The day that Nathalie Birli disappeared started off pretty ordinarily for the Austrian athlete. She had left her young baby at home to do some triathlon training on her bike. But before she could return to her family she was reportedly kidnapped, then held captive. And now she’s revealed exactly what happened in the six hours that she was missing.
But before we discover what happened to Birli, let’s learn a bit more about her. Born in 1992, the Austrian athlete had enjoyed a stunning career, bagging a number of under-23 titles across disciplines including cycling, duathlon, and triathlon. In 2016 she was a professional cyclist, racing for the Vitalogic Astrokalb Radunion Nö team; and she had even won the national women’s cycling league.
Following her success with cycling, it seems that Birli turned her attention to competing in triathlons. In this discipline, the athlete clearly found her passion, and she soon became the youngest licensed triathlon trainer in her home country. She then later found employment at the Institute for Sports Nutrition Research in the Austrian city of Graz.
In her personal life, Birli is in a relationship with fellow Austrian athlete Martin Schöffmann. The pair share a home together in Kumberg, southern Austria. And in April 2019 the couple welcomed their first child together, a little boy who – like many mothers will understand – Birli would come to dote upon.
By July 2019 Birli was a content new mom, who was no doubt still learning how to balance her triathlon training with motherhood. In fact, she was out cycling in the area near her home when her happy little bubble was shattered by the kind of occurrence that wouldn’t seem out of place in a horror movie.
As Birli was cycling, she was unexpectedly rammed by a red delivery truck. The collision left the athlete with a broken arm; however, Birli’s ordeal was only just beginning. Because, as she was about to discover, the crash had been no accident.
Birli recalled the incident later in an interview with the Austrian tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung. There, the athlete revealed how she’d left her baby and partner at home while she ventured out on her bike alone. She added, “It must have been about 5:00 p.m. Suddenly a red delivery van drove into me. I fell to the ground and my left forearm was broken.”
After supposedly striking Birli with his vehicle, she claimed that the driver emerged from the truck and pulled the athlete away from her bike. In a frenzied attack, Birli alleged that the stranger then began beating her over the head with a plank of wood before binding her hands together using electrical tape.
The blows to Birli’s head had been so powerful that they would leave her with a fracture to her skull. However, in the confusion of the moment, the athlete felt no pain as the tussle with her attacker continued. In an interview with the German television network RTL, Birli explained, “I think that was the shock.”
During the struggle, Birli was soon overpowered by the stranger, who then bundled her into the back of his truck and blindfolded her. She told Kronen Zeitung how the man had allegedly, “threw [her] on to the back seat,” adding that she fell “unconscious for a while.”
At this point, Birli was sure that her life was over. The athlete was convinced that the man would kill her and dispose of her body in the nearby woodland. However, that wasn’t to be the case. Instead, the stranger allegedly drove Birli to a remote residence, where he dragged her inside and threw her inside a closet.
Birli claimed that she then lost consciousness; and when she woke up it was dark outside. Her broken left arm was aching and her head was pounding; but perhaps more disturbingly, she said that she had been stripped naked and found herself tied to a chair. In July 2019 she told The New York Times, “Part of me had already thought my life was over.”
Describing what happened next, Birli told Kronen Zeitung, “When I came to, I was naked and tied to a chair in an old house. The man said, ‘If you do what I want, you’ll be free tomorrow.’ I had the feeling that I was in a house far away from help and I was sure that no one would find me there.”
Back at home meanwhile, Birli’s partner Schöffmann was growing worried that she had not yet returned home. As a result, he called the police to tell them that she was missing at about 9:00 p.m. And soon enough, a search team with a number of Birli’s fellow triathletes set out to look for the missing mom.
According to Birli, her alleged kidnapper was “full of hate.” What’s more, she claimed that he blindfolded her and plied her with alcohol, all the while gripping a knife ominously in his hand. And after Birli had been forced to drink wine and schnapps, things apparently took an even darker turn when it appeared that the man was trying to kill her.
Birli told Kronen Zeitung, “Suddenly, he forced my mouth and nose shut and tried to suffocate me. He let go of me but then he forced me to get into a bathtub full of cold water and wanted to drown me.” The man allegedly held Birli’s head underwater three times in an attempt to drown her, but she refused to be beaten.
As Birli’s ordeal stretched on for six long hours, she claimed that the man repeatedly attempted to take her life. At one point he allegedly tried to suffocate her using towels, before warning her that there was much worse to come if she didn’t do as he told. All the while, Birli said, she tried to work out what might have been the man’s motives.
Birli said later that she didn’t remember her captor attempting any kind of sexual assault on her. Moreover, a physical examination would conclude that there was no sign the athlete had been raped during her blackout. So, considering her alleged captor’s motives, Birli told The New York Times, “I don’t think he fully understood himself what he wanted.”
Instead, it seemed that the man was simply mad with the world. Birli continued, “He said that he was just really angry and wanted to take his anger out somehow.” And to the athlete, it seemed that she was the going to be the victim that bore the brunt of his range. It was then that the athlete realized that she needed to think fast if she was ever to see her young baby ever again.
So despite the man’s erratic behavior, Birli somehow managed to keep her cool. If she was to escape her captor with her life, she knew that she had to find a way to connect with him. Birli told The New York Times, “I thought, I have to convince him that he can get out of this unscathed because otherwise, he wouldn’t have released me. I had to find a way to convince him to trust me.”
