Aleš starts by recounting his collision with a lorry and how it turned his life upside down. “I don’t recall anything at all. All I know is what others have told me.” He spent several days in a medically induced coma. The police report says that a lorry driver had passed a cyclist and was returning to his lane, where he collided with a motorbike and sent the rider spinning into a field.

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Aleš Zelený

When Aleš came to, he couldn’t move his legs. “My spinal cord became pinched in my fifth thoracic vertebra. On top of that, the nerves controlling my left arm were ripped out of the cord by the crash. It took several operations, but I have basic movement in that arm again now,” says the thirty-four-year-old East Bohemian. He has been in a wheelchair since 2007.

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ROCK BOTTOM

A lot has changed since then. “You hit rock bottom. For the first two or three months, you have no idea what’s happening. You’re in and out of hospital, going from one operating theatre to another. After a year and a half you lose your grip on reality. When you do return to the real world, you find yourself in a completely different situation. You’re placed in an environment that has not been primed for that change. Everyone knew me as a sportsman and an easygoing guy, but my life had been turned inside out for good,” Aleš says.

However, he chased these demons away a long time ago. During the interview, he is sitting in a park, laughing and playing fetch with Drago, his loyal dog.

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Aleš has stepped back from the abyss and learnt how to look after himself. Now he wants to help others. His own ray of hope came when a group of specialists from Hurt, a company, visited him during his rehabilitation. They told him all about the modifications and adjustments that could be made to a car so that, despite the ramifications of his serious injury, he would be able to drive again. “I was thrilled by the idea that I would not have to rely on others for help and that I would be able to drive and travel freely. This was a huge incentive for me,” Aleš Zelený recalls. The car would go a long way in making up for his limited ability to move.

The first car he bought was a black ŠKODA ROOMSTER with a 1.6 litre petrol engine. “I had it fitted with alloy wheels to make it look good,” says the passionate motorist, who took his ŠKODA on a road trip through France, Belgium, England and Scotland. Yearning for a change, he was keen to volunteer abroad, but that didn’t work out so he came back home again.

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A CAR THAT FITS ALL ESSENTIALS – A WHEELCHAIR AND A CAR

In the autumn of 2017 he started looking around for a new car. He counted up his money and thought about what he could afford. The FABIA and the OCTAVIA were top candidates, but in the end he went for a car with a boot big enough to fit both his wheelchair and his dog. “I treated myself and bought a ŠKODA SUPERB,” Aleš laughs. He got this white estate from a dealer in Chlumec nad Cidlinou. His friend, also wheelchair-bound, worked there and knew precisely what he needed, so was able to listen to what he wanted and give him good advice.

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Aleš can't speak highly enough of his car. “It’s got rugged crispy edges. It’s got the acceleration you need to overtake safely. I like details such as the optional backlighting of the interior. As for the technology, the Maxi DOT colour display is fun, and the heated electrically adjustable memory seats and heated windscreen are a godsend for wheelchair users. I really feel good in this car,” says Aleš as he describes the upsides of his vehicle. He also chose this car with an eye to the family that he would like to have one day. He likes the fact that he can easily install a child seat himself on the passenger seat next to him. Nowadays, he uses the car to get to work, meetings, training, table tennis tournaments around the country, and trips abroad.

So how exactly does this car make his life easier? There is an inner ring on the steering wheel which acts as accelerator when pressed. The automatic gearbox means that he doesn’t have to manually shift gears. To set the car in motion, he needs to hold the brake pedal, or in this case a lever located to the right of the steering wheel. By pressing it towards the dashboard, the brake is locked and the selector can then be set to the D position. The left turn signal and the light switch have been adjusted so that Aleš can control them with his right hand.

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On a good day, it takes Aleš just twenty seconds to get into his car, but a lot depends on what sort of day he’s been having and how tired he is. He always needs to ask someone to assist him with either loading or unloading his wheelchair. Ninety per cent of people are willing to help, but occasionally someone will refuse. “Sometimes it's hard to explain to passers-by what I’m actually asking for,” says Aleš, who rarely gets upset.

Aleš is heading off to south Bohemia to enjoy a handcycle ride. For Aleš, life goes on.

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10 quick questions for Aleš Zelený

1. WHAT TYPE OF DRIVER ARE YOU?
Ever since I got myself a big, powerful car, I feel no need to drive fast. Actually, the opposite – I feel more laid-back. The SUPERB gives you a smooth ride. I am calm and I know that whenever I feel like accelerating, I can do so. I’m happy sticking to 110 or 120 km/h on the motorway.

2. WHO IS YOUR MOST FREQUENT COMPANION?
My dog, Drago. I adopted him three years ago from an animal shelter. He’s Spitz mixed with German Shepherd. He’s very active, but, thanks to a bag of treats, it took me a single evening to train him to stay sitting in the boot – even if I open the rear door remotely – until I tell him he can go.

3. WHAT WERE YOUR FAVOURITE TOYS AS A KID?
I had loads of toy cars, bikes and Lego. I was blown away by cars that changed colour when I put them in water.

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4. HOW WAS YOUR FIRST DAY AT THE DRIVING SCHOOL?
The instructor and I started off in Chlumec. This was the first time in my life I was driving a car that I controlled with my hands. I pressed the accelerator with my right hand and drove out of the dealership. In the very first bend, a lady unexpectedly jumped out into the road. Luckily nothing happened and within ten minutes I got used to the hand controlling.

5. WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF BIKERS?
Regardless of what happened, I still like motorbikes. When I overtake a motorbike or when I get overtaken by one, I roll down a window just to smell the petrol. I try to keep an eye out for and respect bikers. If I see that single light behind me, I know he may be faster than me. In a traffic jam, I try to keep more to the right to make space for them to go through. I don’t like drivers who block bikers simply because they’re stuck in traffic themselves.

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6. ANY UNUSUAL BEHIND-THE-WHEEL EXPERIENCES?
I enjoy going for a drive just for the sake of it, and I tell myself I’ll take the first right turn and then the third turn to the left. By letting fate show me the way, I’ve discovered many new places. I even enjoy getting lost. It’s an opportunity to discover places I would never have seen otherwise.

7. WHAT SPORTS DO YOU DO?
I enjoy handcycling, which can wear me out completely. I don’t have my own handcycle because it’s an expensive bit of kit and, anyway, I always need someone to help me get on and off it. That’s why I ride with the Prague Wheelchair Sports Club. It’s great that I can fit a handbike into my SUPERB. I simply fold down the rear seats and there’s enough room for the handcycle, my wheelchair and Drago the dog. I limit myself to 30 kilometres a day so Drago’s paws don’t get sore.

8. WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF THERE WERE NO CARS?
That’s inconceivable to me because my car is a substitute for my legs.

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9. WHAT WILL CARS LOOK LIKE IN 20 YEARS?
I think hybrid and electric cars will take over, which can only be good for nature and the environment. On the other hand, I’ll miss the roar of the engine because, for me, that is part and parcel of the driving experience.

10. WHAT DESTINATIONS ARE ON YOUR BUCKET LIST?
I would love to travel around Norway and Sweden and I visit the Polar Circle. I want to see the Nordic wilderness, fjords and the Northern Lights with my own eyes.

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