KIENBAUM, Germany -- Kristina Vogel never paused for breath as one of the world's dominant track cyclists. Not even after winning her two Olympic gold medals. There was always the next goal, podium and world record. She lived off seeing opponents crumble in her wake. Publicly, she thrived on being the superstar at the velodrome, but privately, she struggled to sleep, worried about living up to her status as one of Germany's most celebrated Olympians.
Then a crash changed everything. "After the accident, I realized it was so stupid to think like that," Vogel says. "I did what I loved, and it was a privilege."
At the 2018 UCI world championships, Vogel had equaled Anna Meares' record of 11 golds. Now, midway through her journey to Tokyo 2020, she was searching for that extra millisecond. On June 26, 2018, Vogel was training at the Cottbus Sport Centre Velodrome, preparing for the German Grand Prix. She was training with Pauline Grabosch. Later that day, they were going go-karting for fellow cyclist Max Levy's birthday.
When the session finished, Vogel persuaded her coach, Detlef Uibel, to allow her one more sprint. As Grabosch left the track, Vogel accelerated onto the finishing straight unaware that a Dutch junior cyclist was practicing a standing start. She collided with him at 38 mph.
The crash severed her spinal cord. Levy rushed toward her and held her hand as Vogel told him she couldn't feel her legs. Vogel was airlifted to a hospital in Berlin and placed in an induced coma. She had multiple operations over the next three months. The accident left her paralyzed from the chest down.
That September, she gave her first interview about the crash and what followed to the German magazine Der Spiegel.
"It is s---, there's no other way to put it," she said then. "No matter how you package it, I can't walk anymore."
The competitive spirit that led Vogel to track cycling dominance was channeled into surviving -- and then into finding a new purpose.
"I always asked myself: What's the reason I'm on earth? Maybe now with this loud voice I can make the world a little better when I leave," Vogel says. "Sometimes life can punish you really, really hard. But I want to say, life is what you make of it, and I hope I can give other people strength through my story."
It is early morning on a December day at the Bundesleistungszentrum Kienbaum training facility, 20 miles east of Berlin near the border with Poland. This used to be Germany's "Olympic secret," as Vogel puts it, as its Olympic program was one of the first to have an "altitude chamber," an oxygen-deprived room to help enhance athletes' aerobic capacity. Now it's where hopefuls for the Tokyo Olympics are being pushed to their limits. The air-conditioned musk in the gym mingles with the sweat and blood left on the mats and machines. It is a program run in partnership with the Kienbaum Federal Police Sport College, where the athletes split their time between training and preparing for life post-sport in the police force.
Vogel trained here during her track career; her autograph is on the London 2012 and Rio 2016 posters in the reception area. She high-fives and hugs everyone, meeting athletes and coaches with an ever-present infectious smile.
Her attitude is overwhelmingly positive; there is no blame attached to the accident. After the crash, she spent three months away from the public eye, with only her boyfriend, track cyclist Michael Seidenbecher, and her nearest and dearest knowing about her paralysis. Media outlets, competitors and fans knew she'd been in a crash; rumors of its severity swirled.
"Those months away allowed me to understand what it meant to be paralyzed ... what it means to be sat in a wheelchair," Vogel says. "Those first three weeks in intensive care were really f---ing hard, because it was a fight to survive. ... It was understanding this was the biggest fight I'd ever had in my life.
"You want to live, but I had to decide how my new life was going to be."
There were new obstacles, like her favorite restaurants having steps outside. It was all frustrating and tough to accept. But then she saw a video on YouTube of a man in a wheelchair destroying "monster halfpipes," as she called them, doing all manner of moves.
"How crazy is that, please?" she says. "And that was the point I realized, 'Oh s---, your life is not over.' I could not start this new life by riding halfpipes, but it meant to me that while I was limited in some ways, there was no limit on my mind." She started to progress in her rehab, heading back to the gym and familiar surroundings.
In September 2018, she faced the world for the first time, in a news conference at the hospital in Berlin. She was concerned that she might be snapped by a photographer on her balcony at home in Erfurt while in her wheelchair; she wanted to control the narrative.
In her old life, moments like this went hand in hand with a gold medal. This was new. In her isolation, she had played through every scenario in her head, even becoming anxious about whether people would doubt her condition. Vulnerable moments that she had kept private were now going to be in the public eye.
But afterward, people came up to talk to her about their own accidents or struggles. And she realized she had a new, powerful position.
Vogel's Instagram bio reads: "Double Olympic champion, federal police officer, keynote speaker, just a girl and it's my life in a wheelchair." She laughs about the pace of her life now.
"It's crazy what opportunities I had since leaving the hospital on Dec. 22, 2018," Vogel says. "Before my accident, I was just in this track cycling roll, and everything was about being more aerodynamic, the training and nutrition, and it was just being a competing athlete." Now she helps others compete.
At the training center, she pauses for a moment to peer through a glass door in the gym. Two of Germany's judo hopefuls are practicing their throws. Then she heads around to give pointers to Gudrun Stock, a 24-year-old cyclist, as she lifts dumbbells for what seems like an eternity. Vogel jots down a few notes and then checks on cyclist Lea Friedrich, a double-gold-medal winner at this year's world championships, who is going through a relentless set of burpees. Vogel is still unsure whether coaching is going to become a permanent addition to her weekly life. "Just because how I trained and thought worked for me, why will it work for others?" she says. But when she talks, others listen.
That voice has also translated to politics. Last June, she was elected to her city council as a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party.
"I'm a federal police officer and an athlete sitting in a wheelchair, so I've seen the world a few ways," she says. "I really love my hometown. It's the place where I get my battery recharged, and I saw good things and bad things."
The democratic process took some getting used to. As an athlete, if she identified a problem, she would fix it immediately. Now she has to listen to contrasting perspectives, but her fundamental principles are to make life better for the people of Erfurt and to improve facilities for those who use wheelchairs.
The long-term plan was to go back and work in the police force. But she is happy at the moment jetting around the world, receiving honors like the UCI Merit Award and giving motivational talks to businesses and students. She also sits on two boards at UCI, cycling's governing body, and commentates on cycling for a German TV station.
"I love track cycling so much, and the fire for track cycling is still burning in my heart," she says. "It hasn't just gone because I can't do it anymore, but the reason I started to be a track cyclist is still in me, and I want to share that love with all the people."
Still, there are moments that catch her. While broadcasting at the 2019 world championships in Pruszkow, Poland, she witnessed a New Zealand cyclist crash and have to be carried off on a stretcher. Vogel needed a moment to compose herself but then returned to the microphone, transparently sharing her emotions with her viewers. There are no barriers.
Every day, she publishes a post called "Me and My Life -- Daily Kristina" on Instagram. It includes happy moments in her life as well as her struggles. There are jokes with Levy, bits with her boyfriend, times when she talks straight to the camera about anything from social distancing to stemming the spread of the coronavirus to the need for positivity.
She's often asked whether she'll compete in the Paralympics, but the answer for now is no -- though she had planned to go to the Tokyo Games as a commentator until the Olympics were postponed until next year. "My dreams about the Olympic Games in Tokyo are still there but a little different," she says.
Vogel still lives with the same urgency she had in her track cycling days; that competitive spirit is inextinguishable. But she also knows the investment Olympic success takes, and she already has so much to do.
"I used to think, 'In 10 years' time, who will know who Kristina Vogel is?'" she says. "But I think the next few years, when I enter the room, the people will definitely know who I am, and that's ... that's what I always wanted."