6. Running Free

Sat at the front of the cramped briefing room alongside the other would-be athletes, I could feel the tension in the room rising in anticipation of the opening address. “Welcome to the High-Performance Training Centre for Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic sprint kayak programme.” None of us yet knew what to expect from the day’s ‘Talent Identification’ assessment, but it was made abundantly clear to us by the team’s Head Coach that only the very best candidates would be recalled for further testing…

All things considered, I’d had a pretty good Christmas and New Year at home. Surrounded by family and friends, it was their warmth, love, and support which pulled me through what was undoubtedly the toughest transitionary period I’ll ever likely experience. In many ways, being discharged at Christmas made things harder emotionally. It’s a time of year which society associates with ‘festive spirit’, not apprehension and anxiety. But, for those of us lucky enough to have family and friends in our lives, it is also a time of year which draws us closer together. If anything, the escapades, heartbreak, and trials of 2016 had only served to bring us closer together as a unit. Looking into 2017, I’d decided upon a few important goals, and I knew that with the support of those around me, I could make good on them…even the ambitious ones.

I’d decided some time ago that one of the first important steps on the road to recovery, and to ‘normality’, was to go back to work. My work had been so good to me since the day of my accident, they’d kept me in a job – even though I was weeks away from leaving to embark on a career in teaching, and my colleagues visited me almost every day of my six weeks on bedrest. I’d never felt more valued, more appreciated, and I knew that they genuinely wanted me back with them. I’d briefly had the opportunity to visit my old office before Christmas, accompanied efficiently by my colleague Emma. So efficient that, as we pulled out of the hospital car park, it was only the sound of a car behind us running over something in the middle of the road which prompted us to realise that Emma had set off with a piece of my hospital equipment still on the roof. If nothing else, it made for a unique challenge when trying to explain why there were gravel and tyre marks on the equipment later that evening to staff at the hospital. My visit to the office that day was an important reintroduction to the world of work, albeit from a fresh perspective this time. After a couple of weeks of complete rest and relaxation at home, I decided it was time to start my journey back. I knew that I still had to give myself the time and opportunity to recover physically from the accident, but I recognised that a massive part of my mental recovery revolved around getting back to some semblance of similarity to my old life. On the day of my return to work health assessment, it felt alien to put on a shirt, suit jacket and trousers, particularly as I’d worn nothing but jogging bottoms and t-shirts for the last five months. Likewise, the prospect of heading back to the main Council building was extremely daunting. I hadn’t been back since the day before my accident, and I didn’t know if many of the staff there were aware of what had happened. Using my ID badge to enter the building at the rear entrance, I tried my best to avoid seeing anyone before my appointment. As I rounded the first corner, I almost instantly bumped into a familiar face. Instead of the potentially awkward encounter I’d envisaged, I was almost knocked out of my chair as they hugged me and excitedly asked “does this mean you’re coming back?!” With my nerves unexpectedly calmed by this first emotive greeting, I re-discovered a sense of pride and confidence in myself for coming back to work as soon I was. By the end of the meeting, I’d agreed an eight-week programme for returning to full time work, and I felt confident that I would be supported to achieve that goal in any way possible. I’d taken an important first step back to normality.

The first two years of life following a spinal cord injury are a period within which the body rapidly adjusts, re-adjusts, and potentially neurologically recovers from the initial trauma. Although I’d been told in no uncertain terms that the severity of my injury made a full recovery highly improbable, I wanted to ensure that I maximised any potential recovery by challenging my body physically, and by leading a healthy lifestyle wherever possible. There were no promises, or no guarantees that things might change, but the worst thing I could possibly do was to not try. Even though I knew it was a realistic prospect that I could still have the same level of neurological function in two years’ time, I would be two years better off, and in a more positive place for having set out and tried. I’d continued to row once a week with the local rowing club, and I was enjoying the challenge of learning a new discipline, as much as I enjoyed the physical exertion. As I began to understand and implement more about the instructions being shouted from the coaches in the boat trailing behind, I was better able to put down more through my oars, and able to glide more efficiently over the water. Winter was truly a magical time of the year to first learn to row. Mist would lie low over the river, and the majestic dark blue colour of the river contrasted sharply against the frost lined banks. Every element of the experience felt raw and untouched. It was unparalleled. I wanted to continue my development, and to build myself up physically with a view to potentially competing in races later in the year.

