The ice-hockey club HC Palacký University has one big story among its players. Martin Žižlavský lost his leg below the knee in 2017 – but he returned to ice hockey and became a valuable member of the team. In this exclusive interview for HC Palacký University and hokej.cz, he talks about his return after the injury, curious moments with his prosthesis, how he views life, and how he enjoys his studies in Olomouc.
Martin has been into many sports since he was a child. He lived for ice hockey and sidecar motocross. However, his sports career came to an abrupt end for some time after an injury at school ski training. “I remember everything. It happened on the bobsled track…” says Martin Žižlavský about his painful accident that involved his classmates.
“We made it through together. We got over it, things are normal now, we stayed friends. Maybe it even brought some of us closer together,” he admits.
The Šumperk native had a premonition for a time before the accident. “A few months before, I had a bad feeling something was going to happen,” he says.
“When it did happen, I realised things didn’t turn out all that bad. I still could get out of it somehow. So I recovered and started my fight to become an athlete again,” says the current player of HC Palacký University and the Šumperk Dragons junior team when he reminiscences his battle four years ago.
How did you cope during the first days after the surgery in the hospital?
For the first three or four days I was in an induced sleep. When I woke up… For the next week or so I was spaced out because of all the medication. It was kind of interesting. Then I had to get out of it. I stayed in the hospital for three weeks, maybe a month.
Did you let in depression and dark thoughts?
It happens at such moments. Even later, when I was out of hospital, at home. At times, I felt even worse. But you have to pull yourself together and keep fighting.
I need sport, I must be active
How did you handle it after you returned home from the hospital?
I didn’t go anywhere for two or three weeks, being still without the prosthesis. That was still in the works at that time. Then I went to school a few times using crutches. After all, I didn’t see my classmates and teachers for a long time, so I was looking forward to seeing them.
What was your greatest motivation – to play sports again?
I guess so. (He smiles.) I can’t be without sports. I didn’t play ice hockey for three years and I wasn’t sure I’d still be able to. I only played the amateur league. There was more time for volleyball, football, and floorball. I need to do some sport all the time, I just have to be active. I can’t live without it…. (He laughs.)
How long did it take to get used to the prosthesis?
When I tried it on for the first time, they told me that some people would learn to walk with it after a week or two. After five minutes of testing, I jumped down from the parallel bars and we went home. (He laughs.) I was able to walk right away… I don’t know, it’s probably individual. I have to thank my prosthetist, Mr. Miklic, for his well-made prostheses. I have to go all the way to Uherské Hradiště to see him, but it’s worth it!
And when did you get back on the ice?
Well, I don’t know exactly…. After some time, I tried to go with the guys to a practice in Uničov. I skated aside. I joined them only a few times, but it wasn’t so hot. I gave up….
You probably went there because of your teammates.
Totally. You miss those guys a lot… I was so happy when I came back to the teams of guys from HC Palacký University and the Šumperk Dragons. It’s great, this is what I’m used to.
I didn’t skate that well before
You even returned to ice hockey this year. Well, before the league was interrupted…
My comeback is due to having adjusted the weight on my foot. I didn’t skate that well before. Last year I got a new prosthesis for a higher weight category, and it’s so much better. It turned out I can get back onto the rink… Well, I’m trying!
You have also started playing matches since the summer. How would you compare it to your last matches before the injury?
It was completely different. (He smiles.) Completely! The university league is better quality. In addition, all the guys grew bigger in the meantime. It’s not so easy to score against a big goalkeeper…. The game is faster, there’s more body checking today. I actually played the first match for the junior team in Šumperk. It was a friendly.
Were you nervous?
A lot. The first shifts were pretty tough. It made my head spin a little, it was so fast. After all, three years is a long time, so I wasn’t used to it. I’ve been training with the guys from Šumperk since last Christmas, but a real match is something else. It was dynamite, and it took me some time before I got used to it.
So have you been preparing more since Christmas 2019?
Yes. I started training with them during the Christmas holidays. The idea was to get going at least until New Year’s Eve, because I needed to improve my condition. I told myself: No worries, it’s just a few workouts. Next thing I know I’m enjoying it again, I’m doing well, also learning to skate better. I got hooked and joined their training sessions until the end of the season.
What did it mean for you? Did you prove to yourself that anything is possible?
Yeah, I guess. I’ve played ice hockey since I was a kid, and getting into a match? That was nothing special. I don’t even realise I’m so handicapped anymore. Of course, you have to deal with problems. I have to take care of the leg, go for check-ups, deal with the prostheses…
Is there any change in how you look at life now?
I have probably changed. One has to take things as they are. What is supposed to happen, happens. You have to go on. You just can’t lose hope. You have to keep fighting!
Did you believe that you would return to ice hockey right after the accident?
Not really. I didn’t think it was possible. But I learned that Craig Cunningham (a former NHL player – Editor’s note) also lost his leg just like me. I watched videos where he was learning to skate again. He had a conventional prosthesis with a skate blade. I wear regular skates. But I didn’t like the way he was skating. I didn’t think it was good enough, he wasn’t doing well. It’s probably a lot about the specific prosthesis.
There is a limit. I use the other foot for braking more
Do any of the spectators know that you are playing with a prosthesis?
I don’t think so. Maybe at those times I stumble easily and so on. It’s not a real leg, it’s made of some carbon, and from time to time it seizes up, and I stumble or even fall. But you can’t see a thing, it’s hidden under my pads.
Does it limit you in any way?
There is a limit. Maybe in acceleration I don’t lag behind some guys, but I don’t have such stability in the curves. Even when it comes to sidecar motocross… It’s not perfect but you have to learn how to deal with it.
