Nine years ago young athlete Martin Zach won the title of the most beautiful Man of the Year. Next day, he jumped into a pond and stayed paralyzed. His life changed in split second. Although it was not easy at first, today he is an idol for the disabled. Martin lives his life to its fullest and like a perfectly healthy person. The only difference is, that he’s sitting at it. In an interview for Luxury Prague Life he gives hope both to the sick and healthy people. Life is a gift and health is a luxury. Not everyone is aware of it.
You got married at the end of August. We are very interested in this. How was the wedding? It’s after all a life changing event.
Wedding was good. It is and isn’t a life changing event. It's about how you take it. Of course, it's a big event, but it does not change the relationship and life.
How long have you been together?
Four and a half years.
And how long have you been meaning to ask her?
It was also fast, it happened on our vacation. On Monday we departed and on Friday I went to buy a ring.
So it was a day-to-day decision?
I came to the decision quickly. That opportunity suddenly came, so I used it. I wasn’t hesitant.
If I were now talking with your wife, she would definitely say "sunset, romance, dinner". Was there something like that?
It wasn’t at sunset, but it was by the sea, on the beach in a gazebo. So it was romantic.
When you were paralyzed, did you ever think you could live this normal life, be happy and get married?
In those first months at the beginning I certainly didn’t. But then, when I met older paraplegics who have been paralyzed longer, I suddenly saw that everything was possible. They gave me a lot of know-how, so I knew it was possible to live “normally”.
How is your wife as your assistant? Did she need to learn a lot, or did she know automatically how to help and what to do?
Wheelchair users usually direct people around and tell them what they need and where they need help. She did not need it that much. After all, she is a doctor, she knows these things, and she have met the handicapped before.
So she is a natural talent if she’s a doctor?
Natural talent. But it's about how the disabled asks you for help. They must be able to direct their assistants to what they need and what they don’t need. Of course, it took a while for us before we found the balance, but it was not extreme.
How will it continue? We are now flooded with articles about your wedding and you said you would like to have children. Will it be possible?
It will, why wouldn’t it? Everything is possible if you want it to be.
When do you plan it?
We let it go the way it goes.
When you had the accident nine years ago, after a while of rehab, you said you would fight until you would start walking again. When I asked you today where you see yourself in five years, you said you'd still be in a wheelchair. Why?
I said this in the first days after it happened to me. Over time, of course, one finds that it is not so easy. Maybe one day I'll walk, I'm not saying I won’t. But I think in five years, doctors won’t have found a cure to my condition. Apparently it will be after a longer time.
But at that time you couldn’t even move your arms, and now you're self-reliable, you can drink yourself, you act as a separate unit.
Fortunately, the muscles in my arms woke up and began to move. In the beginning, I really only could shake my head and lift my left arm, that’s all.
But when the muscles woke up in your arms, it may also happen in your legs?
There was a so-called cerebral swelling after the accident, the nerves were oppressed. When the swelling subsides, some paths are restored and muscles engaged. But the muscles on the legs ... Especially after nine years, it is no longer possible to start them naturally again.
But you exercise...
I exercise but I only strengthen the muscles that work. Muscles that don’t work and that are not connected cannot be strengthened.
A moment ago you were sitting, and then you helped to put your leg over the other leg as you have now. Do you feel more comfortable like this?
It's more comfortable for me because I'm not crouching. This is how I sit with my arms folded to straighten my back. When I put them in front of me, the stability of the body gets worse. It pushes my diaphragm and I cannot breathe.
Well, that wouldn’t have occurred to me at all. Tell me what your working day looks like?
Every day is different, which is fundamental to me, because I hate stereotype. I direct everything myself, and the day is based on what I plan. Most of the time I am devoted to clothes for disabled FZWear.cz. When need be, I order fabric, I handle orders, I deal with customers, I make etiquette to send, I am in contact with the seamstress and send her orders. Apart from sewing, I do everything.
And does it sell good? Are wheelchair users interested in it?
It’s not bad, we are a hit this month. It's also because we started the women's collection for the first time, and we’ve had a pair of women's pants for two weeks. And we also "drove out" with softshell trousers. Basically, it is a waterproof and windproof outdoor fabric. People are really buying it for the winter. We want the clothes to be quality, nice and at the same time affordable. So another job is to collect money for the clothes.
Clothing is subsidized and we subsidize all material and part of the production from the finances I get from various foundations or from charity projects. In average, about 800 CZK is from us per piece of clothing. We try to make the clothes affordable for the widest possible range of wheelchair users, and we do not want to become one of the companies that make money on the disabled.
Hang on, you must make some money out of it. You must live on something.
We have a subsidy for a protected job we have earned this year. And also support from foundations.
That's very little, is it not?
I thought you had it like a business. To earn some money...
No, I don’t want to make a business of it.
But maybe some competition will make a business out of it...
People are interested in price, quality. No company will be able make such quality and affordable clothes.
Do you design and test your clothes yourself? How does it look like?
The back is longer, over the butt. The front is shorter so it doesn’t roll up and make bumps. When you sit down, the fabric on your clothes gathers in the front and your bottom gets out. And when you stand up, you can straighten it. But we don’t stand up, we need comfort while sitting. Furthermore, it’s designed in such a way that anybody who cannot control their fingers, just like me, can dress themselves. We have designed a hook and an eyelet button in place to hold the zipper, and we have bigger loops at the back to get it out and get dressed. It is the same with sweatshirts: it is shorter at the front and at the back it is stretched over the butt so that it doesn’t reveal the back.
