The Cees Wille Interview

In January 2020, Cees Wille dropped a hammer of a part titled ‘Fake Snow’. What many of us didn’t know was that at the same time the part was blowing up, Cees had suffered a fractured skull while shooting in the streets, and had lost the feeling in the left side of his body. Almost a year on, we caught up with him to get some more insights into the injury and his mindset for the recovery process that’s followed.

Interview: Theo Acworth

Photos: Tim Schiphorst 

Yo Big Cees, how are you doing?

Doing fine, doing fine thanks. You?

All good thanks, where are you right now?

I’m in Holland. First I was in a hospital in Norway for a month, and then three and a half months in a rehabilitation clinic in the Netherlands because I wasn’t totally able to take care of myself living on my own. Then my sister moved in with her boyfriend, so I moved into her place, right in the middle of Den Haag, super cute tiny house, 18th century. I wouldn’t say it’s in the ghetto, but kinda. There’s a supermarket just around the corner, which is great. But my sister just broke up with her boyfriend and now wants to move back in here.

Damn!

Yeah I was just starting to feel it here, but on the other hand, I was really thankful to be able to stay here for the first six months, because it made things a lot easier.

Can you take us through the slam in Norway? What exactly happened?

Yeah of course. We were out, Tim [Schiphorst], Kas [Lemmens], and Ivika [Jürgenson] on the first trip of the season to Norway at the beginning of January. Bit of a late start. I stopped working in November and just wanted to be on it. In the first week of the trip, I got the call to join the Fix global team and film a small intro video. So we finished that, and a lot of stress came off my shoulders. We sent in the video, and the same day we were at this famous spot, and I was sort of able to ride it in my own way. It was a two-and-a-half story building with a fence and a big diesel tank for construction vehicles. So if you stood on the building, you had to jump over the fence into the tank. It all looked pretty cool, and I didn’t want to have a kicker or anything, just pop over the fence into the tank. The ollie worked out pretty good, and I thought it would be sick to nollie it. The fence had all these wires in it, so the filming looked really cool, Tim could get really close with the fisheye and film through them. It felt good, but we were winching it, which is really shitty for something like that because you need to have the right timing for the nollie. I got it and felt really confident. As far as I remember we were satisfied with the clip but just wanted to get it perfect. I haven’t seen the shot yet, but I guess I fucked up the speed with the winch. I was leaning too far forward and couldn’t get the pop out of the nollie. I didn’t clip the fence, but I flipped over it and landed between the diesel tank and the building. And I guess I hit my head on an ice block, or maybe the tube that goes from the tank into the building, and it fractured my skull. I wasn’t unconscious, but one side of my vision was black, and the other side was fully seeing stars. I knew it wasn’t good, and I wasn’t sure if I was about to pass out, but I thought shit, no, I need to stay awake. Tim asked if I was ok, I said yeah, but that slam was intense. He told me I was bleeding, a lot. I wanted to take off my glove, but I couldn’t lift up my wrist. So I thought for sure I had broken it, and that the trip was over. I don’t like riding with injuries and want to have a healthy body on a trip, so I was kinda bummed because Norway is such an expensive country and I wanted to get more out of it. Then Tim told me again, ‘Dude, you’re bleeding quite a lot, should I call an ambulance?’ I said no at first, but then ok, I needed to go to the hospital anyways, so Tim called them. They came pretty quickly, in ten or fifteen minutes. But I was just in a t-shirt and a long sleeve in the snow, freezing cold, just wanted to get it over with. Fuck this trip, I just want to get my body temperature back up. 

How did things go when the ambulance guys got there?

