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I was 27 and living the dream as a professional athlete before a freak accident left me immobile from the neck down for the rest of my life: This is my story

Nine years ago, Brad Smeele was a fit and healthy 27-year-old when a freak accident turned his life upside down.

While performing a trick at a wakeboarding competition in Florida, a New Zealand athlete crashed and «shattered» his vertebrae, leaving him unable to move from the neck down for the rest of his life.

The now 36-year-old spent months in hospital as a ‘prisoner’ in his own body. He was unable to move and had to accept that he would never be able to walk again or do the things he loved.

“I woke up from these amazing dreams of being back on board and stuff. Real life was a nightmare,’ he told FEMAIL.

Despite the extreme physical and mental challenges the injury has caused, Brad, from Auckland, has learned to not only accept his limitations, but to be truly grateful for the life he has.

Brad Smeele (pictured), 36, has overcome mental health issues after a freak accident left him a quadriplegic.

In 2014, when he was 27, Brad was a professional wakeboarder. While training in Florida, he hit a ramp while flipping in the air and landed on his head

In July 2014, Brad was ‘living the dream’, pursuing a career as a professional wakeboarder and chasing summer around the world.

«I always liked to be outside in the summer, in the sun by the lake. Girls in bikinis and all that stuff,” he said.

“It didn’t pay well, but it all had obvious advantages. It was a lifestyle that I really fell in love with.”

While performing a double flip in the air during practice in Florida, Brad fell and went headfirst onto the ramp.

“I put my head down and tried to duck out of it and roll out, but I didn’t turn my shoulders all the way. I basically buried my head in my chest and shattered my C4 vertebrae,” he recalled.

“I was unconscious for a while, face down in the water. My friends got to me and managed to turn me around and I was blue in the face, eyes wide open, unresponsive, not breathing or anything.’

Bystanders went to give Brad CPR before he started breathing and regained consciousness – but he couldn’t feel his body.

Paramedics were called and Brad was taken to the nearest hospital where he underwent an MRI for doctors to assess the full extent of the damage.

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Brad was told the accident had left him quadriplegic and given a one to two percent chance of ever using his upper limbs again. He never got a chance to walk again

He underwent a major nine-hour operation to put his neck «back together» with two metal rods and 14 screws and put him on a ventilator to help him breathe.

Brad was told the accident had left him quadriplegic and given a one to two percent chance of ever using his upper limbs again. There was no chance of walking again.

He was transferred to a facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where he stayed for three months until his condition stabilized enough to fly home to New Zealand.

The ventilator he was on left him unable to eat, drink or speak and Brad’s mental health suffered greatly.

«I didn’t want to burden my mom or my family and all the people around me with what I was feeling. I didn’t want to exist anymore. I didn’t want to continue,” he said.

“I couldn’t tell them and I felt really guilty for months. I could barely look my mom in the eye without feeling the pain reflected back at me. I dealt with it internally because I couldn’t speak. I felt like I was going through it all alone.’

Brad’s competitiveness eventually kicked in and he changed his mindset to prove the doctors wrong.

He underwent a major nine-hour operation to put his neck «back together» with two metal rods and 14 screws and put him on a ventilator to help him breathe.

After turning off the ventilator and being able to be moved out of bed without a drop in blood pressure, Brad was stable enough to return home.

«It was a strange feeling. It was around the same time of year that I usually got home at the end of the (waking) season, so it was very familiar to me,” he said.

“Driving around town, everything was the same except for me. I felt really alienated, like I was a burden to my friends and family and totally inadequate.”

From the airport, Brad went straight back to the hospital, where he stayed for two months before going to rehab for another month and moving into a wheelchair home, where he was placed on a bed.

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«On the one hand it was good, but you come from a hospital system where I’m surrounded by other people in wheelchairs and I have all the nursing care and everything I need,» he said.

“We feel like you’re going to go to the hospital and you’re going to be better when you come out, but that just wasn’t the case for me. That’s when the great mental battles really began.»

Brad began to question his identity, which was deeply wrapped up in his wakeboarding career.

Brad spent months in the hospital as a prisoner in his own body, unable to move, accepting that he would never be able to walk again or do the things he loved.

“I had this question mark over my head – who am I? Who is Brad without wakeboarding? How do I introduce myself? I was like, «Hi, I’m Brad, I’m a wakeboarder,» he said.

Three years after the accident, Brad said he had hit his «rock bottom».

«I focused on physical rehabilitation. I wanted to prove the doctors wrong, that’s what I knew how to do, was to fight and work hard and put all that effort into it,” he said.

“It was my full-time job for three years, I went to rehab and after three years I still couldn’t move my arms any more than before. I felt like I hadn’t made any progress, I was just incredibly lost.’

While admitted to the spinal unit, he began writing about his experiences, a process he said was a «cathartic» way to process his emotions.

This decision led him to eventually publish his autobiography, Owning It: The Ride That Changed My Life, which he wrote by writing on a screen with a stylus in his mouth.

Brad also reconnected with his mum’s old friend and physiotherapist Susie, who he said was a ‘godsend’.

«I focused on physical rehabilitation. I wanted to prove the doctors wrong, that’s what I knew how to do, was to fight and work hard and put in all that effort,” he said.

Susie gave Brad the tools to overcome his mental pain and find a way to be grateful for the life he has.

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«I would try to shift my focus from looking back at what I had and everything I’ve lost and everything I can’t do anymore and start looking at what I can do,» he said.

‘What can I do? What are the options? What am I thankful for? What do I have that I am truly grateful for?’

Brad’s health problems persist as he struggles with chronic pain, intestinal issues and autonomic dysreflexia, a syndrome that causes his blood pressure to rise to dangerous levels.

However, his positivity and humor remain strong despite his challenges.

“I love to take the silliness out of my situation and make fun of it. WITHsomeone would have to say something that would really offend me,” he said.

«I’m a pretty educated person, I’ll stand up to any bull*** and I can never be late.»

Being in a wheelchair hasn’t stopped him from hitting the dating scene either, and he says he’s still able to maintain a sex life.

Brad uses his experience to inspire and motivate others. He regularly speaks at schools, charity and corporate events about how he found happiness after his injury

“That was one of the biggest things I was really devastated about losing. People think I can’t have sex – you can. I can start but I can’t finish,” he said.

“There’s been a bit of a dating drought here recently, but it wasn’t too bad in the beginning. I was surprised to get the attention and interest that I was getting.’

Brad uses his experience to inspire and motivate others. He regularly speaks at schools, charity and corporate events about how he found happiness after his injury.

One of his biggest lessons over the past nine years was not to compare himself to others, regardless of their situation.

“Nowadays, especially with social media, the culture of comparison is rampant. I quickly made myself feel a certain way based on who I was looking at,” he said.

«I could be looking at someone with a lower injury than me who can move their arms and want to trade places, but you never know what’s going on in that person’s life.»

“To think that we can just switch places and think that things will be better is an illusion. Rather than comparing, it’s about drawing inspiration.»

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