Interview : Joel Smets recovers from illness

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Team Suzuki’s MX1 rider Joel Smets is well on his way to recovery after contracting a serious blood infection following the British Motocross GP in May. The 35-year-old five-times World Champion plans to recuperate during the summer, have his long-awaited knee operation in the autumn, and then return guns blazing on the RM-Z450 next season. Smets gave the following interview during his visit to Grand Prix of Belgium at Neeroeteren.

Q: Joel, this has been a tough time for you with the decision to have surgery and then contracting the bacterial infection. Can you talk though what happened?
Smets: “After the Grand Prix of Britain, on the Monday night I started to feel some pain in my hip and it turned out that I had caught a bacterial infection. There are many different types and it usually enters the body through the blood; the most common ones are those that you catch in the hospital after you have had an operation. They can normally be quite dangerous. The one I caught had nothing to do with my knee and I picked it up from somewhere else – maybe on the Island from the British people! It certainly wasn’t from the hospital because I had the infection even before I went inside. I had plans to have my knee operation that Friday but went to hospital on Tuesday because I was suffering. Over the next few days my temperature went up and I wasn’t taking the right antibiotics for the bacteria. My hip was painful because it was the place on my body where the bacteria had gathered. The blood was carrying the virus to my lungs, heart and liver and so I was transferred and went into intensive care at Leuven because it affected my breathing. They got it under control but I was very nervous there for a while because they were searching for the right antibiotics. I stayed under observation for some more days and was eventually able to leave last week. I have not been feeling sick but I have been very weak. My body has still not recovered and I have lost all my power in my legs. I feel pretty tired now and only wanted to come to the GP today. I have around three more weeks of antibiotics and then I have to go back to Leuven where they will check to see if all the animals have been killed! Hopefully if everything goes to plan throughout July then I will have two or three weeks without medicine and then aim for the knee operation in mid-August. As everybody knows, it takes a long time recover from knee ligament surgery and after three or four months I want to be back on the bike sometime in December.


Q: Mentally it must have been a worrying and demoralising time for you?
JS: Of course. My reaction initially was ‘why me, why me?’ I thought I was the only person in the world to get struck by these bacteria, especially when it took some time to track. I saw in the hospital though that these types of infections are more and more common. I felt a little more relaxed to know that I was not alone or unique with this condition. There was also the feeling that once I came through the bad stage that it could have been worse. I had already decided on Sunday night in England to have the operation on my knee and that the season would be over. That was the most difficult part. The infection meant things were a bit more serious for a while but mentally in terms of how it affected my normal life it was not too bad because the decision to end the year a few days before had already been made. 


Q: You must have been thinking about a return to action when laid up in the hospital. There is a long way to go but how do you see your rehabilitation?
JS: The original plan for the operation straight after England was so that I could be ready for the winter tests. I think now that maybe I will be able to start riding a little bit at that stage but probably not able to test. I certainly won’t have the speed. It is unfortunate that I won’t be able to help the team that much but I will be focusing on getting my riding back to a good level.


Q: There was some speculation at this difficult time that you might take a step away from the sport. Did this ever enter your mind?
JS: I expected it to come up in my mind but it never did. I can’t help it but I am still very keen to race! I think that mentally I was ready for a break and maybe this is one small positive thing about what has happened. I have been racing for 15 years in the World Championships at a high level and I’ve never had a break mentally from motocross and my commitments. Trying to look at this from a positive angle because it is never good to have to miss races, I think I needed this break. For the first time since I can remember, the days are empty spaces. I believe this move away from the pressures of racing can be good for my head; I hope it will make me come back stronger and even hungrier. I am aware of the fact that by the start of next season I will be 36 but I have been thinking about this and talking with Marnicq Bervoets. Marnicq is the same age but has a slightly different story because he has been riding bikes since he was ten and in the GPs since he was 16. I have been riding only from 17 and I think my motivation and drive to race is on another level. Only last season I won a World Championship and took a good second in the other MXGP Championship so I think I proved I still have the speed. This year also, considering my shape and my knee, I felt like I was still able to easily fight for top five positions. For 2005 I am not worried about my condition. All the little injuries have to be beaten by the motivation to continue and for me this is not a problem. I am also realistic and I will not come out at the start of next year and say that I will blow my opponents away. It will be a long and hard way back.  I have always been fighting for first place in the Championship for at least the last five years and looking back now I don’t think I was mentally ready for a new team and new bike. I thought it would be like always when I would be pushing for the win from the first race but perhaps I looked at the situation in the wrong way. I always tried to say to myself that it would be difficult to win in the first stages but my will to win was still there and maybe led to some frustration. I now have reset my goals and will be racing for satisfaction. I have to build my winning feeling up again. I think in order to progress you have to make the step backwards and then move two steps forward and this is what I will try to do and work my way up.


Q: What will be your plans away from the races?
JS: I will so some commentary for TV but in a few weeks and for the first time in my career, I will take my family on a summer holiday. I will try to stay involved with the team a little bit to carry on being a part of the development of the bike. Getting some downtime and distance from the sport to spend with my family will be great. Little leisure things like attending the semi-final of the European Football Championships and visiting the Belgian Olympic team – small stuff that I would never usually have time to do.


Q: Now that you are something of an outsider, what do you think of this year’s Championships?
JS: Even in the last few GPs when I was still riding, I think we have seen some great racing. I wasn’t directly involved mostly but there has been some exciting action. The youngsters are coming up strong but it will still be some time before they can reach the level that Stefan has; there is not much doubt that this is likely to be Stefan’s title. There are some GPs left to go and I am looking forward to watching the races.


Interview by Adam Wheeler: mxpress@attglobal.net – Photo (C) Suzuki Racing

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