On September 1st 2013 I was a professional mountain bike rider on the Animal Action Sports Tour. During a show that day I crashed hard; sustaining a permanent spinal cord injury. I ended that day in intensive care, facing 20 weeks of rehab* and a new future as a paraplegic.
5 months after the accident I left hospital and returned home. I’d made it through rehab and by the time I left hospital I had become confident in the controlled ward environment. Coming home was a different ball game. My house wasn’t adapted for my needs; I couldn’t get upstairs to bed or use the bathroom. There were no nurses on hand to assist me at any given moment. Just myself, Lisa and Alfie on a discovery of how the hell will we cope, how would this work?
For the first three months I lived downstairs in a strange bedsit scenario. Our place is pretty small so it was weird having a double bed in the living room and only having the use of a tiny downstairs toilet. Slowly things improved as we made changes to the house, taking a wall out upstairs for more space, changing the bathroom into a wet room and adding the all-important stair lift! Step by step home became, well home again.
That first six months we did a lot of adapting, not just the house, but also to what I was physically able to do. My injury was pretty severe. I crushed two vertebrae, detached the ligaments and damaged the spinal cord permanently. I can tell you, it was pretty sore.
Rehab: The vertical world
At the beginning of rehab it felt like I would never sit-up again, let alone bend in the middle. Actually at the time the thought of bending forward made me feel physically sick. The body is amazing though; I slowly got moving with the help of some great physios and occupational therapists. Each day they would help me to stretch and exercise, eventually to the point I sat up again.
Getting used to the vertical world again wasn’t simple, the change in blood pressure meant I felt sick for a few days, gradually I got used to it and the nausea subsided, meaning I could start to be winched into a wheelchair each day. Once I was rolling I could make it down to the physio unit where I would start to understand my body’s new limit.
“I was in for a shock”
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be paralysed. In some ways we have all experienced it. You have probably sat too long in one position and had a numb bum, or woken up in a strange position and realised your arm has lost all its feeling. My sensation from around by belly-button down is a lot like that, all the time. I can feel everything above that point and absolutely no movement or feeling below. So I have no trunk control at all, which makes sitting down one hell of a balancing act.
My first day in a wheelchair was really strange, as the winch lowered me into the seat I awaited the moment of feeling seated in the chair only to realise that the winch had stopped, I was already sat in the chair! But I felt like I was still floating above the cushion; that takes some getting used to.
Once I made it to the physio unit I realised how fragile and weak I was. Just being lifted across to a padded table took most of my energy. Attempting to sit-there on this low table was too much effort and I literally fainted into a sleep for about five minutes. With help, I managed to sit-up straight and try to balance myself for about two or three minutes, balancing on my own I could do about 10 seconds. If you have ever balanced on one of those big bouncy balls you see in a gym, well that’s just what my new experience of sitting down feels like. Each day I got stronger, sat for longer periods and improved my balance. I started to move myself around, lifting myself from one platform to a slightly higher one. At first only a couple of inches but after a few weeks I could manage to lift myself from one platform up to another one that was about 10 inches higher. It doesn’t sound much but it felt like a mountain to me at the time.
When I wasn’t being put through the mill in the physio unit I was pushing myself around in my wheelchair. The hospital I was in, the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry, has an incredibly long corridor where all the wards branch off from. It’s a quarter of a mile from one end to the other. Each evening I would have the staff help me into my wheelchair and I’d push myself up and down the corridor. I couldn’t do more than two lengths at the beginning but weeks later I was able to get in and out of my chair on my own and push 20 lengths of the Oswestry corridor; a period of time where I could focus on being determined and positive about what I could achieve.
One day a physio offered me a new, super light wheelchair to use, instead of the bog standard chair I was in that was very heavy and had an annoying wobbly wheel making it harder to push. I of course jumped (not literally) at the chance to try this chair but quickly realised after one quick test up the corridor that my daily push had just become infinitely easier. I rolled straight back to the physio unit to get my old heavy chair back. Sometimes life has to be tough before it can get better – I needed my purgatory – wobbly wheel and all.
