Roei Sadan spent five years circling the world by bicycle, but after recovering from a 500-meter fall, he could have never guessed it would prepare him for his toughest challenge yet.
Roei “Jinji” Sadan, 34, is an extreme adventure athlete who spent five years biking 66,000 kilometers (41,010 miles) around the world. His towering 1.84-meter (6-foot) physique, accentuated by a signature flaming red beard, has carried him over mountains and through valleys, across deserts and ice fields on six continents in 42 countries.
“I was on top of the world,” said Sadan, both literally and figuratively.
But a scar on his throat, where the breathing tube was inserted for two months, is the only physical sign that reveals another mountain that Sadan must climb.
“This journey is measured in centimeters, not kilometers,” he said. “It is, without a doubt, the biggest and most difficult journey of my life.”
In August last year, Sadan was taking a break from training to kayak the west coast of North America, from Alaska to San Diego. He had just finished riding on the highest road in the world in northern India and was passing some time waiting for his girlfriend to join him in India for a vacation. He decided to take a week to climb the 6,100 meter (20,000 feet) Stok Kangri mountain with a friend.
“I remember the summit, and then I woke up two months later,” said Sadan.
On the way down from the mountain, Sadan slipped on a rock and plummeted hundreds of meters, his body bouncing off of rocks like a rag doll. What happened next is “a series of miracles,” said Sadan.
He was miraculously caught by a group of climbers who just happened to be climbing below Sadan and his friends. When they saw a body falling down the side of the mountain, they dug their ice axes into the snow and absorbed the force of Sadan’s fall with their bodies.
Sadan was barely conscious, but the hiking group just happened to have a bottle of oxygen as Sadan’s friends desperately started calling the Israeli Foreign Ministry to organize a rescue.
Just as the oxygen was about to run out, the helicopter arrived, and Sadan was hoisted onto it and flown to a hospital in Leh and, later, New Delhi. Friends arrived from Israel with a doctor in tow, who stabilized Sadan long enough to get him to Israel, where he fell into a coma for more than a month.
“The doctor told my parents, due to the brain injury, I could return to be like the old Roei, or I could be a vegetable, and anything in between that,” said Sadan.
Six months after the accident, on February 9, Sadan got up out of his wheelchair and left Tel HaShomer Hospital in Tel Aviv. His friends and nurses formed a human tunnel, applauding wildly, as he rode his bicycle out the door, to start the adventure of the rest of his life.
Today, Sadan is an outpatient at the hospital, where he completes daily physical therapy. He suffered a diffuse brain injury (damage to the brain over a wide area, not a specific spot), a shattered ankle and a bone spur on his hip, which is common from patients who have been in a long-term coma. He still has weakness on his left side, chronic fatigue and very little short-term memory, but he expects to make a full recovery with time.
“When I was on my bicycle journey, I’d cross these deserts, I’d be hungry, I’d be thirsty, but I always knew that in order to get somewhere, I’d have to go through nowhere,” said Sadan. “Right now, I’m in the nowhere of my life.”
Throughout Sadan’s prior journeys, he has said that he always knew he had the inner strength to cross those deserts, no matter how long or hot or exhausted he felt. Funnily enough, “Sadan” means “anvil” in Hebrew, a tool used by metalworkers built to withstand extreme heat and pressure.
I have interviewed Sadan a number of times over the course of his bike trip, and evenjoined him on the celebratory last three kilometers of his round-the-world journey from downtown Jerusalem to the Western Wall in 2011. Every time he remembered something from our past meetings, his whole face would light up — he was so excited to realize that he still had access to those memories.
Sadan’s worldwide bicycle route took him from the northernmost point of Alaska down the entire west coast of North, Central and South America, then from the tip of South Africa to Ethiopia and a two-week break in Israel. He then cycled across Europe from Spain to Istanbul, across Turkey through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to a tour across China the long way, and a final four months in Australia along the coast, where he biked for two weeks on a tandem with blind Israeli biker Orly Tal.
Along the way, he was one of Israel’s farthest-reaching informal ambassadors, bringing his blue-and-white hybrid Thorn bike named Emuna (which means “faith” in Hebrew), bedecked with an Israeli flag fluttering behind, to corners of Australia’s Outback, Africa’s deserts, and Central America’s jungles that had never seen an Israeli before.
He spoke at schools, embassies, Jewish communities and synagogues, encouraging people to follow their dreams. Afterwards, he’d always get back on Emuna and bike off towards the horizon, alone.
But now, his journey has shifted from an intensely personal saga to relying on others for everything as he spent months regaining control of his body.
“I went from mountain climber to someone helping me go to the bathroom,” said Sadan, shaking his head. “I came with a lot of ego. In the beginning, I said, ‘I don’t need a physical therapist to learn how to walk! I’m a mountain climber!’ But then I tried to do it myself and I fell. So I knew I needed to listen. Your ego kills, you have to come without ego.”
“People look at me and think I’m a different person,” Sadan said in a TEDx Talk at Tel Aviv University on February 15. “Maybe it’s because my view has changed from mountains to hospitals. Maybe it’s because I used to trust myself, but today I have to trust others. What they don’t understand is that I’m still the same person, it’s just that my journey has changed.”
“According to Zen philosophy, only a person that reaches the lowest place in a valley will appreciate the highest peak,” he continued in the talk, which he trained for from his hospital bed. “It seems for me that it worked the other way around.”
“Before the fall, I lived my dream, and this is what I did, but I didn’t understand that when I fell, it wasn’t just me that fell, all of my family and friends fell with me,” Sadan told The Times of Israel. “They helped me get up so they could get up also. I’m not alone, and now I know that.”
Sadan said the fall drastically changed his relationship with his family and friends, understanding how much he relies on them, bringing him closer, exposing both his vulnerability and their unwavering support.
He met his girlfriend, Sharon Cohen, just five months before this fall, and they recently celebrated their year anniversary while Sadan was still in full-time rehab. “To try to build a relationship while in rehab is very difficult,” he said.
Sadan said that he had previously fallen in love with someone on his ride around the world, but that he decided to choose his journey over love.
“It used to be that the journey was bigger, but now love is more important,” said Sadan. “I matured, and I have this big journey behind me. I feel complete, even if that’s the only journey I’ll make in my life.”
Sadan still has his sights set on the horizon. He’s entertaining dreams of climbing Mount Everest, though he knows that dream will require a lot of small victories before he can consider it. “Every step that I take is a lot of steps for many people,” he said.
“My slogan before was ‘Dream with Open Eyes.’ Sometimes a nightmare is a type of dream. At the end of the day, everything is an experience. Sometimes an experience is a nightmare that ends.”
Sadan, who was previously a motivational speaker, knows that his story is even more powerful after his fall. He hopes to embark on a world-wide speaking tour to share his story and inspire others to embark on their own journeys.
“That [bike trip] was my masterpiece,” said Sadan, while gathering his things and Cohen’s dog, Dubi, to head to an afternoon session of physical therapy.
“I won’t do another trip like cycling around the world again in my life. But it doesn’t matter how strong you are. There are people who are stronger than me, there are people who are better cyclists than me. It’s about how much strength you give. It’s about how much you can get people to look at the mountains in their life and get them to climb them. It’s a combination between an adventurer and an inspirational speaker.”
“Look, there hasn’t been another Israeli that rode their bike around the world,” he added. But now, that adventure is only part of his message. “We will all be in a situation where we need help from others. Because some point, we will all find ourselves on an unplanned journey.”