Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Trail Orienteering: The indispensable Personal Assistant

It’s celebration time, the announcer has called his name and he moves to the podium under a rain of applause. This is the fourth time it has happened within the last six World Trail Orienteering Championships, and Søren knows the ritual perfectly well. He doesn’t use much effort to get there. The distance is short and the electric wheelchair has no difficulty progressing over the grass. In the middle of the crowd, eyes wide open, Rikke follows him closely, living the moment with particular emotion. And when Søren raises his arms in triumph, medal on his chest and diploma and a beautiful bouquet of flowers on his knees, his personal assistant cannot help but feel an enormous pride in the achievement.

Rather than tell a story of a successful ‘team’, the next lines are above all a homage. A heartfelt tribute to all Personal Assistants of the Paralympic athletes in Trail Orienteering, to all those men and women who with their care, energy and great sense of mission replace the athlete in what they aren’t able to do. This story is about Rikke and Søren, but it’s also about Beata and Ágata, Marijeta and Mauro, Josip and Marina, Susana and Ana Paula...

Once upon a time...

For Søren Saxtorph, a Dane who became quadriplegic and found in Trail Orienteering a good complement to his rehabilitation process, not everything was roses during the 2015 World Trail Orienteering Championships (WTOC). In the very peculiar forest of Sesvete, turned into a swamp due to the deluge the night before the first day of competition, the athlete and his wheelchair would have been unable to progress without assistance, sinking inexorably into a sea of mud. But even when progression conditions are ideal, someone has to replace Søren in the seemingly simple task of punching the control card. It’s here that Rikke comes into our story.

Rikke Søndergaard Nielsen was born in 1991 in Aarhus, Denmark. As well as Theatre Studies last year and Physics, her fi eld of study currently, Rikke also teaches Mathematics and Physics. But she’s also one of the five assistants to Søren Saxtorph, an elite competitor in the world of Trail Orienteering, an athlete who, in the Paralympic class, was silver medallist in 2011 (Savoie, France) and also counts three bronze medals in his collection (Norway 2010, Finland 2013 and Croatia 2015). Rikke knows that she has to be Søren’s hands and legs, his support in the ups and downs. But she also understands that he’s an autonomous person with the capacity to make his own decisions and she just needs to assist him in achieving his goals.

Rikke was contracted by Søren as a Personal Assistant in January 2014, and she quickly realised that Trail Orienteering played a very special role in Søren’s life. So it became common-place to see her every Monday night at the local Orienteering club, along with some of his other assistants – and Søren, naturally. And when, that summer, she got the chance to go with him to Sweden, Rikke could see in all its fullness the dimension of an event like O-Ringen and the peculiarities of this special discipline that is Trail Orienteering. From that moment, “every time there is an opportunity for me to participate, Søren makes sure that I do so”, says Rikke, adding that “he’s a focused and great teacher. I’m not the best with the compass, yet (laughs), but it’s fun to experience what Trail Orienteering is about.” Step by step, Rikke grasped TrailO’s philosophy: “The thing that separates Trail Orienteering from most other sports is that it gathers people, independently of gender, age or physical condition. I think that is one of the best qualities of this sport”, she explains.

Next big step: Croatia

The summer had gone and the autumn brought a question with it. “Would you like to be my Personal Assistant in Croatia, during WTOC 2015?”, Søren asked. Rikke didn’t think twice. Together with Søren, she then had the time to learn some of the most important things that a Personal Assistant is supposed to do, like having respect for the silence, staying close to the competitor, leaving the mobile phone at home... And “holding the control card and stuff”, she adds. Another bit of what she calls her ‘primary preparation’ is “making a BIG lunchbox”. “It’s amazing how much I can eat during a Trail Orienteering day”, she remarks.

In a competition like this, the life and time of a Personal Assistant is anything but easy. Rikke explains: “Most days during the Championships I woke up at 6.00 a.m., ready for a long and adventurous journey. There aren’t many relaxing moments during the day, but there’s a lot of new experiences and fun.” Rikke appears not to get anxious when Søren is hesitating out on the course or taking too long to decide. According to her, “he is the competitor and I just do my best to help him, but it’s his race and his time limit. If we are pressured by the clock, I do all I can to push him as fast as possible. It’s better than fitness training!” And when the time to validate Søren’s answers on the control card arrives, the immediate second after knowing his decision, Rikke holds the punch over the card before actually punching: “That way, Søren has time to shout NO, not that one!”, she says with a good laugh.

The ‘Mud Day’

Rikke will remember the first day of competition for a long time. The heavy rain that fell throughout the night turned the trails of Sesvete forest into a muddy sea. Organizers, marshals, competitors and of course personal assistants, faced a terrible challenge. Rikke talks about that particular odyssey: “Oh yes… that first day. Before I left for Croatia, I thought it would always be 30 degrees and sunny. But Søren texted me to bring my rain jacket and rubber boots, so I was a little shocked – what had I signed up for?… Luckily I brought them, and I used them on the first day. Let’s call it the Mud Day. Søren was in his 120 kg heavy electric wheelchair, and the mud was about 30 cm deep everywhere. We got an extra ‘pusher’ named Robert. He helped me a lot pushing Søren around and also keeping the wheels free of mud with a stick. We could only smile about the situation, seeing it as a demanding experience. Of course Søren and the other competitors had a hard time in those conditions, trying to focus on the map and the terrain whilst being very limited in their ability to move around. At one difficult spot we were four people pushing Søren. I think everyone did a great job that day, making the impossible situation possible. And I will never forget washing Søren’s chair after the race – the mud at least was kept out of the chair.”

I have a great teacher!”

For Rikke, the Croatian experience was fantastic and she enjoyed “the atmosphere and how people related to each other, regardless of their differences and their language. I had never been to Croatia and never been at a World Championships, so the experience had great personal value too. I met a lot of nice people there as well”, she adds. About WTOC 2016 in Sweden, she has no doubts: “If I have the opportunity again, I would love to come.”

Rikke also got to know better the great athlete that Søren is: “He’s a very thorough person, both in Orienteering and in other aspects of his personal life. He has hard times making mistakes and yet correcting them, which makes him a great competitor. He wants to do well and prepares a lot to achieve his goals.” The bronze medal in the World Championships is a reward for a lot of hard labour, but Rikke refuses to accept that a portion – even a tiny one – belongs to her: “Zero. Søren’s medal is his only. This sport is about reading maps and terrain, and all I did was push him from one place to another. When we have a medal for the best ‘pusher’, I will do my best to reach the podium”, she says. About herself being on the podium in the Open Class after a successful campaign in some coming year, Rikke doesn’t reject the possibility: “Oh… the competition standard in Denmark is getting higher and higher and I still have a lot to learn. But, yes, I have a great teacher!”

[Text and photo: Joaquim Margarido. See the original article on Orienteering World's last issue at, on pages 30 and 31. Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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