Beatrice de Lavalette was 17 years old when she was at Brussels’ Zaventem Airport, heading back to the US for spring break.
The next thing she remembers is darkness, and the feeling of being lifted off the ground.
By chance De Lavalette had been standing next to a suicide bomber and was one of the 300 people who were left injured after Zaventem Airport was struck by twin blasts on March 22, 2016 – an attack where 32 people were killed and which ISIS would later claim responsibility for.
“I was just on my phone talking to my brother and listening to music, really not paying attention to what was going on around me […] I think the next thing I see is that everything’s going really dark,” de Lavalette tells CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“It was right after I came to from being knocked out from the initial impact of the bomb, I remember looking around and knowing exactly what had just happened and I remember thinking, ‘I cannot believe this just happened,’” she adds.
She also remembers “a lot of chaos, a lot of smoke and fire and darkness.”
“I could start hearing other people screaming for help […] I remember thinking that I should probably be doing the same thing,” she says.
Eventually, de Lavalette caught the eye of one of the first responders, who immediately sprayed her with a fire extinguisher to douse the flames that had enveloped her body.
She was left with life-changing injuries including second- to third-degree burns, a spinal cord injury and the loss of her lower legs – both of which were amputated.
Six years on from that horrific day, the 22-year-old dressage rider is looking forward to brighter horizons and representing Team USA at her first Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
No end in sight
About a month after coming out of a coma, de Lavalette says she cried every day. She spent in ICU and wondered what life held in store for her.
“Thank God I had my family there to support me,” de Lavalette recalls. “Just knowing that my life wasn’t over and that I was going to be able to continue living my life in a positive way helped me a lot when I was in the hospital.”
It was a few months later when the American ambassador to Belgium came to visit her in hospital, and they began talking about the Rio 2016 Olympics.
“We were just talking and joking around. And she mentioned that the Olympics were going on in Rio at that point and how cool it would be for me to be in Tokyo for the next one,” she says. “But I didn’t really think too much into it.”
Until that point, de Lavalette had no intention of becoming a para-athlete – let alone competing at a Paralympic Games – but she did want to resume her passion of horse riding.
“I wanted to get back to my […] regular life, and for me, regular life was riding every day, so not being able to do that was really hard.”
The road to recovery
De Lavalette spent months learning how to ride again, which was “really uncomfortable.”
“I had no muscle, I was just skin and bones, so being back on the saddle with no sense of balance was really uncomfortable. But with time, I was able to build up the muscle and work on my balance, and it got easier with time,” she says.
“My body was so different than prior to the accident. So for me, it was just readjusting what I had learned my whole life,” de Lavalette adds.
Riders often use their legs to guide their horse, shifting their weight to change the movement of their mount, but de Lavalette uses a whip to guide her horse, touching it from side to side to tell it where to go.
‘I am very appreciative’
From riding in the south of France as a youngster to returning to the saddle with her horse Delegada X – who she affectionately calls DeeDee – de Lavalette says her connection with horses has always proved stronger than the obstacles she’s faced on her path to her first Games.
When de Lavalette was recovering from the 2016 accident, her mother found a way to bring DeeDee to the hospital parking lot, where she was reunited with her beloved companion.
“That moment made me decide that I wasn’t going to give up on life,” she told daytime talk show “The Doctors.”
“The basis of how I work with my horses is trust,” de Lavalette tells CNN.
“It’s the feeling, the connection that you have with the horse, just that bond that you create over the […] course of the training, I think, for me is probably my favorite,” she adds.
De Lavalette went back to school in September 2016 and finished her first para-equestrian show in April 2017. She made her first appearance for the US Para Dressage Team in January 2020 – where she contributed to the team competition victory.
Recently, she’s been getting used to training with her new horse, a 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood named Clarc, who de Lavalette says is “awesome.”
“I’ve had [him] for nine months,” she adds. “He’s such a great horse. He is in some sense very supportive. He’s a hard worker. He likes what he does and he doesn’t toss me off […] so I am very appreciative of that.”
‘It was really surreal’
In July, de Lavalette shared the news that she had been picked to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Games.
“It was really surreal,” she says, “I kind of knew it was going to happen just because I had worked so hard, and I had done the results that I needed to make the team. But hearing it and making it official was really an incredible moment.”
Of course, de Lavalette’s achievement is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice, but she says the dream of making a Paralympic podium is what has kept her going.
“It’ll probably make me cry, but it’s going to mean everything. It’s just such a special moment just to be able to represent the country and then do well enough to make the podium. It’s going to be incredible,” de Lavalette says.
“It’s going to be very happy tears.”
De Lavalette admits that she wouldn’t have been able to get through the past several years without the support of her friends and family.
“They have been there since day one and have never stopped supporting me, and I know that if I’m having a bad day, I can always call my parents or call my friends and they’ll always help me get back to being my regular happy self.”
“I was born into a family […] where everybody rode, so for me to continue the legacy was kind of a given,” she adds.
De Lavalette still thinks about that fateful day in 2016.
“I think that I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without the events that happened on that day,” she says.
“I watched it with my parents about a year after the accident. And for me, it was really important to see it because I didn’t know or realize just how close I actually was to the bomber.
“So for me to see myself literally stepping right next to the guy and then moments later the bomb going off was a bit of a realization of how lucky I really am.
“It’s a blessing in disguise, as well as kind of a nightmare.”