They asked if I wanted to go on the stretcher and I said no, I’ll do it myself, but I couldn’t really get up, but I didn’t fully realise it at the time, because they helped me. So they put me on the stretcher, and when I got to the hospital, there were five or seven people ready with scissors to cut off my clothes. My favourite snowboard pants, no! But fuck it, I don’t care. In two seconds, I was butt naked on the table. Ok! I had the scan, and I remember I was pretty calm, and when I came out, they told me that I didn’t break anything. Ok, that’s nice. All I was thinking was that I had to get warm, my bones felt cold. But they said because I hit my head quite hard I had to go to Oslo for a brain scan because they had more experience with that sort of thing there. I said, of course, I’d rather be checked out too many times than not enough. Tim and Kas came in and asked if they should call my parents and let them know, and I said yeah, tell them I’m in the hospital but didn’t break anything, give them some good news, you know? I was just there for checks, that’s what I was thinking. So I took a helicopter to Oslo and felt like I was finally getting warmer. Then I arrived alone in Oslo, and they straight away told me that they had to do a skull operation. Wait, what? I was just told I didn’t break anything, I don’t want an operation. But they said they were worried there might be splinters of bone floating around in my brain. I didn’t know what to do or what to think. It was pretty emotional. I thought ok, they’re not going to do an operation if it isn’t needed, it must be a good thing for me. I told them ok and good luck, and I had the operation right away. It was almost 3 hours. 

Were you awake for it?

No, they put me to sleep, which was nice, and lucky! The next day I woke up and half of my head was shaved, and the other side was still curls to my shoulders! I remember going to the toilet, I couldn’t move properly, and I needed assistance to get there. I just wanted to be alone there and sit for at least half an hour! I thought man, it was a mission to get here. There was a mirror there, and I looked so beaten down. Just a cold stone steel face and a horrible haircut! Dude! I just started laughing about it because it was so intense. I looked like some beaten-down Viking who’d just lost a war or something.

So I don’t really know the details, but at what point did you realise that you didn’t have full mobility and that this was more than a skull fracture?

When they told me they had to do the operation, that’s when I could place the lack of movement on the complete left side of my body. I’ve been thinking about this because I was laying down all the time in stretchers and beds and didn’t have to move my legs, I thought that it was just my arm. So because I didn’t have to move, I wasn’t thinking about my legs. I didn’t place it. I was so in my head about how cold it was, I just wanted to get warm before I could even think. So when they said that they needed to do the operation, I realised that not only can I not move my leg, but I also cannot feel it. There was just nothing. For a week after the operation, there was no sensitivity on the left side. Nothing. At the beginning, I was really tired and beaten down from the operation and couldn’t even think about it. Then after four or five days, I started to realise, damn, this is so bad. I can’t move. I need to be able to move. This is not good. The feeling should come back, right? 

That must have been terrifying. At what point did you have the first signs of movement again?

After five days, I had the first little movement in my thumbnail. I was able to move the nail, not even the full thumb, but I could move it up and down. I remember waking up in the night, and thinking that there was movement. I took the blanket off and saw the thumbnail going up and down. I just cried so much, because right away I thought that this is at the end of my arm, so there’s a signal going through my whole arm and connecting to the end of my thumb. That’s good. It’s small, but it’s something. It gave me so much hope. Just hoping there would be something. The days got so much easier after that, everything went upwards right away. 

Damn Cees, that’s gnarly. What was the following month like after that first movement? I remember getting your emails, and we were all so so stoked to hear how positive you were being and the progress you were making. 

Well it went from the thumb to my index finger, so I could connect those and make, not a fist, but something like a fist with those two fingers. Then the middle finger and the wrist. The two smaller fingers didn’t really want to join at first. Then there was a bit of shoulder movement, and I was able to use my biceps and triceps to move my arm up and down. But after three and a half weeks, I still had no movement in my legs. I already had the date to fly to Holland, and I told the physio that I was really thankful that we were working so much with the arm, but can we focus on the leg? I need the leg. And he said that if there’s no sensitivity or activation, then we can’t do anything with it. Fuck, that’s so true. Even if you want to, if there’s no movement, you cannot do anything. Whenever I couldn’t sleep, I started to crawl myself into the wheelchair in the middle of the night and put my feet on the ground and tried to set myself off with my toes, instead of my hands. Just closing my eyes and meditating, kinda. Just thinking about what I can do to make it move. The guy said I should try not to watch too much tv. That’s why I started emailing, just sending a little bit of an update. I wasn’t on social media, I just wanted to be by myself with no distractions. I didn’t want to see anyone riding pow, you know? I would have lost my concentration. I couldn’t be bothered to tell everyone the same story and have them feel sad for me. I know everyone meant it in a good way, but I just had so little energy, the rehab took so much energy, I just wanted to be a bit egotistic and just think about myself. The Norwegian homies wanted to come by, but I couldn’t handle it. I was sleeping most of the time and wanted to be at the physio already, just be prepared for the tasks there and asking them for extra homework, you know? Then sleeping, that was it. So it was my left side that was paralysed, is that the right English word?