As life at home got more organised I began to think about my physical capabilities. What sports would I be able to do? I’d seen loads of amazing ‘Superhumans’ whilst the London Paralympics were on. At that time I was starting to realise it would be easy to settle into a routine that didn’t involve much exercise, after all each day took so much effort anyway. However I knew that with only 50% of my body working to burn calories I’d need to get cracking at something. So I started to investigate the sports I could try, and there are tons:
The list was endless. I made some enquiries into each sport and hatched a plan to get busy for a month doing as many of the disability sports as I could.
Throughout the month of June the opportunities to try these different sports started to come in. Nearly every day during June I was either trying something new or organising the plans for the next challenge. The sports were the main incentive but quickly I looked beyond those and asked myself what else could I try? Sometimes it was simple things like trying a train journey or using the escalator at my local shopping centre. My favourite was when I was offered the opportunity to ride a motorbike again; I’m a lifelong lover of motorcycles! My sporting career started on Trials Motorbikes when I was eleven and to get back on a motorbike would be a joy.
My Friend Pete Thompkins adapted a Triumph Speed Triple for me to attempt this on. Basically a super-fast bike with electric landing gear fitted (that Pete designed and built) that would take the place of my legs when I came to a stop. Riding that bike was one of the scariest things I’ve done, in fact it was terrifying for everyone present. Pete was worried about consequences – if the landing gear didn’t work, my friend, Robin was there as catcher and worried he might not catch me if my timing was wrong and my wife, Lisa was there just praying it worked! Her biggest worry was what happens if this attempt at riding motorbikes meant we discovered that I couldn’t ride motorbikes? How would we handle that? I’m not sure how that would have panned out either, but I was confident that once I got rolling it would be fine and thankfully it was. However, the starting and stopping bit was scary, but it worked and I loved it! All four of us were very proud that day. Committing to something 100%, knowing you might fail but eventually succeeding feels great.
Of the traditional sports I tried that month I had some favourites that have become daily enjoyment and part of my fitness training, especially handbiking which is now my default exercise. I also got back in a swimming pool that month, which was a great feeling. When I got in the water I was wondering what would happen, would I sink or maybe really struggle to tread water. It turned out to be very easy.
Unfortunately not all the sporting endeavours that month went to plan; the day I tried kayaking was a complete disaster. My lack of trunk movement meant I just couldn’t balance the boat. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stay upright. After about 5 attempts I’d managed roughly two metres in total distance kayaked. A humbling experience for sure, humiliating even. I didn’t learn to kayak that day, but I did learn that failing sometimes teaches you an awful lot too. When I look back at that day I can laugh at my failure. I think about the looks on Lisa and Alfie’s faces as I came up for air on that first attempt. We all knew at that point that I couldn’t do it but I tried another 4 times. Every attempt ending with me gasping for air, freezing cold and sopping wet; to an onlooker it must have seemed ridiculous.
Battling the demons
As the months rolled by I continued to try different things and have an open mind to what I’m able to do. However there is no way I can deny that a huge part of my life has gone. Riding Mountain Bikes has been what the last twenty plus years have been about for me. I love riding bicycles, so no amount of hand biking or swimming will change that desire for two wheels. The freedom of rolling through some single track with sweeping turns between trees, or the sensation of dropping into a steep root riddled downhill run. If I see a trials obstacle or a difficult bit of terrain, I can still picture in my head exactly how I would have negotiated it, I can still feel that.
For a while I have battled with those demons, looked for replacements in other sports, realised they don’t offer me a new direction. I didn’t ask for that, I didn’t want a new direction. I was very happy riding bikes. I can no longer pretend to myself that I will find that new direction. But I don’t need to. Bikes never went anywhere, I can still look at a bike and enjoy its overall design, the beauty of its tubing and the technology of its components. I have always loved looking at bikes. I can still look at a downhill run or cross country course and imagine how it feels to ride it. Enjoy seeing someone else take that ride on. I always used to do that anyway, that hasn’t changed.
Most importantly I know what I must do next. I don’t need to find new sports to replace bikes. I need to get back on one, I need to ride with my mates, enjoy the outdoors and the terrain that is out there for me to ride. I don’t know how I will do it but I know I must because that’s who I am, that is what I do. Ride.