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Sebastien Bellin: Brussels bomb survivor on Ironman feat and forgiveness

This graphic image and detailed description of the aftermath after a bombing attack

Egg, cheese, bacon, pepper.

Carbonara is a simple sauce; it’s a mix of rich fat and flavour that coats pasta.

The most important ingredient in any recipe isn’t the main ingredient for Sebastien.


The meal he ate to save his life contained more than just meat.

In a Brussels restaurant, Bellin shoveled down three carbonara plates on 21 March 2016 amid soft lighting and loud laughing.

The Belgian was still flat on his back 12 hours later. A photo is available of this moment. It’s odd.

At first, your attention is caught by Bellin’s face. As he cranes the neck to see his body, he appears calm and almost serene. As you look at the rest of the picture, it becomes clear that something is wrong.

Bellin has a dirty smear covering half of his face. His trousers are torn and tattered. His legs are unresponsive, as his ankles seem to splay upward.

The most disturbing thing is that a pool of blood thick with iron, and an ill omen grows under him.

At either end of check-in, two blasts had just exploded from suitcases. They shook the crowd.

Sixteen people died. Bellin was a possible additional death.

“I recall falling down and my hip explosion,” Bellin said.

“I looked at the ground and saw a bunch of bones. You see dead people, you see body parts, you hear screaming. ”

Bellin knew that his life was at stake as his blood began to seep out and his feet became numb.

The prize was the preparation.

Bellin, looking back seven years later, sees that everything that came before prepared him for the morning.

Bellin was raised in Sao Paolo. Bellin’s mother was a physiotherapist, “very hippie and liberal”; his father was a high-flying businessman.

The career of Bellin’s father took him and his family from the American cities of Indianapolis to Philadelphia and on to Denmark, Italy, and Belgium.

“It had been a nomadic upbringing, but I was aware of the importance of balance and seeing both sides of the story,” Bellin recalls.

“I always tried to get the most out of these different and diverse cultures. ”

Bellin always used the same shortcut to get into these cultures: sport.

Tennis and football were the first two. In Italy, football was his only sport. When he arrived to Belgium, his Belgian schoolmates convinced their 13-year old classmate, who was a towering man, to try basketball. This led to a successful college career in the United States, and a professional basketball career throughout Europe.

Bellin says, “Sport is the best classroom in the entire world.” “All you need to learn about life is in there.”

It shows that there are many different ways. There is no one way to do things, but there are always alternatives. ”

Bellin did not know how he was going to move on the floor of the airport. As he drew closer to death, Bellin knew what he needed to do in order for a different outcome.

Sport once again showed the way. He remembered the words from an old coach, Greg Kampe of Oakland University. Kampe had led the team to a Division One championship during Bellin’s tenure.

Bellin remembers that Bellin always said, “Just win the day.”

Kampe argued that many players were distracted by their future or their past accomplishments. Their focus was distorted by the past and consequences, which left them vulnerable.

Bellin could not afford to consider what he would lose if he died.

“When i found myself in this moment, i saw it perhaps a little different than others: It is about the now, the moment,” says he.

“I knew that the next hour-and-a-half was the championship game. It’s the end. It’s time to win the day. ” You have to beat the moment. ”

Bellin made a decision to move.

The blood loss was too rapid. He asked someone to raise his legs onto a suitcase in order to slow down the flow. A scarf had been used as a tourniquet. The time was short.

Two problems existed. He was unable to move, and he had been told not to.

A police cordon had been formed around the injured and dead in the terminal. Bellin was told to remain in place while the police secured the airport and called for help.

Bellin was insistent. It wasn’t their way. It was not his way. He couldn’t survive.

The policeman told him that he was willing to take the risk, as his death would have been on their conscience if he had not done so. He convinced a porter to help him onto a luggage trolley to push him towards the front of airport.

He believed that he would be the first to receive medical assistance. It worked. Six firefighters found him on the scene and took him to an makeshift triage center.

Bellin lost half of his blood. During surgery, he almost lost his leg. He won out in the end.

Bellin, as he lay on his hospital bed, was a celebrity.

Ketevan Karadava, an Georgian journalist, who was buying a flight ticket to Geneva the same day snapped this photo. It went viral. He was featured on newsstands and screens around the globe.

He did interviews. Kardava was reunited with him in his ward. His daughters, who live in the United States, made the emotional trip to the United Kingdom 41 days after the attack. The reunion was captured on American television.

Most of the time, it was hard and painful.

Bellin spent 3 months in the hospital. He was initially confined to a bed with his leg held in place by metal pins. Shrapnel was strewn through his hip. Skin grafts were used to cover his gaping wounds.

Gradually, he began to learn to walk again. He adjusted to his new disability and reality. He lost all feeling in his left leg below the knee. When an infection began to develop, the metatarsal in his left foot was removed.

Bellin, despite his injuries, was determined that sport would not be taken away from him.

He says, “I love to move and was left immobile when I learned I would be disabled for the remainder of my life.”

“I needed a fantasy to keep me focused and positive. I wanted to be in the opposite situation. “I wanted to be the opposite extreme of what I was in. ”

Bellin chose an Ironman triathlon. He selected the race in Kona Hawaii where humidity and history are a big part of it.