Yeah.

So I said ok, I’ll do it with my right leg with my eyes closed and just imagine that my left leg is joining. In the last weekend of that month, I had a little bit of movement in my feet, and sensitivity in my leg. Not activity, but sensitivity. I had to have two people holding me so I could stand. I felt, not really sorry, but I felt so weak that they were helping me, but so happy that they were trying with me. Damn dude. Snowboarding is for sure really important, but I was thinking that I couldn’t even go for a walk on the beach anymore. Just small things that I maybe wasn’t thankful for before. Damn, I need so much help, I would really like to be independent. I was able to stand a little bit on my own, and walk a bit with guidance from two people. 

I remember your email saying you were ‘landing new tricks’ like going to the toilet solo and wiping your butt! That’s some seriously inspiring positivity. What was the move back to Holland like?

I had to go to the rehabilitation clinic in February, but first I had to go to the hospital for MRSA quarantine. I also had to quarantine for it in Norway and just wanted to start the rehab program right away, but I was told that I couldn’t. I couldn’t have visits from friends and stayed there for one week, then went to the rehab clinic. It was really nice that it was possible for me to be there, but really hard to be surrounded full time by people who’d been in motorcycle accidents and who had brain diseases.

Damn, that must have been a heavy environment to be in.

It’s heavy. I don’t know, I just really wanted to be there. I was the only younger person there. Some of the 50 or 60-year-olds had kinda given up, they didn’t want to be there. I tried telling them that they should be thankful to be there, and they told me that I was being way too positive. I told them to try and see it from the other side, if you have a chance to get better here, then you should be thankful for that. So I thought I had to isolate myself from these people a bit to keep my energy, because I really needed it.

How long were you in this rehab centre? 

Three and a half months. But after two and a half, my parents picked me up for the weekend so I could stay with them for some time. My parents are retired, but they used to be police officers, so it felt like they were picking me up from jail or something! We were joking about it. Getting out, going back in again.

I remember in one of your next update emails you said that you’d been out on your bike, I guess that must have been a pretty big milestone for you to be able to get out and roll again?

Oh, man, I love biking. I’ve always loved it, just being free, being in the open air, just going wherever you want. That for sure was the thing that I looked forward to the most back then. I wasn’t looking at snowboarding too much, to be honest, because that was so far out of sight. So I said alright, I would be stoked to get out of bed and into the wheelchair. Then I wanted to be out of the chair and walking. And then I wanted to be biking. The bike was a close goal, something realistic, you know? You can be going way faster than walking, and you’re static because you’re not moving your feet too much, so it should be easier than walking too, right? So I was coming up with all these solutions. I think the snowboard mindset helped me a lot too. Like when you do a nosepress, and you don’t make it to the end of the rail, you think, why? Maybe I’m going too slow, or leaning too much this way, or that way. So when I started walking, I was thinking so much about it. What am I doing with the left side, are my butt muscles contracting, am I standing alright. I think that was a big advantage. 

I guess being aware of your body in that way isn’t something that everyone does.

Definitely, we’re wired strangely. 

So if you don’t mind me asking, how is your day to day movement at the moment? Are you still using support systems to get around?

