Terrorism took her legs … a horse saved her life

·17 min read

On the morning of March 22, 2016, Béatrice de Lavalette walked into the departure hall at Brussels Airport pulling a hot pink bag behind her.

She was traveling by herself to Florida, where her parents had just relocated after more than two decades living in Europe.

As she inched through the Delta check-in line, de Lavalette amused herself chatting with her brother via FaceTime and scrolling through social media. Headphones in her ears and eyes on her phone, the 17-year-old had no inkling that danger loomed.

At 7:58 a.m., two suicide bombers with ties to the Islamic State detonated homemade bombs hidden in luggage they had wheeled into the departures terminal. One of the bombs exploded only a few yards from where de Lavalette was standing, engulfing her in a fireball and peppering her with waves of nails, bolts, screws and other metal fragments.

When de Lavalette’s eyes fluttered open a few minutes later, the air was still thick with ash and smoke. Broken ceiling tiles, torn wall panels and shards of glass from shattered windows littered the floor. Beside her lay a woman whose hair was on fire. Acting purely on instinct, de Lavalette reached over and snuffed out the flames.

“I think she realized then there was someone next to her,” de Lavalette told Yahoo Sports. “She put out her hand and I held it.”

As she lay on the floor waiting to be rescued, de Lavalette greatly underestimated the severity of her injuries. She didn’t fully grasp that the bomb had splintered her legs, the shrapnel had torn through her upper body and the flames had severely burned large areas of her skin.

There were so many injured people amidst the dust and debris that it left the initial wave of first responders with painful choices to make. The woman with scorched hair, they hauled outside to receive medical attention. De Lavalette, they at first left behind.

“When they came to pick her up and left me, I was like, ‘What’s going guys? I’m here too!’ ” de Lavalette said. “What I later learned is that I had been tagged red in triage protocol. Red means not a priority — not likely to survive.”

Six years after the Brussels terror attack, de Lavalette is very much alive and making the most of her new reality. She has overcome the loss of both of her legs and paralysis below the hips to turn herself into an accomplished horse rider.

The pinnacle of de Lavalette’s comeback will occur next week when she accomplishes the most ambitious goal she set after the bombing. The girl who nearly left the Brussels Airport in a body bag will compete for a medal in dressage at the Paralympics.

Bea de Lavalette had both her legs amputated after suffering injuries sustained during a terrorist attack in Brussels. She's now ready to compete in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)
Bea de Lavalette had both her legs amputated after suffering injuries sustained during a terrorist attack in Brussels. She's now ready to compete in the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)

Everything was falling into place

Before she aspired to represent her country on an international stage, Béa de Lavalette merely wanted to be known as the best rider among her siblings.

She sat atop a horse for the first time soon after she learned to walk. By age 3, she was taking riding lessons. Only a handful of years later, she followed both her older brothers into horseball, a rugged sport best described as basketball meets rugby on horseback.

“Here’s my cute little blonde daughter who’s this obnoxious, competitive wench on a pony,” Elizabeth de Lavalette said with a laugh. “She played horseball better than either of her brothers did. She just loved it.”

Four years of horseball strengthened Béa’s stability and command in the saddle while also sharpening her drive to win. She then switched to show-jumping and dressage, taking lessons and participating in competitions but riding mostly for fun.

At 14, when her family left their longtime home outside Paris and moved to Brussels, Béa struggled to adjust. Homesick, lonely and resentful, she lost her passion for riding and began to flounder in school. Salvation arrived in the form of a gentle white mare that Elizabeth and Nicolas de Lavalette purchased at a bargain price from a family friend. Delgada X, better known as “DeeDee,” quickly formed a lasting bond with Béa, inspiring her to begin riding again and to return to dressage.

By her junior year of high school, Béa was back on a good path. She was getting better grades and excelling in sports, not only as a rider but also as a soccer goalkeeper. Béa had even begun to make plans for after graduation, setting a goal of attending college in California.

Elizabeth de Lavalette believed that everything was falling into place for her daughter. Then she received a call at a time of night in Florida when it could only mean bad news.

“There’s been an explosion at the airport,” Elizabeth recalled Béa’s Belgian riding coach saying, “and Béa’s not answering her phone.”