That’s when Birli remembered the orchids. They had been one of the first things that the athlete had noticed when she first woke up on the chair. The flowers were the only source of brightness in the dire situation that Birli had found herself in. And what’s more, they appeared to be dotted everywhere around the house.
With that in mind, Birli seized a moment when the man “was not beating or threatening” her to tell him “that his orchids were so beautiful.” Speaking of the conversation starter, she told The New York Times, “I just threw it out there.” However, it seems that Birli’s attentiveness had perhaps saved her life.
Opening up to her captor, Birli explained how she also kept orchids and that she knew all too well how much care and attention the notoriously temperamental plants needed. She revealed, “Suddenly, he started talking about how he cared for them, using water from his aquarium… Suddenly, he was a completely different person.”
Birli said that the man then started to tell her all about his troubles, and she simply listened. She told Kronen Zeitung, “All of a sudden the culprit was nice to me. He said he was a gardener and he told me all about his messed-up life – that his father had died, that his mother had become an alcoholic and that his girlfriend had cheated on him.”
According to Birli, the man also told her about his beloved pet cats who had been removed from his care. He also explained how he’d inherited the house in his grandparent’s will. However, he reflected on the fact that he’d never got to know the people who’d gifted him with a home. And all of a sudden, it dawned on Birli that her captor was lonely.
Now that she had an insight into the man’s complex character, Birli felt that the time had come for her to try and reason with him. So, she told him about her little boy, who was no doubt waiting for her at home, wondering where his mommy was. Birli told The New York Times, “I asked him how that would have been for him to grow up without a mother.”
But Birli didn’t want to rely solely on pulling on her captor’s heartstrings to seal her escape. So she thought that she would offer him something in return. Birli had studied sports and nutrition while she was at university, and as part of her course, she’d also learned about psychology. She knew that minor kindnesses – even just a smile or a subtle acknowledgment – could go a long way.
So, Birli put this theory into practice with her captor. She explained to The New York Times, “I told him I could help him find some friends because it was obvious to me that’s what he was missing most.” And in case the man decided to consider her offer, she even thought of a way to get him out of the mess he’d created by allegedly kidnapping her.
Birli told The New York Times, “I suggested we could just make the whole thing out to be an accident and say that a deer jumped in front of me and that he found me and brought me home.” At first, the athlete’s suggestion was met with silence; but soon, the man agreed and began working out the details of their story.
Leaving no detail to chance, he wanted to know exactly what each of them should say until he finally felt confident enough to release Birli. The athlete claims that it was then that her captor untied her and left her to get dressed in the house alone while he fetched her bike. And even though it appeared that Birli was finally free, she did as she was told and stayed put.
Though there was nothing to stop Birli from running away at this point, it occurred to her that she had no clue where she was. She could see no sign of civilization, not even lights from other properties. Consequently, Birli told The New York Times, “I thought if I ran away and got lost in the woods and he found me again, then he would certainly kill me.”
With that in mind, Birli simply waited as her captor attempted to fix her bike. When he was done, he loaded it into his truck; Birli then took a seat up front and told the stranger where she lived. But just when she thought that she was on her way home, the man suddenly turned off in the wrong direction.
At this point, Birli was convinced that her freedom was slipping away from her. She told The New York Times, “He told me he wanted to show me a plot of land he had inherited from his grandfather and I panicked again. I thought, now he’s bringing me to a plot of land and will tie me up again and nobody will ever find me here.”
However, all of a sudden, Birli’s captor turned around and started driving towards her address. In fact, he drove her right to her front door, and just like that she was free. At home, Birli’s mother-in-law and her baby were waiting for her, while her partner Schöffmann was still out with his search party. Once she was safely inside, Birli then secured the property and contacted the police.
Using data taken from the computer that Birli used on her bike, authorities found a record of her movements. Special forces were then able to find her alleged kidnapper and arrest him. Due to Austrian laws regarding privacy, police didn’t name the culprit, but they did reveal that he admitted to Birli’s kidnap, though he gave no motive behind his alleged crime.
In July 2019 a spokesperson for the Austrian police issued a statement on Birli’s case. In it, he revealed, “[At] around 11:50 p.m. the police received information that the missing 27-year-old woman had been brought to her home by an unknown man and that the bicycle had also been brought. As it turned out later, the woman had been hit by a car at an accident site.”
Continuing to detail Birli’s alleged nightmare, the spokesperson continued, “[The woman] had been tied up with insulating tape, had been taken to an unknown house and had been held there for several hours… The investigations have revealed a suspicion of a 33-year-old man from the Graz area. This suspect was arrested in the early hours of the morning by Austrian police.”
Following her ordeal, Birli was taken to the hospital for an examination. And apparently writing from University Hospital in Graz, the athlete paid tribute to all those who had searched for her while she was missing. A Facebook post from July 2019 read, “Thanks a million to everyone who looked for me yesterday.”
Unsurprisingly, Birli’s post garnered a lot of attention online, clocking up 1,400 reactions and more than 200 comments. One of the athlete’s well-wishers wrote, “[It’s] amazing what cruel people there are. Get well soon, wishing you a speedy physical and especially mental recovery.” Another person added, “Heard this incident on the news with no name. I’m really shocked. Wishing you all the best and get well soon.”
Birli had escaped her alleged kidnap with a broken arm and an injury to her head. And after she returned home from the hospital, the athlete found she had a renewed appreciation for the small joys in life. She told The New York Times, “It’s so good to see the little guy smile… Or just talk to the neighbor. Everything is good, I am just so grateful.”