 I’d wanted to join a gym, but I was intimidated by the prospect of re-introducing myself to that environment whilst I was lacking confidence in how to use the various bits of equipment now that I was in a wheelchair. I signed up to the local Bannatyne’s gym, and in order to help re-build my confidence, I decide to be trained by one of the club’s Personal Trainers. It was on my induction that I was introduced to Alex, a Personal Trainer, and the Fitness Manager. As we walked into the gym, I’d expected to be shown around in a typically tedious gym induction fashion of “this is a dumbbell…this is the chest press…” Instead, Alex looked at me and said, “Right, reckon you can do a pull up?” I loved the immediate sense of challenge. The reality was that neither Alex nor I knew what to expect I should or shouldn’t be able to do. It would be very much a case of trial and error in many instances to start with. If it seemed too hard, if it felt impossible, Alex would dial it back to the very basics, and we’d build up the exercise from there. I tried to impart as much of my knowledge about how the injury had affected my body and balance as I could, but it was by challenging my preconceived notions with even the simplest exercises that we learnt most about my current limitations. During one of our first sessions together, I tried to explain that I had a ‘tipping point’ when leaning forward. This meant that if I was to lean too far forward, I would lose the ability to control my upper body, resulting in an uncontrollable drop forwards. Alex walked across the gym, picked up a blue foam roller, and upon his return asked me to hold it directly out in front of me. The piece of blue foam he handed me weighed less than a football, but as I tried to maintain my posture and extend my arms out in front of me, I began to tip slowly forwards. I couldn’t believe how easily affected my balance could be. Over the course of our first few weeks training, Alex and I had added quite a few items to his “So that’s what we’ve got to work on” list. Day by day, session by session, I started to become stronger and more able to complete some of the exercises which had seemed almost impossible at first. I finished the majority of our sessions dripping in sweat, knowing that I’d pushed myself to the limit. There is no doubt that I owed a lot of my progress to Alex. He was someone that almost loved challenging me more than I loved challenging myself, which was quite a rarity. In Alex I’d not only found a great trainer, I’d found a genuine friend. It wasn’t until a couple of months trainings together had passed that Alex passed me the same blue piece of foam as our first week together. I held it out directly in front of me, kept my posture, and could have kept it there quite effortlessly without tipping forward. It might not have looked impressive, or overly difficult to the outside observer, but it just went to show how far we’d come since our first sessions together. We were only just getting started!

In between sessions on the water, at the gym, or at work, I was settling in to my new home, and to calling ‘Nan’s House’ my own. I’d be lying if I was to try to disguise my initial reluctance at being discharged there, not because I didn’t love my Nan dearly, but because I’d never quite aspired to be living with my Nan at the age of 26! All things considered, I was incredibly lucky to have someone so willing to take me into their home, and to help guide me through such a tough transition. I’d been made so welcome that Nan had moved herself out of the master bedroom, and into the back room, purely so that the larger room could become my own living space. In truth, she went out of her way on a daily basis to help me out in any way necessary, whether that be a cup of tea for morale, or running the never-ending gauntlet up and down the stairs to get me something I’d forgotten. It’s lucky that she’s in great shape for her age really, otherwise we’d have ended up with a cardiac arrest added to the list of the house’s current ailments! As the weeks and months passed, Nan and I built a genuine and loving friendship. It wasn’t that we simply acted as company for each other, it was that we enjoyed each other’s company. We got to know more about each other than we had at any point in the 26 years gone by. I shared stories from university, from climbing, and from my life that I’d never taken the time to tell before, and I learnt more about the person behind the title of ‘Nan’. I learnt about Christine. We shared so many funny moments too. On one occasion I’d got to the top of the stair lift, only to find that Nan had moved my wheelchair out of my reach at the top. Worse still, the stair lift refused to go back downstairs so that Nan could get past. All that we could do was for me to lift my legs as high as possible, which would allow Nan the space to crawl underneath. So, there we were, me lifting my legs in the air, whilst Nan crawled up the final section of the staircase, before commando crawling under the stair lift itself. Like I said, it was a good thing she was in good shape. Then there was the time I thought it was a good idea to re-introduce myself to yoga whilst lying on my bed. Only a few minutes had passed before I decided to attempt a shoulder stand. Lying on my back, and with my hands pushing my torso and legs into the air, I’d completely forgotten that I couldn’t tense my torso and legs. The resulting effect of which was the sudden realisation that my legs were uncontrollably going over my head, which effectively backflipped me off the canvas and onto the floor. Finding myself upside down on the floor, all I could do was laugh. Admittedly Nan hadn’t found it very funny on this occasion, but it was another fine example of the silly situations we routinely found ourselves in. If it would have been possible to go back in time to talk to myself during the darkest moments of my final weeks in hospital, and during all the uncertainty, I would have told myself not to panic, and that sometimes the best things in life are a blessing in disguise.