At 3:30 a.m. EST, Elizabeth roused her husband. He called the federal police in Belgium. She dialed the American embassy. Information was scarce, but Elizabeth feared the worst. “Why else would a teenager in the midst of international travel not answer her phone?” she recalled thinking to herself.

Béa de Lavalette lays in a hospital recovering from severe injuries and burns suffered during a terrorist attack in Brussels. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)
Béa de Lavalette lays in a hospital recovering from severe injuries and burns suffered during a terrorist attack in Brussels. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)

A roller coaster of hope and despair

Béa came perilously close to bleeding out while authorities scrambled to evacuate the Brussels Airport departures hall and first responders prioritized other victims. Only after crying for help over and over in French and English did Béa finally catch the attention of a firefighter.

“I don’t know how I got the energy to do it, but I threw my right arm up and he saw me,” Béa said. “I guess part of me was on fire because the next thing he did was spray me. After that, I remember him saying, ‘There’s one over here,’ and more responders came.”

Since her condition was already dire and deteriorating rapidly, Béa was one of the first survivors airlifted to a Brussels military hospital. There, she underwent seven hours of emergency surgery to treat her most severe injuries.

Béa’s legs were shattered. Shrapnel riddled her upper body. Pieces of metal lodged in her spine, ripped through her lungs and diaphragm and shredded her spleen and part of her liver. Then there were the second- and third-degree burns that doctors feared might leave Béa permanently disfigured. She sustained burns on 35 percent of her body, including her legs, hands, face and torso.

By the time her mother made it to Brussels, doctors had already put Béa in a medically induced coma to ease her suffering. Elizabeth learned the extent of Béa’s injuries during her journey from Florida, but nothing could prepare her for the sight of her teenage daughter lying in a hospital bed, head shaved, body bandaged like a mummy.

Béa’s doctors were able to save her life but not her legs. After their initial efforts to cement Béa’s legs back together failed, they told Elizabeth that they had no other recourse besides performing below-the-knee amputations.

“Her legs looked like she had been eaten by a shark,” Elizabeth said. “There wasn’t enough vascular tissue left to keep the blood flow going.”

The amputations were an agonizing blow to Béa’s friends and family, but inside her room in the intensive care unit, they kept the mood strictly positive. Elizabeth plastered the walls with colorful get-well cards and messages and kept repeating over and over to Béa, “You’re going to be OK from the knees up.”

Dark humor also helped the family cope. Upon learning that Béa’s prognosis was improving, one of her older brothers joked, “We tortured her for 17 years. What’s a little bomb?”

When Béa recovered enough to be taken out of her coma, her medical team put pillows where her lower legs used to be. It wasn’t until they removed the pillows to change Béa’s bandages that she fully grasped what she had lost.

“I saw my legs and I just broke down,” Béa said. “I couldn’t really believe what had happened.”

For the next few months, Béa rode a rollercoaster of hope and despair.

The realization that she would soon get new prosthetic legs provided comfort. So did a visit from the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Denise Campbell Bauer looked up when the next Paralympics were with Béa and planted the seed in her mind that competing in Tokyo was an attainable goal.

Other days, it was harder for Béa to feel normal or to find reasons for optimism. Like when the family dog visited the intensive care unit but didn’t recognize her. Or when it seemed she would never be done with surgical procedures to remove shrapnel or perform skin grafts.

The unbearable days began to outnumber the tolerable ones when Béa left the intensive care unit to go to an in-patient rehab facility in a remote region of Belgium. The facility’s present was gloomy: It mostly catered to elderly diabetics recovering from lower limb amputations. Its past was even more bleak: For decades, it served as an asylum for the mentally ill.

“The most depressed I’ve ever felt was when I was there,” Béa said. “It was the worst place ever for a 17-year-old to be.”

Béa de Lavalette is reunited with her horse DeeDee outside the hospital where Béa was recovering from injuries sustained in a terrorist attack. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)
Béa de Lavalette is reunited with her horse DeeDee outside the hospital where Béa was recovering from injuries sustained in a terrorist attack. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)

‘My horse saved my life’

Eager to brighten her daughter’s spirits during the worst of her depression, Béa’s mom arranged a surprise. On a drizzly day in July 2016, Elizabeth visited Béa in her room and told her to climb out of bed because someone had come to the rehab facility to see her.

