has been involved in the dangerous two-wheel motorsport for 15 years in Britain.
''You've really made a mess of your spine'. They told me they had to remove the fragments and take the pressure off my spinal column. I said: 'Ok, is it risky?' They were blunt and straight to the point. They said: 'There is a chance you'll go to sleep feeling your legs but you might not once you wake up again.' That played with my head.
'I was on the phone to my missus (fiancee, Natalie). I was upset, she was upset. She couldn't answer as to whether I should have it done so I said I was going to have the operation. She said she was getting on the first flight the next morning.'
Six hours later Schlein came round to find out the dramatic intervention had paid off. Ten days later he was being flown back to Coventry and – less than a fortnight after the traumatic experience – he was at home. Wearing a supportive back brace, and dosed up on painkillers, he returned to Lynn's stadium on Thursday displaying the incredible spirit which has already seen him walking short distances without an aid. While the pain of the damage will ease, the Aussie admits the emotional scars will never leave him.
'I've been told different things by medical experts about how close I was to being in a wheelchair. One person said if I had coughed or sneezed between the crash and operation I could have been paralysed for life,' Schlein added.
'The whole experience is probably the most scared I've ever been. Silly things were going through my head as I lay on the track and then in the hospital. Thinking I might not be able to pick my kids up again.
'Everything changing and not being a normal father to my kids. It saddened me because I kept thinking: 'I've put them in this position, I've done that. I haven't been in a car crash. I've chosen to be a speedway rider.' Holidays wouldn't be the same. Not being able to pick them up and put them on my shoulders, which I do quite a lot.
'I know it could have been a lot worse. I could have been here (in Lynn) on four wheels. Whether it's the roll of the dice or not, I'm not sure. I owe everything to the surgeon. I wear as much protective clothing as anyone else. I guess it's just the throw of the dice. I've used up one of my nine lives maybe.
'I feel lucky in a way, that I'll be able to make a full recovery – which we're 90pc sure I'll be able to do.'
Crash may not yet signal the end of Roo-Boy's lengthy career
The beaming smile said it all – Rory Schlein was ecstatic to be back in Norfolk.
His remarkable recovery has stunned doctors who are surprised at just how mobile the professional sportsman already is just five weeks into his lengthy recovery process. But how far will that journey take the Australian? Once his back brace is off, the pain goes away, and the metal holding his spine together remains as sturdy as it does now, will the likeable character be able to stay away from making fans grin with pleasure at Saddlebow Road?
Speaking little more than a month after his season was prematurely ended, an unsure 'Roo-Boy' said: 'I've had to tell my family that speedway's in my blood. It always has been and it always will be. The flame will always burn.
'For me, it's just how big of a flame is going to burn from now. I can't really say at the minute. I had a conversation with Buster (Chapman, Stars' owner) and I've done the same with my family – the details of which I'll keep to myself.
'I'll only know, I think, if I want to ride when I throw my leg back over on a bike. Anyone can ride a motocross bike or get on a quad. But to get on a competitive race machine, on a track with three others, is very different. If the buzz is still there, that's a green light. If it's not, then it'll be time to give it up. I wouldn't want to go out there being scared because I'd not only be endangering myself, I'd be endangering others.'
Once he hangs up his kevlars the outspoken racer knows he can have a career in promoting. He organised and helped stage his hugely successful testimonial meeting in March and cares passionately about a sport that has been his life.
Surprisingly though, the haunting memories of that May evening in Poland have not diminished his desire for the men of speedway to keep living life on the edge.
'The air fences are a proven product, they do work many times,' said the two-time Elite League Riders' champion.
'They're one of the best safety innovations that have been brought into the sport. In my case, like Chris Holder (when he crashed and broke his heel, pelvis and shoulder in 2013), the bike went in first, and lifted the air fence. Because it's not fixed to the bottom, it will move. Maybe the design of it needs to be looked at again.
'The Lynn fence is heavier where it doesn't move. It's something that needs a long hard look at. What do you do? We don't want to turn the sport into Formula One. We know how boring that is.
'We still want that sort of fear factor. It's what makes our sport so raw. No brakes. A bike with a 500cc engine. It's why we love it.'