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Bruna Moura nearly died trying to get to the Olympics. Now she’s back on her skis.

Bruna Moura

Bruna Moura of Brazil competes in the Ladies 5 km individual classic qualification race of the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Lahti, Finland, on February 22, 2017. / AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND (Photo credit should read JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

On Jan. 16, 2022, Bruna Moura received the news that she had worked more than a decade for: She made Brazil’s Olympic team.

Eleven days later, Moura was in an Italian hospital. She never made it to the Winter Games. She was lucky to be alive. The other person in her van did not survive.

Moura, a 28-year-old cross-country skier, competed on Wednesday for the first time in 13 months. She finished ninth in a race with 38 women, mostly from nations without winter sports tradition. The top 10 qualified for next week’s 10km at the world championships in Planica, Slovenia.

On Thursday, Moura placed 78th out of 99 skiers in the first medal event of worlds, the sprint. She deemed the comeback successful, and hopes it leads to the next Winter Olympics in Italy in 2026.

In an interview last month, Moura described what she feels in a cross-country skiing race.

“Everything’s burning,” she said. “We ask ourselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’ Because it’s too painful. But at the same time, it’s like anger. You really want to do it. You really want to cross the finish line, just like if it’s a big challenge. And if you cross the finish line, you are a hero. That’s how it feels.”

Back in 2011, Moura, then 17, was a promising mountain biker. She was coached by an Olympian, competed on the junior World Cup circuit and strove to represent Brazil at the 2016 Rio Games.

But a medical exam revealed a heart condition that required surgery and, ultimately, led her to cross-country skiing. The winter sport became more appealing for a few reasons.

During her recovery, Brazilian sports officials gifted her equipment for roller skiing, which cross-country skiers use for summer training. She took to it. It was also difficult to get sponsors back to return to mountain biking. Plus, her mountain bike coach was actually a two-sport Olympian, switching back and forth between mountain bike and cross-country skiing.

Come 2015, Moura competed at the world junior championships in biathlon. Later that year, she entered her first international race in cross-country skiing, where Olympic qualifying is slightly easier for non-traditional winter sports nations.

She competed in her first world championships in cross-country skiing in 2017 and by January 2022 was in contention for the second and last Brazil women’s Olympic berth. At the last qualifying event in Switzerland, she finished her race and called her partner, Dutchman Pascal Luiten, who tracked the live results and told her she earned the Olympic spot.

“I started crying and jumping,” Moura said. “It was really, really, let’s say a fantastic day.”

Two days later, Moura tested positive for COVID-19 with symptoms that were not life-threatening. She quarantined in Austria for 10 days and changed her itinerary to get from Europe to China.

On Jan. 27, she could leave. She booked a van through a car service to take her, and her ski equipment, about four hours north to Munich, where she planned to stay a few nights before flying to Beijing.

Moura woke up around 5 a.m. to wipe down the room in the house where she quarantined. The van arrived at 7. She learned from text messages that the driver was a Russian named Yevgeny who lived in Berlin.

She remembers details about that morning that altered their estimated arrival time. Yevgeny at first parked behind the house, but she needed him to be in the front where her three large bags were. The GPS had to correct after they took the wrong street leaving the Austrian town.

Yevgeny drove fast enough that Moura became afraid and instinctively looked for the seatbelt. She said that, growing up in Brazil, she always made sure that everybody had their belts on before starting the car. On this morning, she did not initially follow her own advice. Minutes into the trip, she looked at the loose belt and thought.

“Do I wear it, or not because the way he’s driving?” she recalled a year later. “Maybe if I do not wear it, I have time to react, open the door and jump. That’s crazy thoughts of course. But that’s what I thought at the moment. … Then I put it on and tried to sleep.”

About an hour later, Moura woke up. The van was still.

“I was scared,” she said. “I opened my eye, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘You were sleeping. You are waking up now.’ … I saw so many people around me, and I did not understand anything because I did not remember anything when I saw them. I got scared, like what the hell is happening here? And then all the pain started, and it was hard to breathe.”

Images showed the van up against a guard rail. The windshield and everything below it was mangled, the van’s insides and one tire spilled into the side of a two-lane road. On the other side of the road, a large truck lie on its side.

A medical helicopter took Moura to a hospital. She broke an arm in three places, had three broken ribs, lung damage and a broken left foot.

When she was stabilized, they brought her to a room. She remembers an old woman entered and told her what happened, a few hours after the accident. “Until then, I didn’t know anything,” Moura said.

“You had a collision with a truck,” Moura was told. “There was nothing to do for the driver. He died with impact.”

Moura and Luiten later learned from a police report that Yevgeny, the driver, had a job in music, and that his child went to Italy to identify him and pick up his belongings.

“I happened to see somewhere that he was buried in a cemetery in Berlin,” Luiten said.

Moura said that a doctor told her that three things saved her. First, sitting in the back seat. If she had been in the front, she would have died with Yevgeny. Second, she would not have survived if she didn’t buckle her seat belt. Third, she would have lost her left foot if not for durable shoes.

After two surgeries, she was discharged the next week and taken 11 hours by ambulance taxi to the Netherlands, where she lives with Luiten. They rented a hospital bed and put it in the living room.

The first night was the worst.

“All night it was just moaning from pain.” said Luiten, who slept on a couch in the room. “That did not stop until the morning.”

She was prescribed stronger medication the next day. That’s about the time the Olympics began.

“I wanted to watch it,” she said. “At first, it was not easy. The Opening Ceremony was like a punch in my face.”

Luiten said they watched the Games all day every day.

“It was mostly a matter of trying to enjoy the fact that people were visiting her, caring about her, and there was sports to watch as a distraction,” he said. “Trying to get her mind off the pain, especially at night.”

She spent most of her time in bed for those first three weeks, the rest in a wheelchair. She began walking, first with crutches, and then, two months after the accident, on her own. By August, she began roller skiing again. She was determined to ski on snow, though her foot still hurt.

“I was already aiming at 2026,” she said. " Yeah, it hurts like hell now, but it will not stay like this forever.”

Also that summer, she began working at a bike shop and then taking kickboxing classes. Co-workers learned her story and set up a Gofundme page to aid with the costs of becoming an international athlete again.

In the fall, Moura ran for the first time since the accident. Late last month, she skied on snow for the first time in a year. Then two weeks ago, she traveled back to Austria, to the same place where she quarantined a year ago. On a bus, she passed by the site of the accident and shared the video on her Instagram story.

The 2026 Winter Olympic cross-country skiing races will be about 50 miles south of where last year’s tragedy occurred.

Moura said she asks herself daily why she continues this pursuit, which began as a mountain biker more than a decade ago.

“When I decided to become an athlete, I decided that I wanted to get to the highest I could,” she said. “When you are an athlete, the highest you can get is the Olympics.”

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