Chapecoense survivor goalie takes first steps towards new life

Jakson Follmann, the reserve goalkeeper of Chapecoense football club and a survivor of the plane crash that killed most of his club peers, is drawing on all his competitive spirit and discipline to rebuild his life.

Jakson Follmann walks during a rehabilitation session at a clinic in Sao Paulo.   -  AFP

When Brazilian goalkeeper Jakson Follmann took his first steps since surviving a plane crash that wiped out his football club, he called it a win - with his hardest ever season just starting. Follmann was the reserve goalie of Chapecoense, which went from the most feel-good team in football-mad Brazil to a national tragedy.

This was a lowly club that had fought its way to the final of the regional Copa Sudamericana regional tournament. Then on November 28, almost the whole team was wiped out when the plane flying the players to Medellin, Colombia, for the big game crashed. Seventy one people died, including the star first-choice goalkeeper Danilo. Follmann lost his right leg but was one of six miraculous survivors.

Now the athlete, 24, is drawing on all his competitive spirit and discipline to rebuild his life. "My main desire now is to be able to stand up, to walk," he told AFP at the rehab centre where he is learning to walk with a prosthetic leg and to overcome multiple other injuries. Almost three months after the accident he has taken his first unaided steps. There's much more to come.

"I want to be able to go alone to the bathroom, to brush my teeth. All the simple things that people barely notice usually," he said.

Follmann left his home in the southern city of Alecrim when he was just 13, working his way through the gritty lower leagues, but always dreaming of making it to the first division. The tragic reversal of what had seemed like a fairy tale success has not broken Follmann. "Crying over this and feeling sorry for myself will not help," he said in a soft voice.

Still an athlete

Follmann may be up again, but after several operations and 56 days in hospital, every step is filled with pain. Since February, he's been doing physiotherapy in Sao Paulo with doctor Jose Andre Carvalho and his progress has been better than expected. In addition to losing his right leg below the knee, his left ankle was badly injured, he broke several bones and needed an operation on his spine.

It's a battering that has required him to hold back his sportsman's instinct for action. "When I began taking my first steps without crutches I wanted to go up and down staircases. My first thought was to do as much as I could, but I know that for now I can't and that I have to respect my body," he said.

Still, he says that physical challenges are something he's used to and he follows the doctor's physiotherapy instructions with the kind of concentration he used to deploy in goal. "I don't consider myself an ex-athlete. To the contrary: I see myself as even more of an athlete than before," he said with a laugh.

In the future, he might turn to Paralympic sports, Follmann says. Trying out wheelchair volleyball made him think that "limitations are all in your head."

Dark memories

Despite his fighting spirit, Follmann prefers to look to the future than back to the recent past. For weeks after his accident, he asked family and friends not to talk about the crash. He did not want to know the details, or to watch television, where news of the disaster played constantly.

Waking in hospital in Colombia, "I knew something very serious had happened because I saw I was badly hurt. I realised that the last time I'd been OK was back in the airplane," he said, with his eyes downcast. In Colombia, "I cried a lot. I was very emotional," he said. "But once I arrived in Brazil, I began to gather my strength to face things."

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