He was in peak physical condition, and hoped to soon add another title win to his belt.
But in the space of a few moments, everything changed: as he cycled along a road near his home, he was struck by a car and thrown off his bike in the collision.
As he lay on the road after the crash, he realised his injuries were serious: “I couldn’t move my legs. I knew it was bad.”
In hospital over the next few days, the stark facts of his injuries became clear: his back was broken, his spine badly damaged – he would not be able to walk again.
Even sitting up in his hospital bed was an impossibility, despite an emergency operation to try to repair some of the damage to his spine.
In the weeks and months that followed, naturally there were periods of despair. But Stefan wasn’t going to stay still for long.
“Life is like a competition – sometimes you win, many times you lose,” he says.
“I took a look at my situation: I had had a big accident, but it wasn’t the end of my life. So I started getting back my life, millimetre by millimetre.”
Five weeks after his accident he was finally able to lift himself from his bed – to the surprise of his doctors – and in the same week started training in the hospital rehabilitation centre.
He started learning to use a wheelchair, training to build up his arm and shoulder muscles in particular – and the mobility he regained from using a wheelchair gave him new hope.
“With my first wheelchair I had this feeling that I was so free – I wasn’t in ‘jail’ any more. This was a big part of my free life.”
Soon Stefan was setting out for long rides around the hospital grounds in a hand-bike, the low-riding wheelchair used by disabled athletes.
On the first day he covered 10 kilometres by handbike – within three weeks he was up to 30 kilometres a day: “I wasn’t quick – I needed six hours to cover 30 kilometres – but I could do it.”
As his own mobility returned, he took to helping other wheelchair users recover theirs. He set out a short training route near the hospital, a two-kilometre hill ride that took about 20 minutes to complete, and was leading groups of hand-bikers around the course.
Over the months and years that followed, Stefan studied for a diploma in wheelchair sport training. He took a job at the Hamburg hospital where he had been treated after his own accident, and worked for eight years as a clinical sports therapist, helping people who had suffered similar disabilities to get their lives back on track.
He’s a firm believer that sports are an important option for people who have suffered seriously disabling accidents, because it helps them realise that their injuries need not mean the end of their active lives.
Over the years he has competed at international level in parathlete triathlons and team bike races in Europe, winning trophies and setting several new time records on the hand-bike.
For the past several years Stefan has lived on Lanzarote, in the Spanish Canary Islands, where he’s founded a training centre for disabled and able-bodied athletes, and organises regular races across the rugged island.
Stefan visited Phuket for the first time this year, and spent several weeks at the Thanyapura Sports and Leisure complex in Thalang district.
He hails Thanyapura as the perfect sports training environment for disabled athletes, in part because the complex is fully accessible by wheelchair users, and in part because of the very high standards of the facilities and support staff.
The experience was so positive that he will return to Thanyapura later this month, and is making plans to bring other athletes to the sport complex to train.
Although he’s staying in top shape, he’s set aside his own competitive goals for now, to help other people achieve theirs: “Now is the time to be giving back,” he says.