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Per Must Fight All the Way

Thirteen years ago this week, a few days after Bruce Penhall had won the last World Final to be held at Wembley, the career of Rolf Gramstad crashed to a halt.

Bruce Penhall was crowned World Champion for the first time on Saturday, September 5, 1981. Speedway was celebrating a great Wembley world Final and a charismatic new champion.

Within 48 hours, however, the darker side of the sport had raised its ugly head. Less than 24 hours later, Norway's top rider, Rolf Gramstad, was paralysed by serious spinal injuries. And on the following night, Tony Sanford lost his life at Exeter.

Gramstad was then 23, in his third full season of British speedway, and enjoying a heat leader role at Leicester. He was told many times that he would never walk again and that the rest of his life would be spent in a wheelchair.

Less than two years later, he walked down the aisle to marry girlfriend Jenny who shared his darkest months. They now have two daughters, Yvonne, who is 10, and Linette, who is eight.

Rolf works full-time, and even deals in used cars in his spare time at his home in Sandnes. He doesn't walk well and doesn't have full use of his hands but he does lead a full life.

"I haven't taken a great interest in speedway since I couldn't be active myself, and that is a pity really. I've been to a few big meetings at Elgane like the World Under-21 Championship, and if I see speedway in the papers I read it.

"It was very good to meet and talk with Erik Gundersen at that meeting. It definitely helped me to talk to someone in a similar position, even 13 years after my accident. We had similar injuries and he told me things I didn't know about operations to improve things," said Rolf.

If ever a rider had a reason to feel bitter about a serious accident, it was Rolf Gramstad. He recalled the fateful day in Germany, a meeting he would not had ridden in had he qualified for that last Wembley World Final.

"It was a grasstrack meeting at Berghaupten, and after a practice race I stopped on the inside of the back straight to do a practise start before going into the pits.

"Behind me, Zdenek Krdrna did a practice start just as I was about to drop my clutch. He smashed right into the back of me. The force was great enough to break the rim of the back wheel - if it had been an inch either side the damage would have been less.

"I am absolutely sure that the weight of the crash helmet also added to my injuries, with the whiplash effect on the neck. I have seen it on video since, of course, but even in that situation I was lucky.

"First Edgar Strangeland was there, and he was by my side. I couldn't even speak with the injuries and he was a great help. They took me out in a helicopter, but although we were in Germany I was flown to Strasbourg in France.

"They told me at the hospital that they were the leaders in that field of treatment. I had to have an operation, but they strapped me down to a table and pulled my head to ease the pressure before surgery.

"The third, fourth and fifth vertebrae were a mess and the operation was to put things back as well as they could. I saw the X-rays and the vertebrae seemed crunched together," explained Rolf.

Doctors told him that he would never walk again, and for a month there was no sign of movement. His Leicester promoted Martin Rogers arranged for an air ambulance to bring him back to England where he was moved to an outwardly depressing Victorian hospital in Sheffield.

"I was told again before I left France that I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. The people at Sheffield told me exactly the same and of course it was very depressing.

"The first sign of movement I had was a toe, but I told myself there were people far worse off than me. I was determined to fight all the way and I think you must to make he best recovery possible.

"I was happier back in England, more people could visit me and the food was better than in France. The training was very hard and painful, but the messages from physiotherapists were more positive.

"The doctors always stressed the bad side. They said that I should not build up my own hopes or my family's that I would ever walk again. The physiotherapists would tell you that you might be able to do this if you work hard - and more if you work harder again.

"It wasn't just hard, it was so frustrating. I had never ever imagined it could be so hard to put a sock on or to start to dress myself.

"In fact, you have to learn almost everything all over again, even how to write. You learn tricks," he explained, showing me how he picked up a glass.

"I can't open and close my fingers properly but by using my wrist differently I can pick up a glass or use a knife and fork. In a way the hands are worse than the legs, even though other people notice the fact that I don't walk that well.

"Actually I don't have a lot of pain, I never really have had. I tend to get very stiff when the weather is cold and wet. Another thing you find is that some muscles compensate for others after this sort of accident - the backs of my legs are as hard as bricks, the front muscles are weak."

Rolf has two daughters, and he admits now that he sees danger all around. "It is because I know the consequences of accidents. If I see my daughters play at the top of the stairs I imagine what might happen if they fell.

"If I had a son I would not want him to ride. I knew I could get hurt, but I never imagined this might happen to me. So knowing what I know now, I wouldn't do it all over again.

"I did enjoy my short life as a speedway rider though. I liked it in England and I rode very well in Australia. That was great because it was like a working holiday. And I just loved winning races," he laughed.

"I think I was still on the way up when I had my accident, and I hoped I would make a World Final. I never won the Norwegian title because in those days it was not open to riders they classed as professional," he explained.

"When asked for his favourite memory, Rolf replied: "It was a last heat decider when Cradley were at Leicester - the year that Bruce Penhall later became World Champion. We needed a 4-2, and although Bruce made the gate I passed him and we just won the match."

Rolf cites the devotion of Jenny, who he married in 1983, as a major factor in his recovery. His promoter Martin Rogers, who later became his brother-in-law also gave tremendous support.

He felt bitter towards Zdenek Kudrna after such a freak accident, but the Czech rider was himself later killed riding on grass.

When I asked him what advice he would give to Per Jonsson [who was paralysed following crash during a league meeting in Poland in 1994], he emphasised the theme that saw him through those dark days.

"You always have to remember that there are always people much worse off than you. In Oslo I saw people who had broken the higher vertebrae who could not breathe without help and had almost no movement. Yet they were smiling.

"I have never seen Per Jonsson ride, though of course I know he was a World Champion. All I can say to him is to stay determined and fight all the way and remember there are people worse off than you.

"Mine was such a stupid accident but now poor Kudrna is worse off than me. My life is quite good really, I work as a structural engineer designing oil rigs.

"I have to drive 40 miles each way to Egersund every day and I do get tired, but everyone gets tired.

"Really I was lucky to recover the way I did, and if I had to have a crash like that I was lucky to be in that place so near to such an advanced hospital.

"I think it was five months before I could stand and take just a step or two on crutches. It was hard, very hard, but while you are improving there is a big incentive.

"Later you learn tricks to get by in every day life, and I don't miss out on too much. I'm glad I saw Erik Gundersen again, because each of us understands what the other had gone through, and the problems we face today."

Rolf is cheerful and in many ways looks much younger than his 37 years. His recovery seemed almost a miracle at the time, and his determination and cheer sum up all that is good in so many speedway riders.

-Bob Radford.
published Sept 1994.

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