Team Great Britain skipper Tai Woffinden is determined to defy the doctors once again as he prepares for the start of his FIM Speedway Grand Prix title defence in Auckland on Saturday.
Woffy beat pre-season odds of 500/1 and two collarbone breaks to lift speedway’s biggest prize last year.
And it appears he’ll have to overcome adversity again after he was taken to hospital in the UK with back and foot ligament injuries following multiple crashes in his British Elite League club Wolverhampton’s win at Leicester last Saturday.
Woffinden discharged himself and headed straight to London Heathrow Airport to join his rivals on the marathon journey via Singapore to the City of Sails.
And he has every intention of taking his place in the season-opening New Zealand SGP at Western Springs on Saturday.
He said: “I discharged myself from hospital to get this flight. I’m on pain killers. I’m struggling for movement in the left leg because of the impact on my lower back, hip and backside. It’s seriously painful but the scans showed it’s all good where the bones are concerned, nothing broken.
“But I’m on crutches and the problem is I have to use my right foot, which is the one with the ligament damage. That was caused by the first crash. I thought I’d fractured my foot at first, but thankfully that’s not the case and I will be trying to rest it completely once I get to Auckland.
“I knew I was in a bit of trouble when I bounced off the track. They (the doctors) weren’t too impressed when I said ‘I’m leaving, I’ve got a flight to catch to New Zealand!’ But that’s the way it is; it had to be done.
“Now I’m going to arrange daily physio from the time we get to Auckland as well as resting up in the hotel. If I have to miss the first practice, then so be it. I’m planning to ride next Saturday. I’m determined to do all the right things this week, but it’s not the best preparation for the first GP of the season.”
The 23-year-old became the youngest world champion since the SGP series was launched in 1995 last October.
But he will have to overcome three men with six World Championships between them in Greg Hancock (USA), Nicki Pedersen (Denmark) and Chris Holder (Australia), plus 11 more of world speedway’s finest to stay on top.
Scunthorpe-born, but primarily raised in Perth, Western Australia, Woffinden has received considerable national media attention in the UK since his victory. He has also clinched a host of awards, including MCN’s Man of the Year and BT Sport’s Minority Sportsperson of the Year.
But with tapes-up on the 2014 SGP season approaching fast, the Woffinden is focused on fighting for the title again and says being No.1 will not change his approach.
He said: “I had a pretty long break and it has been really good to get some time off to reflect on everything, but things are all starting to get going again now and I’m raring to go.
“Even though I’m coming into this year as world champion, everything feels like normal – I’m just treating it like any other season. It’s going to be another tough year, but I’m not treating things any differently and we’ll just have to see how things go.
“At the moment, I’m just looking ahead to New Zealand really – we’ll try and do as well as we can in Auckland and just go from there.
“As we saw last year, anything can happen in the Grand Prix – it’s so competitive. So we’ll just have to wait and see what happens as the season progresses.”
Woffinden tackles the likes of triple world champ Pedersen, two-time champ Hancock and 2012 gold medallist Holder, plus Poland’s world No.2 Jaroslaw Hampel and double Danish champion Niels-Kristian Iversen, while Aussie sensation Darcy Ward is being tipped as the bookmakers’ favourite to top the rostrum.
BSI Speedway managing director Paul Bellamy expects Woffinden to face a serious fight to retain speedway’s biggest prize.
He said: “The fact Tai won the title against such long odds underlines just how competitive the FIM Speedway Grand Prix series is. Any of the 15 riders can win it and it could all come down to the last race of the season.
“I couldn’t pick a winner at this stage. Having four world champions on track, plus three more riders who have finished in the world’s top three in Hampel, Iversen and Andreas Jonsson, underlines the pedigree of this year’s field. It’s going to be a fascinating and enthralling fight between now and October.”