As a Phoenix…

Henrik DelferOmLeave a Comment

[For at læse denne artikel på dansk, venligst følg dette link.]

My model for the image above is Maila Walmod. You might not know here, and you’ve probably never heard her name before. But her story will grab your heart, so do read it all, because it is both unfathomable, touching, inspiring and life-affirming.

At the age of 15 Maila won her first national championship in trampoline, and has since won the individual national championship SEVEN times. Four years in a row she won and set national records in difficulty for various combinations of jumps she performed. She loved jumping trampline, and was afforded the opportunity to live out her dream as an elite athlete supported by Team Denmark. And then – in 2013 – her entire world fell apart.

She had an accident with her foot during practice that was so serious, the doctors didn’t think she would ever get to jump trampoline again.

Maila’s shattered foot after her injury in 2013

X-Ray of Maila’s foot after surgery

Two operations later – where her shattered foot was put together again using screws and metal wires – Maila decided to begin rehabilitation of her foot. Neither the doctors nor her injury would be allowed to dictate, if she could return to the sport she loved. 

After two years of struggle and rehabilitation, she once again found herself – in 2015 – at the top of the winner’s podium at the Danish National Championship  and she participated both at the European- and World Championships. In the fall of 2016 she became Nordic Champion for the third time and broke her own national records both in practice and during competition. She had never been more successful… and then – once again – she had another accident in November of 2016 that put a stop to her career. 

During the taping of a TV-show “5th. half”, the janitor of the sports arena – by accident – turned off the main power and thus all lighting in the gymnastics hall, at exactly the time when Maila had set off for a jump of full height. In complete darkness Maila lost her orientation on her way up in a jump where the jumper is deeply dependant on visual cues. From a hight of more than 12 feet (four meters) she hit the trampoline DIRECTLY on her neck and broke it. Every ligament was torn apart as well as the discs between her occipital joints.

Maila in the hospital after she broke her neck

Once again Maila was told she would NEVER get to jump in a trampoline again, and that she would be lucky, should she regain full movement of her body. Her tre upper occipital joints were fused where the damage was most severe. During surgery the doctors cut open her throat, so they could fix titanium screws and a plate at the front of the occipital joints.

X-ray of Maila’s neck after her surgery

Much the same way on the back of her neck, except here two plates were used with three screws in each surrounding her top occipital joints. Not only did a terrible injury, once again, put a stop to her career as an elite athlete and trampoline jumper, it also thrust her into a crisis of identity in relation to her sport. With fear and constant pain in her neck, Maila fought to regain strength and rebuild confidence in what her own body was capable of.

Despite almost everyone around her questioned the sanity of her decision, it was through training at a slow progression end challenges, Maila found respite from her pain. In the middle of the extreme agony and pain, she found relief and joy in physically training her body, and eventually reached the conclusion, that the only thing that would allow her to regain muscular controle in her back and neck, was to begin jumping the trampoline. Because even from minimal heights there is still ample force on the body to aid in regaining muscular- and stabilising strength. 

Maila found that the most effective rehabilitation she could do for he back, stomach and neck was to do exactly that thing that she loved, and in November 2018 she started jumping a little and practiced holding her posture in landing on the trampoline from minimal height. With almost 20 years as an active athlete, physical training was an important part of her identity and self image, and once again Maila regained the joy of jumping the trampoline that made her start at the age of seven. It was fun. The fear gradually lessened, her strength increased and the joy of “daring” to jump again overshadowed everything else.

Maila reached out to me in the beginning of May 2019 to ask if I would be interested in using her as a model, and in her message she told me a little bit of her story. As I read her message and saw her x-rays I had no doubt. I had to meet the woman that fought to overcome all of that.

Phoenix, Photographer © Henrik Delfer (model: Maila Walmod, assistant: Carsten Heyde)

We met over a cup of coffee, and I was confirmed in my initial assumption: I simply HAD to photograph her. We talked a bit about my personal projects and various ideas I had, and we agreed to try to use Maila as a model for the second phase of my “Brush of Light” project, that I’ve been working on for a few years now. From having created images with my male and female models standing on the floor or on a posing piedestal, I had a vision to get my models up in the air, so I could light them all the way around. And for this Maila was obviously the perfect choice.

Mail became my first model for this phase of the project and the above photograph is but one of the amazing images we created during our second shoot together in my studio. The photograph (beyond being an incredibly beautiful photograph for my “Brush of Light” project) is also a tribute to Maila and everyone – like her – that overcomes a great fall and rises like the bird Phoenix from their own ashes, which is also exactly the titel of this image: “Phoenix”.

I have been struck down myself, with a double stroke (two simultaneous blood clots in my brain) back in december of 2004. It meant total paralysis in my right side and complete expressive aphasia (without the ability to talk). I was beaten down but count myself blessed to have been afforded the opportunity to rise again. Nothing rings more true that what the hurdler – who failed so miserably and of whom many laughed – Joel Brown said: “It’s not the failures in life that define us, it’s the moments when we decide that getting back up is all that matters”.

Mailas work ethics, dedication and passion is incomparable and it is a HUGE pleasure to work with her. I am grateful she took courage and wrote to me, and I am looking forward to our continued collaboration.

In march of 2019 Maila began jumping trampoline again and – mostly to prove to herself that she could – decided to enter the Danish National Championship in Trampoline once again.

Saturday March 25th. 2019 Maila Walmod won the national championship for the EIGHTH time!

Maila with the trophy – as the Danish National Champion – she has won EIGHT times!

 

Even without a trampoline she loves to jump, here in my studio

 

Maila as she – according to herself – felt, when she recently won the Danish National Championships for the eighth time