How Rugby helped my Paralympic journey
I have just returned from my eldest son Henry’s first rugby tour, accompanied of course by his younger brother Albert, who forgets he is only 5. It brought back memories of my first tour aged 18 playing for Thurrock. We managed to get kicked out of Wales that time, but that’s another story.
As my sons and their friends embark on their own rugby journeys, and with the Rugby World Cup fast approaching, it got me thinking about the important role rugby has played in my life.
I started playing rugby aged 9 for my primary school Giffards (Come on the Bumble Bees!) and soon gained a reputation as a great player, playing one year above. I quickly moved onto club rugby playing for Thurrock. At 18 I first represented Essex as well as The Eastern Counties, and gained my first team tie aged just 19. A big deal in a large club like Thurrock.
I then left for Australia, ready to travel the World, well Sydney to Cairns in as many pubs as possible. Just a couple of weeks before I was due to fly home I was involved in a car crash, which resulted in me loosing my right arm.
Help and support from my rugby pals
From the moment I returned to the UK, my rugby pals were there to pick up the pieces after my arm was amputated. I must take a moment to acknowledge that it was not just them, but all my friends and family that helped and supported me! But this blog is about rugby and how it had such a positive impact on my life.
Firstly the club organized a big charity match, and raised some much-needed funds for me to get back on my feet. It was hoped that I would run on, but this was too early post amputation.
I found a lot of comfort being around the players I had taken to the field with just over a year prior, both the young foolish ones like me and the older ones with families of their own. There was always a couch for me to kip on, an offer always accepted when a beer run to France had taken place.
Back to training
Just six months after the initial accident, I decided to start training again, the players where there to support and help me find new ways to catch and pass the ball one handed. I would love to say they were kind and considerate, and never saw an opportunity to poke fun at me, but anyone who has ever been in a rugby dressing room would know that to be untrue.
The Physio at the club played a huge role in my rehabilitation, not only looking after the physical side, but he confessed many years later, many of those late night physio sessions were because he knew I would never open up and talk if I felt forced to, and so he was able to keep an eye on how I was coping.
After just six months training and only one year after my accident I was ready for my first game. But this was no ordinary game, every year Thurrock and Gravesend play all through the club, to commemorate the first ever Thurrock fixture. This seemed a fitting way to restart my rugby career.
The media attention - an arm amputee playing rugby
The game received a lot of interest, from the club, the players and the media. We had several national newspapers present and two film crews. For me this was a very tense time, as I did not know whether it was going to be possible for me to play contact rugby again, training was one thing, but getting tackled hard in a match is very different
On match day the physio sensed that the opposition where looking concerned about how they should treat a one armed player, especially when the world would see if they were the one to smash me into the ground, so in true rugby style he marched me into the opposition’s dressing room and introduced me to all the players. He then proceeded to explain that I was fit and fast, so if they did not tackle me, I would score, so the ball was in their court so to speak.
The game was a big success and the start of a new career. No longer with the dreams and aspirations of being a professional player, but truly enjoying being back out on the field with good friends, and of course the après rugby.
The biggest step on my road to recovery
I still believe to this day that was the biggest step I took on my road to recovery, because that was the moment I realised that although traumatic things can and will happen to us in our lives, it does not stop us having dreams and aspirations, and doing the things we truly love. That was the moment I realized that although I had lost my arm in a car crash, it did not stop me from doing the things I truly loved, RUGBY. I played week in week out until I became an athlete. And that itself is another Rugby club moment.
I was at a party in the early new year of 1998, once again around one of my rugby friend’s house, probably one day post a France beer and wine trip.
The call from the paralympics athletics team
At the time, because of the media coverage I had received from the first game, I had come to the attention of one of the coaches in the Amputee athletics team. In his research he realized that I used to be an athlete, and would often phone and say, “Why not give athletics a go? Sydney Paralympics is just two years away!” My answer was always the same; “After a race, do we hang upside down from a railing and drink a pint of Guinness?” No, well rugby it is then.
That was until this fateful party. My mobile phone rang and as my friend’s wife passed the phone to me, I saw this person was the caller. I muttered those immortal words to my friend’s wife, “Under no circumstances answer that phone”, to which she instantly pressed the green button and said I will just get him. I was stuck, so I offered to attend a Paralympics squad weekend and if I did not enjoy it, return to rugby. It was 13 years until I played rugby again. Now I play for a different club, Maldon as I have moved.
Back on the rugby pitch after a 13-year break, I did not train for 6 months prior to my first game as I had after returning from my accident. Oh no, I was by now a Paralympic champion and World Record holder, so I thought one training session should do. I got my kit out of the loft that had been packed away some 13 years earlier and headed off to my first training session, only to find that not only had the game changed a lot in those 13yrs, but the kit too.
That weekend I played my first game and injured my shoulder after 20 minutes, so was out for 4 weeks. Lesson learnt!
I cannot play every week now due to family commitments, but at the age of 42, I still relish the chance to get out and play a match on a Saturday afternoon.
Last year another old Thurrock player had joined Maldon with his young son; we had played against each other from the age of 9, all through primary and secondary school, then together at Thurrock. So I persuaded him some 20 years after our last match together to come and play for Maldon. He gave me a bad pass, I busted two ribs in the tackle I took, and he then damaged his shoulder and needed surgery. Got to love Rugby.
When I watch my eldest son (even his younger brother Albert has had a couple games), it always brings a smile to my face to think that the team they play with may be team mates for life, and the opposition, well they may be playing Tag rugby now, but in years to come will be having FRIENDLY battles with these people for many years. I just hope whatever level they reach, they get as much out of the game as I have!