Christoph Glötzner, the Young German Paralympian, Racing Towards Gold!

60, 59, 58 – Christoph Glötzner can see the countdown ticking down on the large black clock right in front of him. 57, 56, 55. He’s wearing a yellow and black suit and holds ski poles in each hand with mini skis attached at their ends. The athlete in front of him had just started his run. Glötzner is next. But his ski is still missing. Shortly before the race, his mechanics noticed a technical problem with the ski. They quickly removed it from Glötzner’s foot and took it apart right in front of his eyes. 4, 3, 2 – Last minute, the ski is attached back to Glötzner’s leg; he hops down the ramp and starts the race. He is not showing any nerves, though. 

It’s warm and sunny on this day in Beijing, where the 2022 winter Paralympics were hosted. Glötzner started for the German Para Ski alpin team. “I was one of the younger participants. In fact, I was the youngest in my starting class, which was really cool,” Glötzner says and follows up by asking how his new beard suits. He has grown up quite a bit since our last interview in 2018; the teenager became a young adult (with a mustache). What hasn’t changed, though, is how down to earth and humble he is, but also the determination and undeflectable focus with which he works relentlessly towards his two main goals: Firstly, he wants to become a medical doctor, and secondly, he hopes to win a Paralympic medal. 

Both of those goals are rooted in one tragic accident. It’s June 13, 2007, a sunny summer day in a quiet little neighborhood in Bavaria. Three-year-old Glötzner plays on the lawn close to his house. The grass was almost as high as himself, and he was not supposed to be there. When he sees the colossal lawn mower, it’s already too late. His right leg is caught up in the lawnmower and separated at the thigh. Minutes later, a helicopter circles over the area, searching for a place to land. Crowds of neighbors are standing by in shock while young Glötzner is fighting for his life. He’s transported to the next larger hospital 20 miles from his hometown. Not many are equipped to deal with children this young. “When can I finally get back home?” he says during a short conscious moment up in the air. Looking back to this day, Glötzner recalls only tiny pieces of what had happened. “I remember a few details from before the accident, but the moment I got under the lawnmower, I blacked out,” Glötzner shares. 

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For two weeks, he is in and out of consciousness and endures 13 surgeries. Every day when his parents come to visit, yet another doctor tells them he is in the operation room. Nobody knew if he’ll survive. Besides fixing the severe injuries, the surgeons also try to increase the length of his remaining portion of the thigh to create more space to properly fit prosthetic legs later in life, but Glötzner’s body rejects the transplant, goes into sepsis, and the three-year-old almost dies again. Once he is out of acute danger, the open wound needs to be closed, but due to his age (and size), the only area on his body offering enough skin is his little head. Therefore, a large area of connective tissue is removed to cover the amputation area. In solidarity, Glötzner’s older brother shaves his head as well. 

After four weeks, the boy is transferred to a rehabilitation facility where he is taught how to walk with a prosthesis, but for Glötzner, of course, that wasn’t enough. At the facility, he meets an expert doctor who has had one of his legs amputated after a traffic accident. He teaches Glötzner how to ski with one leg and, more importantly, becomes a role model to the boy. “Up till today, he is still a big inspiration of mine,” Glötzner adds. So here he is, a three-year-old child who just had an amputation six months ago, racing down a mountain on one leg. Glötzner always felt at home in the mountains. Then, five years later, he gets recruited by the German Paralympic ski team. “During a family ski vacation in Austria, we were approached by the Austrian Para alpin ski team’s trainer. He wasn’t happy when he learned that we weren’t from Austria but from Germany because he had hoped he could recruit me for the Austrian team,” Glötzner laughs. “He then gave us the contact information for the German Para Ski team, and one thing led to another. All of a sudden, I was part of the German youth team, took place in the first race, then later, in my first international race, and my path to competitive sports was set.” 