“No, I’m not getting out of bed,” Béa replied snippily.

“Béa, you have to get out of bed,” her mom said. “I’ve been working on this for weeks.”

“No, I refuse,” Béa snapped again.

The back and forth lasted another couple minutes before Béa’s mother finally cracked and revealed the surprise visitor.

“Béa, it’s DeeDee!” Elizabeth shouted in frustration.

Béa’s face instantly lit up and she told her mom, “Where’s my chair?”

The reunion in the parking lot was straight out of a Hallmark movie. DeeDee emerged from her trailer, her coat pristinely white like she was going to a horse show. She was confused by the unfamiliar location until she turned her head and saw Béa, still frail and bundled in a blanket, her formerly long brown hair now closely shorn. Béa and DeeDee then approached each other and shared a hug as those around them fought back tears.

“That was the reminder I needed that there was somebody waiting at home for me to get better,” Béa said. “That was the moment my horse saved my life.”

The drive that Béa had lost returned after that reunion. She soon began checking off items on her list of goals one after another.

Only days after DeeDee’s visit to the rehab facility, Béa rode her horse for the first time since the bombing. Others had to hoist Béa up and hold her in place long enough to snap a picture. Still, it was a start.

In September 2016, Béa achieved another goal she set. Less than six months removed from the bombing, she joined her friends at her Brussels high school for the first school day of her senior year.

Not only did Béa graduate with her classmates nine months later, she also shocked them all by how she did it. With the help of a walker and her prosthetic legs, Béa haltingly took five steps across the stage to accept her diploma.

“Everyone went crazy,” her mother recalled. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

That moment meant a lot to Béa, but there was more she wanted to accomplish.

She didn’t just want to walk. She wanted to ride.

After moving to sun-splashed San Diego in fall 2017 to continue her rehab at the Naval Medical Center, Béa began searching for a new riding coach who could help her make good on her goal of reaching the Paralympics. That was how she caught the attention of a world-class dressage trainer who looked at Béa and saw echoes of herself.

Bea sets her sights on the paralympics

It was their mutual ambition that first brought Shayna Simon and Béa de Lavalette together.

A friend of Simon’s called to ask if she’d be interested in training a survivor of the Brussels terror attacks. Simon’s friend punctuated her sales pitch by saying that she really thought this girl had the potential to someday compete at the Olympics.

“I heard ‘Olympics,’ and it was like ding, ding, ding,” Simon said with a laugh. “I’ve wanted that since I was 9 years old.”

The pursuit of the Olympics was so important to Simon as a kid that it caused her to sacrifice a typical childhood. When her mom got a job in Montana, Simon chose to stay behind in Northern California at age 13 because the dressage community was so much more vibrant there. Simon later got her GED so that she could fly to Germany at age 16 to learn from some of the world’s best riders and trainers.

While Simon isn’t a para rider herself, she possessed a unique appreciation for what it was like to be a dressage minority. Simon, after all, is a Black, Jewish woman from a middle-class background who ascended to prominence in a sport that is mostly European, wealthy and white.

The sight of Béa rolling up to their first meeting cemented Simon’s desire to work with her. Not only did Béa dismiss her brother’s efforts to help push her wheelchair through the dirt, she also did a wheelie down a dirt hill just to emphasize her independence.

“Oh, she’s a badass,” Simon remembers thinking. “Big goals, powerful mind, a little rough around the edges — I think we’re going to get along well.”

In three-plus years working with Béa, Simon has helped transform a one-time hobby rider into a Paralympic medal contender. Through the study of biomechanics, Simon taught Béa how to better use her body to find a riding style that suited her and how to better communicate with a horse so that movement appears fluid and effortless.

Among the toughest aspects of Simon’s job is evaluating when to encourage Béa’s fearlessness and when to preach a more cautious approach. Béa can’t use her legs to grip when her horse makes a sudden move and her body is more fragile than it was before the explosion.