So you brake mainly with the other foot?
Exactly. Putting more weight onto the right prosthetic leg is not ideal. After all, you never know exactly what’s going to happen and where it might take you. I try to use the left one as much as possible. It’s probably not ideal, because it becomes overstrained, but there’s no other way.…
Why did you start playing in the University League?
I have been following the University League for a few years. And some guys who used to play for Šumperk – Dominik Hajšman, Pavel Skopal, and Michal Dohnal – joined the Olomouc team. I know them, so I thought I’d give it a try when I got back to ice hockey.
What did your new teammates say about your handicap?
(He smiles.) Everyone reacts differently. Some people are quite surprised, others accept it pretty much right away, and we have fun. We joke about it a lot. You have to take things easy. When something happens, you have two options: either you will deal with it somehow, and you’ll be able to live with it and make fun of yourself sometimes – or you will fall apart. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a cheerful and happy. And keep doing sports!
It puts you back on track. It gives you joy, the desire to go on, and extra motivation
In the first league match for HC Palacký University, you even scored…
It was a very emotional experience because when you score after such a long time… It feels good. (He smiles.) After three and a half years… My teammate Zdeněk Formánek brought me the puck – as a trophy to keep.
Was it the most important goal in your career?
I don’t know… It was rather the most pleasant one. It puts you back on track. It gives you joy again, the desire to go on, and extra motivation.
What are your goals now?
I don’t know if I have any goals in hockey. I’m trying to have fun. I don’t know how far I can get with that leg… Everything is worse after that long pause. My hands don’t work the right way, my head has to get used to it. It’s difficult from every angle. In the meantime, I want to have fun and then I’ll see what’s next. I hope I’ll study many more years at the university and still play here.
We’ll get to school later. You first returned to sidecar motocross after your injury. What is it actually?
It’s a motorcycle with a sidecar. So we ride in pairs. One drives and the other balances it so that you can make turns and such. It’s about the interaction between the two people. I actually got into it through my dad, who was a motocross racer. Many people don’t even know that such a sport exists. But it is popular in the Czech Republic. Quite a few people are active in this sport, but it’s not for the general public. It’s not a glory sport.
I’ve seen some videos, and it doesn’t look like very safe.
There are tumbles. But we haven’t had any this season. We had a few falls last year, but they turned out well. And that it’s not safe? What’s safe today? You can go to a bobsled track and you never know how it might turn out… (He smiles.)
And has it happened to you that you fell off?
Certainly. Sometimes it’s so comical. Once we fell over and my leg came off. I had to crawl on all fours, and there was a meadow full of people above the track. They saw me pulling a leg behind me, one metre longer than the other, as it was stuck in my pants. Paramedics came running over to me, everyone was in shock… I told them, “I’m fine, it’s just that my leg came off and I need to put it back on.” Such moments are hilarious.
So you never give in to fear?
Fear must be overcome. Even in ice hockey, it’s never good to get on the rink with fear.
But you did miss some races…
We did, last year and this year. Sometimes there are technical problems that prevent us from racing. Money is a big issue in sports. If you don’t have any, you can’t buy a second engine, for example. So money was the reason, because sometimes the races took place far away. During those two seasons, we only managed to attend about half the races.
Every helping hand matters. Luckily, we have a few sponsors who help us out
Are you looking for sponsors?
Yes. It’s all about money. Without it, you can’t go to all the races, you can’t compete with others. You are riding an old motorcycle because you don’t have a new one. It’s tough. We’re not at a level where we can move forward.
So every help is good.
Absolutely, we appreciate any kind of help. Every helping hand is good. Luckily, we have a few sponsors who help us out. Thanks to them we can go on somehow.
Is it possible to get into the national team? Would you be interested?
There’s the European Team Championship. Every country is represented by three crews. So it is possible to represent Czechia…. Sure, I’d be very interested. But I think it would take us quite a lot of time to get to that level, if ever.
If you did well in both sports, which would you choose if you had to?
Probably the sidecar motocross. There’s no way I could make a living in ice hockey. I do it for fun. As long as I’m enjoying it, I’d love to do both.
I assume that apart from ice hockey and sidecar motocross, you also love other sports.
I enjoy playing tennis, volleyball, football, and basketball. And I often go cross-country skiing and hiking. Everything is possible, but there is not much time for it because of school and everything else.
I wonder if you’re at all limited …
I think you could find some limits. However, there has always been a way to do what I want to do.
What about swimming?
I can swim without the prosthesis…. At the beginning of this school year we did the breaststroke with legs…. (He laughs.) I was so good at it I almost drowned. (He laughs.) Other than that, it’s okay. Strangers are probably little shocked, but when we become friends, they don’t even see it anymore and just take it as normal.
Would you like to motivate other physically challenged people with your active lifestyle?
Absolutely! And not only them but also people without disabilities. They could be motivated by this motto: If he can do it, so can I.
What are you studying at Palacký University? And why?
Gymnastics and geography. All my life I have loved playing sports, being active. But it’s good to combine physical education with another field. I enjoyed geography at secondary school, we had a good teacher.
Would you like to become a teacher?
I’d rather be an ice hockey coach one day. Working with young people, I’d love that. I think I’d like to be licensed one day, but I don’t know how I’ll be able to manage it timewise. And teaching? I don’t know. If there were no other option, I’d probably go for it.
You have returned to ice hockey and motorcycling, you’re studying at the university… Are you living your dream?
I guess so. (He smiles.) You could describe it that way.
AUTHOR: Josef Prášek, student of the UP Department of Media and Cultural Studies and Journalism
PHOTO: Alena Zapletalová, student of the UP Department of Sociology, Andragogy and Cultural Anthropology