Now it’s going really good, I don’t need any support. I just finished the rehabilitation clinic. I left after three and a half months, but I was still going back for mental therapy and physical therapy like physio and swimming, but I finished that two weeks ago. I got fired from there, in a good way, because I’m doing alright! But I’m still going to physio at my friend’s place. I’m able to do day-to-day things now. I feel like the muscles are working really good individually, but if I’m running or doing balancing or reaching out with my arms and playing a game, I get this spasm on the left side of my body. Mostly in my leg, it starts shaking quite a lot. And by breathing and trying to get control of that, it gets less. I still notice progress, almost 11 months later. That’s really a big motivation to keep on going. When I wake up, I crawl to this mat and just play with my body, stretch my legs, I have this tennis ball that I put under my feet. I do it sort of like meditation. Just feeling every little sensation. I close my eyes when I do it. If you’re not watching, then you can feel things better, you can close down a lot of other external things and just focus on yourself. So I stretch twice a day, morning and evening. I also started to do yoga which helps a lot and also doing cold dips. There’s this crazy Dutch guy who says you can control your nerve system with breathing. 

I’ve heard about that. 

So I’m trying to do this breathing technology stuff too. Every little thing that could help, I’m trying. 

I think there’s a lot to be said about things you can do with your own body, to help your own body.

Definitely, I’m so certain that if you’re positive, something will happen.

Your positivity has been amazing Cees, that must have played a big role in where you are now. Do you feel that your progression is increasing in speed as each month goes by?

It’s hard to say because when you finish one step, you’re already on the next thing. Now I’m thinking about snowboarding! I still have contact with the physio from Norway. He told me he had goosebumps all over his body when he saw how much I’d been progressing since he first saw me.

That’s rad.

To hear that from him gave me the realisation that it was going really fucking well. You have to be grateful for the things you accomplish, but you can so quickly overlook them because you want to have more. It’s like, ok dude, I’m walking, I’m almost running, that’s great. I’m already snowboarding!

You are?! Holy shit dude!

Yeah, I’ve been snowboarding a bit!

I didn’t know, fuck, that’s so rad. Congrats! 

Fucking stoked about that. 

Mate I have goosebumps myself right now. 

I right away get a smile on my face thinking about it. I haven’t been for a little while. But I’ve been three times, for an hour. My first thought before I went was that I was way better at snowboarding than walking, and then the snowboarding really sucked, of course. Fuck, this is not the way it should feel, damn it, this sucks. Then I just told myself, dude, relax, it’s the first time, I have to get the feeling again. I was too focussed on it being good, I had to relax. It’s not strange that it sucked. I was really worried because it was almost feeling like I was snowboarding one-footed. I didn’t have much contact point with the left boot. Then the third time was way better. I thought I’d ride switch a little bit, just to stimulate the left side more than the right, instead of compensating with the right. That happens so quickly with your body if one side isn’t working with the other. Do your remember JP Walker’s part in This Video Sucks? He did the whole part switch. I just put that in my daily life too, grabbing things with my left hand, brushing my teeth with the left hand, wiping my butt with the left hand. You don’t do it often, but being able to do it is nice!

Full switch training. That’s rad. I’m still blown away to hear that you’ve been snowboarding less than a year after the slam and surgery. The idea of you riding without your bucket hat is weird though, maybe we could get you a custom bucket helmet in the same colourway?

*laughs* I’m down.

Honestly dude, so stoked to hear how well you’ve been doing.

It’s been a long, intense and really unsure time. For me, it was hard to realise because I couldn’t place the injury at first. I look normal and healthy, all the muscles in my legs are still there. To feel that you cannot activate them is really hard. Normally if you’re hurt then you’re bruised, or you’re in a cast, but I just couldn’t feel it or see it, because the injury was on my head. And I was bald dude! I’ve never had such short hair.

Seeing how far you’ve come in ten months, we have no doubt that in another ten you’ll be so much further, and you’ll also have your long curls back. We’re all so stoked for you Cees.

Thanks Theo.

Ok, I think we can wrap things up there. Thanks so much for talking so openly with us, really appreciate you taking the time. Of course we’re big fans of your snowboarding, but we’re mainly big fans of Big Cees himself. Your positivity through this has been the most amazing thing. Really hope to see you before too long!

Yeah really hope to see you soon too. 

Big love from everyone in Innsbruck. Any shoutouts or closing words?

Definitely shoutout to my mom for being so full of love, so strong and so optimistic. My sister & dad for the good care. Kas & Tim & Bob for all the help while I scared them. Vans for keeping my head above water. And everybody who reached out! Words do heal. I thank you all for that.