Sixteen months ago, the horse that Béa was riding unexpectedly spun around and sent her sprawling. The result was a broken leg, not the worst injury for someone with no feeling below her hips but still a reminder of the stakes each time Béa gets in the saddle.

At first, improving her strength and balance during physical therapy was Béa’s best means of compensating for her inability to move her legs. More recently, Béa also has added another weapon to her training arsenal, a suitX lightweight medical exoskeleton that allows her to regularly stand and do core exercises for the first time since the bombing.

“The exoskeleton has been a game changer for her,” said Joanna Frantz, physical therapist with the U.S. paralympic dressage team. “Being able to have sustained standing is really where you see a change in her riding. Her symmetry and upright posture has improved significantly and that’s very important for the judges.”

While DeeDee’s sweet disposition made her the safest horse for Béa to ride while rehabbing, Béa eventually had to concede that she needed a more graceful, powerful partner to help her make it to Tokyo. The head coach of the U.S. Paralympics dressage team made that clear a few years ago when he bluntly told Béa that her beloved DeeDee was “a good horse” but “not Olympic quality.”

Using her extensive European connections, Simon was able to find international-caliber horses for Béa at prices that the de Lavalette family could afford. For the past eight months, Béa has ridden Clarc, a good-natured Dutch Warmblood that Simon describes as “by far the best fit” of all the horses they’ve tried.

The best measure of Béa’s comfort level with Clarc might be that many observers can’t discern that she has a disability when she’s riding.

“I show up to her farm to meet Béa and there’s some lady on a horse,” SuitX cofounder Michael McKinley said. “I’m like, that cannot be Béa. Where is she?”

When McKinley learned the rider was indeed Béa, he described himself as “dumbstruck.”

“You can’t even tell,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Béa de Lavalette will compete in dressage at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)
Béa de Lavalette will compete in dressage at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth de Lavalette)

‘The best decision I ever made’

On June 20, America’s best para-dressage riders completed their final observation event before the Paralympics.

Then came an interminable week-long wait for confirmation that Béa had done enough to earn an invitation to Tokyo.

“Oh God, that was horrid,” Elizabeth said. “I don’t generally eat sweets. I went through a pint of ice cream one night, a piece of chocolate cake the next. I was a wreck, an absolute disaster.”

When U.S. coach Michel Assouline finally called to reveal that she had made the team, Béa hung up the phone, screamed with joy and celebrated with the grooms and farm employees who had gathered around her. Then Béa got a dastardly idea.

“Now I’m going to spook mom and tell her I didn’t make the team,” she said.

Béa picked up her iPad only to find out the joke was on her. She hadn’t ended her FaceTime with her mom when her coach called. She had merely put her iPad face down. Elizabeth had stayed on the line long enough to eavesdrop on Béa’s conversation with Assouline.

“I thought I hung up on you!” Béa lamented.

“Nice try you little brat!” Elizabeth responded. “I heard the whole thing.”

Béa and her U.S. para dressage teammates will compete from August 27-30, at the Equestrian Park in Tokyo. Competing for a medal will be the climax of a five-year journey that has taken Béa from a bombed-out airport in Brussels to the Olympic Village in Tokyo, from the precipice of death to newfound fulfillment.

“Trying to make the Paralympics is probably the best decision I ever made,” Béa said. “It definitely has kept me going.”

While Béa has now accomplished every goal she initially set for herself after the bombing, she isn’t the slightest bit concerned about filling that void. Béa already has new goals to target, new dreams to chase.

Last year, at the height of the pandemic, she and Simon made the bold decision to jointly move across the country and co-purchase a farm in Loxahatchee, Florida. Their vision for the sprawling property is for it to become a training facility for themselves, their horses and for a small group of para-equestrians and high-level able-bodied dressage riders.

The facility’s location puts Béa and Simon in a dressage enclave. Palm Beach County is the year-round home for many top American dressage riders. During the winter months, the area also draws Europeans eager for sunny weather.

It’s Béa’s goal to make the sport accessible to aspiring para-dressage riders by offering clinics and even loaning out high-level horses. She hopes the sport can provide the same comfort, purpose and freedom that it has for her.

“After the accident,” Béa said, “it was my only way to feel whole again.”

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