To play sports, you just need a sports prosthesis

Soccer, athletics, bmx biking and especially snowboarding. It is just a selection of the sports Merijn Koek (31) has done in his life. First with his daily prosthesis, later with a special sports prosthesis. 'Sports is the common thread in my life. And that just goes with a sports prosthesis.'

Merijn was born July 19, 1990, without a lower leg and missing two forearms. "That's still the case," he laughs. It marks his positive attitude, which he inherited from his parents. "In my childhood, I never experienced being 'different' from other children. Nor did I want to be different. When I was one and a half years old, I got my first leg prosthesis, mainly to learn to crawl with it. Not much later I got a prosthesis to learn to walk with. During gym classes, when I went to play outside, soccer or cycling, I just used my ADL prosthesis (ADL stands for General Daily Living Activities, ed.). I didn't have a sports prosthesis. Running and biking with that leg wasn't ideal, I was more likely to have blisters and pain, but that didn't stop me from playing sports."

"In my adolescence sports was a must, I didn't always like it. Since I met Bibian Mentel, that has changed and sports is very important," Merijn continues his story. At 19, Merijn contacts Bibian because he feels the need to connect with fellow sufferers and learn from her. It is the beginning of a roller coaster of sorts. A month after that first email, he travels with the Dutch Paralympic snowboarders to a competition in America, in 2012 he becomes a full-time athlete and another two years later he is at the Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. There he finished 14th in the snowboard cross. "I just missed out on the 2018 Games and then I started working at the Mentelity Foundation. First as a jack-of-all-trades, nowadays I am involved in all snow, skate and wakeboard activities, such as snowboard lessons, wakeboard clinics and the Beach Day."

Through Bibian, Merijn also came into contact with prosthetist Frank Jol, who fitted him with his first sports prosthesis. "That first involved a snowboard prosthesis and that is really something completely different from what I walk with on a daily basis. In fact, I can walk with that snowboard prosthesis, but I'd rather not. It has a different foot, which is better suited for boarding turns, the foot is turned all the way in so that I stand properly on my board, it has an upper leg cap so that I can't overstretch or twist my leg ... Because I also enjoy cycling and running, I have a special sports prosthesis for that too. I do see now that an ADL prosthesis is actually not suitable for sports."

"My meeting with Bibian is the beginning of a sporting roller coaster."

Although Merijn is happy with the prostheses he has now, there is still room for improvement. For example, with the "prosthesis exchange system" that Frank Jol is now working on. "With this I will soon be able to change my cycling foot for a running foot with one button. At the moment this is still done with Allen keys and well, without hands it is not very easy," he laughs. Will this system be paid for by health insurance companies in the future? That would be great, Merijn admits.

"All the prosthetics I have now, or had before, were self-funded," he says. "Unfortunately, not everyone can afford something like that. I notice that because of this, too many children with disabilities still don't get the opportunities to do what they love most. That's a shame, isn't it? I always keep thinking in terms of possibilities, want to get the most out of them. And I grant that to others as well. Fortunately, the foundation knows ways to help with financing sports prosthetics and we are working on scientific research to eventually have sports prosthetics included in basic insurance. That would be a great step."

Text: Robin Wubben
Photos: Mathilde Dusol