It would have been difficult for him to achieve this goal even before his injuries. Bellin stands at 6ft 9in. He weighed 18 stone at his peak. He had previously trained with short, explosive bursts of energy and leaps.

“I don’t think I have ever ridden a bicycle or swam as a professional,” he said.

Ironman is a triathlon that includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon.

Bellin trained intelligently and built up slowly. He gradually increased his distances and adapted carefully his equipment. He got a custom-made shoe to prevent blisters from forming on his left foot, which was numb.

He also suffered setbacks. Covid-19 delayed a shot at Kona. When lockdowns were lifted and the event resumed, he had to learn to trust his legs after surgery to remove metal pins pinned to his bones.

Bellin, who had been a victim of the bombing for six and a-half years, proved that he was still as strong as ever in October 2022 when he crossed the line at Hawaii in just 14 hours, 39 minute and 38 second.

“It wasn’t about how fast I ran; it was more to prove that my body and brain are capable, despite the handicap,” Bellin says.

I don’t accept being a victim.

“I am a fighter and I owe to the people that died on that day, and to my proud country of Belgium to always overcome. I will not give in to this. “I have atrophy and I can’t even move my toes anymore. But if you let your handicap be stronger than yourself, you will see your condition slowly deteriorate. ”

Nutrition was the one thing that almost kept him away from the finish line.

Bellin was ahead of schedule in his swim and cycling legs but did not adjust his refueling strategy. He drank an electrolyte beverage faster than he had planned. He was experiencing stomach cramps and pain by the time the marathon reached its final stretch. His body was trying to process the excess carbohydrates and sodium.

On 22 March 2016, Bellin was saved by his appetite.

His blood sugar level would have been too low to keep him conscious if he hadn’t eaten three plates of Carbonara the night prior. He would have stayed in a police perimeter. He could have lost even more blood, and perhaps everything.

Luck? Fate? Fate?

Bellin disagrees.

What is the whole story about that pasta carbonara? What is the whole story? He says, “It isn’t luck at all.”

He hadn’t planned on going out to eat that evening. He was just returning to Brussels after a busy day in Paris. He was exhausted. The next day, he was booked onto the first flight from New York. He only wanted to sleep.

Then his phone rang.

Greg was my good friend. Bellin recalls that his wife, along with mine, is a teacher at the International School of Brussels.

“He said, ‘Hey we are going to have a meal at this Italian Restaurant, come along with us. ‘

“I said, “I’m tired. I’ve been at Paris all day” and hung up.

“Greg calls back to me a second time. He says, “C’mon! I haven’t been with you for a while. Let’s hangout.” ‘

“I said I was on the first flight to New York, and I hung up a second time. ”

Greg was persistent. He called Bellin again. Bellin hung-up again.

Bellin only relented after Greg’s fourth phone call.

“Greg said finally, ‘Seb you need to eat. I love you, man. I want to see you. ‘

“I went to see him and his wife Cara in the restaurant. I ate the first plate of spaghetti so quickly that the waiter had to bring me two more.”

“Everyone believes it’s the pasta carbonara. But I wouldn’t have even been there to enjoy it if it wasn’t for the love of my friend, whom I called three times.

The quality of my life was key. “The key was the quality of my life. ”

Bellin’s carbonara was made with this secret ingredient. He adds it to everything.

It was the same with sports. He says, “I was never focused on statistics.”

“I did not have a good jump, or a high number, but I had passion, and discipline. These attributes could not be measured.

It is the same in all aspects of life. Can you measure open-mindedness, tolerance, empathy, love, and passion? These things are impossible to measure. These are not quantities, but qualities.

“A mind-set that is focused on quantity will always be limited and finite. When you focus on what you love because you’re passionate about it, or because you want to know more, the possibilities are endless. ”

Bellin has pushed himself to the limits of what others would consider possible.

Last week, he entered the old Nato headquarters just a few kilometers west of his injury.

Ten men are on trial, including one absentee, for their involvement in the planning of the terrorist attacks at the Maelbeek Metro Station and the Brussels Airport. On the same day 16 more people were killed.

Mohamed Abrini, for example. He was arrested after two weeks for bringing a bomb into Brussels Airport but not detonating it.

Bellin asked the accused to listen to his words and look at his face.

He said, “Today, I have decided to forgive you.”

“I am letting go of all the horrible things you have been accused of. I’ve decided that love will have more room in my life. ”

Bellin reflects on his court day: “I felt a little nervous and unsure.

You don’t even know how it will affect you. Will you feel angry? What are the possible consequences?

“But I felt enormous relief and confidence as soon as I walked out of the courtroom. ”

Bellin insists that justice “must be done” and the guilty “must pay the price”, yet he has now turned his attention to himself and his family.

He says, “I’m very proud of our journey.”

“We rebuilt ourselves and adapted our lives to the challenges that life has thrown at us. I want to be detached from that mess.

“I’ll be handicapped the rest of my lifetime, but there are many good things that came out of these last seven years. I feel like a friend, husband, father, and a person who is better.

“I am stronger than I thought. ”

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