Today, Glötzner is 19 years old and lives in Innsbruck, Austria, because here, he can follow both his destinies: Becoming a doctor and a para ski pro! And he’s on a clear trajectory to both. Currently, the young man studies pharmaceutical chemistry before moving on to medicine. When he is not at the university or studying for a test at home, he is training for another race on the weekend, or, in case it is summer, he can be found at the gym, preparing for the winter ski season. He never misses a training; he scores high on all his tests. “Right now, it’s winter, so it’s the racing season. This means we are either at training camps or participating in competitions. My day looks like this: I get up, warm up, eat breakfast, then more training or the actual race, then study in between in my apartment, then do some stretching before I go to bed.” Glötzner doesn’t have much leisure time. “I think you need to have big goals and dreams in order to be able to handle all this pressure. It’s for sure tough some days, but I am enjoying the journey,” Glötzner says. When asked what he prioritizes: school or sports, he takes a moment to think and then states, “I really try to do both equally well because you can’t really make a living off of para skiing, unfortunately. So for me, school was always as important, especially because I always wanted to become a doctor from an early age. However, skiing is my passion, and winning a medal at the Paralympics is my other big dream. So don’t make me choose,” he laughs. 

Glötzner is a bright, polite, and a hundred percent determined young man who thrives with new challenges. His latest passion is long bike tours through the mountains. When he started to learn how to ride a bike after his amputation many years ago, he occasionally would lose his prosthetic limb along the way, which a child close by commented with: “Oh my, he lost his leg!” These days, his whole life is defined by sports. He goes paddle boarding and makes handstands on the wobbly board; he jumps through an obstacle course with one leg with hurdles as high as 51 inches above the ground; he swims like a fish; he climbs and tries whatever activity poses an athletic challenge to him. “I would not say that I have a disability, but more that the amputation is a part of me, an experience that made me stronger,” Glötzner states. However, being able to participate in all these different sports also means he needs many different prosthesis because his everyday one for walking doesn’t work for racing or swimming. Since Glötzner was very young when he lost his leg, he constantly outgrew his artificial limbs, making it difficult to accommodate his urge to move. In the beginning, the rehabilitation facility had to build him a leg prosthesis from an adult’s arm prosthesis. Glötzner kept all his old prostheses in a box in his room, and each one of those is a little piece of art, showing pictures of spider man and others of Glötzner’s heroes. Another piece has the quote “Veni, Vidi, Vici” printed across it – I came, I saw, I conquered. This a very fitting quote that couldn’t describe Glötzner any better. 

Since he joined the German Paralympic team, he has won the “Deutschlandcup” in 2020, came in third place at the Europe Cup in Zagreb in 2020, and achieved second place at the German Championship in 2020 before winning the German Championship in 2022. However, he still had to win a World Championship or Paralympic medal. When he was nominated to start for the German Para Ski alpin team at the Beijing 2022 winter Paralympics, a dream came true for the young man. He traveled to Beijing the same year he finished high school and started to study. “I was really nervous because those were my first Paralympic Games, and I didn’t know what to expect. But at the same time, I was looking forward to starting at the races and fulfilling this life-long dream,” he says. “The attention and the media hype: I had never experienced anything like it. I’m grateful for all the impressions and can hardly describe how emotional the whole time was.” He has trained for this day since he was four years old. 

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However, the Paralympics didn’t go quite as planned. During the warm-up race, a practice race where all athletes can test out the course without pressure and without gates, Glötzner slips and crashes into the guard net that marks the border of the slopes. He tears a muscle on his upper arm and injures his leg badly; it is unclear whether he can start the actual race. Miraculously, he recovers fast enough. Then, last minute, a problem with his ski arises, which the mechanics fix only seconds before the gate opens, and it’s Glötzner’s turn. He jumps onto the slope and delivers a flawless run until he arrives at the last gate. Glötzner accidentally misses it and gets disqualified. “Something like this never happened to me in any race, but then, of course, it does at, you could say, the most important race of my life so far. Everything bad that could possibly happen happened right at this big event,” he shares with a smile. He took the loss with humor. When he arrived back in Germany, his whole school was filled with fellow students waving national flags and cheering him on. They watched his race live at school in the middle of the night to show their support. So did the local volunteer firefighters, Glötzner’s family, and his many social media followers. Nobody cared that he did not bring home a medal.

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In January 2023, Glötzner started at the World Championship in Espot, Spain. His goal was to score in the top ten, and if he puts his mind towards something, he delivers. Glötzner finished in eighth place. “Sure, winning is important, but not as important as the progress you make. Seeing that I am getting better every day, every week, every month, and seeing my hard work reflected in the results of those races is just as important. But that doesn’t mean I don’t plan to win a Gold medal at the next Paralympics!” Glötzner ends. And knowing the young man, there is no doubt about it. 

Karina is a disabled/chronically ill multi media journalist writing, blogging, producing podcasts and documentaries in English and German.

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