That’s great. I wouldn’t have thought of that...
I can imagine. I started to deal with it when I got to the wheelchair myself and suddenly I couldn’t find clothes that would fit me. At the front there was a lot of fabric, but at the back my butt was showing When I got into a car, my pants were halfway down my thighs. And go on a date or some meeting like this and let some strangers dress you! (laughter)
There must have been a lot of such blunders before you solved these things. Name something other than dressing you up.
Ah, blunders… For example, me falling from a car when getting in wasn’t uncommon at first. My wheelchair drives away when it rains or snows. I get myself in the car and the wheelchair skids. That's how I fell at home once, my neighbours went to lift me up and I was in my underwear.
Tell me about your horse therapy. It's called hippotherapy, which sounds to me like you riding a hippo.
This is from Latin. This is Caballinus club, which is dedicated to hippotherapy of handicapped children. I started riding with them seven years ago. At the beginning, it was adrenalin, they had to tie me on that horse to keep me from falling, and six people were needed to get me on the horse. Now we can do it in three people.
I try to help them and raise funds because they are also subsidized. One horse and its stable for one year costs 120,000 CZK and we have five horses. I try to make them PR, I do some anchoring for them occasionally, and so on.
Is it true that, because you won the Man of the Year award, you have a bit of a popular face? Does it help you that you were known in the media as a healthy person?
It’s about the combination: Man of the Year and the jump. I wouldn’t be so popular with the Man of the Year itself, I actually got famous for the jump and injury.
This year was the nineteenth year of the award, I won the tenth. It is necessary to say that David Novotný is doing the event charitable, not just for the Man of the Year and some title. David supports care centres and children's homes in Náchod region. The purpose is to do something good. Since my accident, David has financially supported me. He divides money between the kids and always gives me something. And this is a backstage, which, for example, the Czech Miss does not have.
Are you still interested in it?
Not so much. This year was the first year I didn’t attend the Man of the Year, because I was at the European Championship in athletics and I didn’t catch it. But otherwise I regularly go every year to the final.
What do you think about these boys? How did it change and what is the difference between nine years ago and now?
I am not in contact with those boys at all. But I know they have some assembly before the finals, and they are more publicized. We just went to Náchod the day before, in the evening we went bowling and there was nothing more. Now they are getting ready for it, they have to meet some criteria in English and have some tests. And most of all, they go to international competitions, which we didn’t.
You said you were at the athletics championship. What sport do you do?
I do club throw, an athletic paralympic discipline. I am a member of the club Athletics without barriers Pardubice, so I train in Pardubice. Over the course of four years, I have got into the world leaders and this year I won the Czech Cup for the first time. I ranked fifth in Europe. The aim is paralympics in Tokyo 2020.
You have been an athlete before, and this has remained to you. Does sport help you with your psyche?
It does, and it also helps me to return to life in the wheelchair. For example, by bicycle riding, or in the gym you get stronger and more self-reliable.
I have a feeling I’m talking to a healthy person. You don’t do anything different than a healthy person. You're just sitting at it...
Exactly, I'm trying to live like a normal person. But it also could have ended differently, I could be sitting at home brawling about what happened to me. You mentioned media coverage and if it helped me. If I didn’t want to, I would not go to the media. But I have decided that I want to spread the handicap among the people to know that something like that exists. I personally did not know, and I went to a sports school where we had special pedagogy. I knew there were some kids with cerebral palsy, ADHD, and so on. But I didn’t know that there are spinal cord injuries, too.
What does luxury mean to you?
In general luxury is equal to being rich. But for me the luxury is to be healthy, have time for family and be cool. Go for a vacation and enjoy life.
And is that happening?
In a way, yes. Of course, it would be best to be a rentier and do nothing. But I wouldn’t enjoy it this way. Everyone sees luxury in a different way.
I once had an interview with Jan Potmešil, who said he when he uses cash machine, he can’t reach it. This is another example of things that a healthy person does not think about. If anything like that happens, do people help you?
Not everything is customized for us, of course, for example the ATM. By not moving my fingers, I have trouble pulling my card from the ATM. Or I can’t often reach the terminal to enter PIN. These things happen, but people usually help.
Once a man told me that he would not help me with the wheelchair from the trunk of my car and left. But he returned after a few minutes because he realized I was a paraplegic. But otherwise people help. When wheelchair users want help, they are mostly taught how to ask for it. I don’t have problem with that. After all, it belongs to the wheelchair.
How would you motivate other people? It's everywhere –injury, accidents...
It's everywhere. I go to Kladruby to do a self-reliability instructor, and there I meet people who are in a situation similar to mine. I teach them all moves, bedding, dressing, or that it does not end in the wheelchair. You need to fight, but you can live your life relatively well.
Do they see hope, or do they say: What's he gibbering about?
It depends. But mostly they are positive. I tell them I’m nine years wheelchair-bound. And what can be done in the wheelchair. For them, it's a motivation.
Martin, thank you very much for the interview. Good luck.
The happiest day of your life?
What do you never forgive?
Name one wheelchair advantage over a healthy person?
What would you ask President Miloš Zeman if you had the chance?
How did you last surprise your wife?
What can’t you imagine your day without?
What's the biggest stupidity you've ever done in your life?
Which sport would you like to try?
What does your wife love about you?
What does pain mean to a disabled person?
What first thing would you recommend to a person who had just been told he won’t walk again?
What is your dream holiday?
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Do you know that wheelchair users need special clothing?
No smaller at the front, bigger at the back.