TORONTO — Dror Cohen, (left, next to his racing vehicle) an Israeli motivational speaker, delivers lectures to students, soldiers and hi-tech industry executives in Israel and abroad.
His speeches are about making the impossible possible.
Cohen, who will turn 40 later this month, knows a thing or two about this topic.
In 1992, when he was a combat pilot, he was paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident. In despair and embitterment, he could have retreated into a shell, feeling sorry for himself.
“In a second, my life changed,” he said last week in an interview in Toronto.
Instead, following five months of rehab, he pulled himself together, thanks in no small part to a supportive family and loyal friends, and re-entered society.
In 1995, he founded the Challenge Association, which gives disabled Israelis, including the blind and the deaf, a chance to participate in sports ranging from sailing to scuba diving.
Setting his sights even higher, he became a world-class sailor and a long-distance rally driver.
“If you have the will to go on with your life, you can,” he said.
In 1999, Cohen – Israel’s sailing champion in the Sonar class – placed fourth in the world championships in Spain.
A year later, at the Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, he took eighth place.
At the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, he won the gold medal, and in September in Beijing, he will defend his title.
In 2002, Cohen drove in the Paris-Dakar rally, the world’s largest, longest and toughest off-road car race, but he had to drop out after the 11th day when his engine gears malfunctioned.
Cohen was ready to drive his custom-built 400-horsepower Chevy Silverado vehicle in this year’s rally, but much to his disappointment, the 10,000 kilometre race was cancelled due to security concerns connected with the murder of four French tourists in Mauritania at the hands of Al Qaeda.
“We put together a great team,” said Cohen, who still wears the plastic orange wrist band that all rally drivers must wear when they are competing.
He intends to race in next year’s rally.
“I’m not giving up. I’m a winner in my life and in my way of thinking.”
Cohen, a resident of Tel Aviv who thinks he was born to be wild, has sought out physical challenges since boyhood.
After high school, he served in the navy. Finding the pace too slow, he applied to be a pilot.
Graduating from the air force academy in 1989, he was soon flying Skyhawks in combat missions in Lebanon. By 1990, he was piloting an F-16.
During the first Gulf War, when Israel seemed poised to strike Iraq in retaliation for its Scud attacks on Israeli cities, he sat in the cockpit of his F-16 for hours each day, waiting in vain for an order to fly toward Baghdad.
As a result of U.S. pressure, Israel stayed out of the war and refrained from bombing Iraq.
On June 29, 1992, he and several pilots were being transported to an air base when the chauffeur fell asleep at the wheel and lost control of the car.
One of the pilots broke his arm and the others sustained scratches. The driver walked away unscathed.
Cohen broke his back.
“The only thing I remember was waking up in the hospital a day later,” he said.
Suddenly, his dream of rising to the rank of a commander was shattered.
“It was a big blow,” said Cohen, whose first name means sparrow in English. “I was like a bird, but my wings were clipped.”
He sank into a depression. For a man who had always been active, the prospect of being a paraplegic was hard to bear. “It was a hell of a problem.”
Cohen, who had been a scuba diver, kick boxer, mountain climber and sailor, and who loved the rush of adrenaline, was now disabled.
At rehab, however, he learned to live with and overcome his disability.
He also returned to the sports he had enjoyed as an able-bodied person.
“I’m still the same Dror,” he said. “Some things change, but you’re the same person.”
Discovering that some sports, such as water skiing, were considered off-limits to the disabled in Israel, Cohen founded the Challenge Association.
The association, with a membership of about 2,000, encourages people with disabilities to test the limits of their fitness.
Asked what advice he can offer to the recently disabled, Cohen said, “Stay open-minded. You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it. You can get yourself together and move on.”
Cohen’s visit to Toronto was co-sponsored by the Mishorim Development Group, a real estate company headed by Gil Blutrich and listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, and Inter-Canel Ltd., an Internet high-tech company whose chief executive officer is Avi Gerber.
Blutrich’s company, which controls rental properties, shopping centres and hotels, expanded its operations to Canada in 1998 and now owns the Horseshoe Valley ski resort near Toronto.