Although I’d started the process of applying for an adapted car back in October, I still had to wait six weeks before it was ready to collect after leaving hospital. Without a car, I’d lost a massive chunk of my independence. Being dependent upon family and friends for transport, whether that be to and from work, rowing, or the gym, could be quite hard to accept at times. I hated to feel like a burden. That said, I was incredibly lucky to have a network of family, friends, and colleagues who would go out of their way to ensure that I had transport whenever necessary. Each lift was an opportunity to get to know more about one of my colleagues, or to spend a bit of extra time with a friend or family member. On one particular occasion, a colleague of mine was supposed to be giving me a lift from the rowing club to work, at which point her car refused to start. With only myself, her, and one of the club’s volunteers about (it’s important to note at this point that the volunteer in question is in his 80’s) we set about jump starting the car. It was quickly apparent that my pushing capabilities were severely limited, so we agreed that I’d be best placed trying to start the car from the driver’s seat. Importantly, we’d overlooked the fact that I couldn’t use my feet to operate the accelerator and break. As the other two did their best to heave the car into motion, we slowly started to gather pace. Inside the car, I had been forced to radically adapt my driving style. With the gravel track road running parallel to the river by only a matter of feet, I was hunched forward using my left hand to operate the accelerator, my right hand to turn the ignition, with only my chin left to steer the vehicle away from the river bank. It might not have been the most conventional of jump starts, with a disabled man operating the controls, and an 80-year-old man pushing from the back. In fact, it would probably have made for a good comedy sketch. It was moments like this that reaffirmed to me that, no matter how frustrating not having my own car was, I wouldn’t have experienced these moments had things been different. By the time mid-February arrived, and I’d had the call from the dealers to say that I could collect my car, I was ecstatic. Arriving at the Ford garage with my Dad, I caught a first glimpse of my new car. It looked fantastic. I’d ordered a Ford Focus Estate in dark blue, and had indulged myself with the sports model…life was short after all! After a few minutes signing the obligatory contracts and papers, and after having had the tour round the car and its operating controls, I was ready to set off on my maiden voyage. Sat in the driver’s seat, and with a thirty-minute journey home down a busy A road, it suddenly felt quite a long time ago since I’d taken the one mandatory driving lesson with hand controls. Part of me was started to wish I hadn’t so nonchalantly dismissed the option of additional lessons quite so quickly. As I gingerly left the forecourt, and took the first exit onto the A5, I felt reassured by my Dad’s presence in the passenger seat who had seemed to have somehow absorbed the role of driving instructor. “Nice and slow round the roundabout now Darren.” “Don’t feel that you’ve got to speed up just because a car’s up your backside.” However, as my confidence driving returned, Dad’s little ‘gems of advice’ were greeted with a sharp retort of “Yes Dad I know how to drive!” Now that the most daunting trip was over, I could relax, and I could enjoy the fact that I had one of the biggest pieces of the independence puzzle in my possession.

With winter slowly giving way to spring, and as temperatures started to climb, it was time to take the leap from kayaking in the relative safe confines of swimming pools and to begin exploring local rivers and lakes. Although the pool sessions had exposed how badly my balance had been affected by my accident, they had also shown how quickly I could relearn some of these basic instincts. Better still, as I continued to push myself in the gym, I could feel the positive impact this hard work was having on the ability to keep myself stable. Keeping dry was a novelty I knew I wouldn’t tire of. After a quick trip to Halfords to have roof racks fitted to my car, Matt, Harry and I were almost ready for our first outdoor adventure. With kayaks strapped to the roofs of both cars, we set off for the village of Melverley in north Shropshire where the River Vyrnwy joins the River Severn. We’d agreed in advance that Harry would be deployed in the role of ‘safety boat’ on the understanding that he’d stick pretty close to me throughout, and in the potentially likely event of my falling in, he would be expected to dive in to offer any assistance needed. As far as health and safety considerations went, a solid plan! Pulling up to the lay-by in the field adjacent to our proposed entry point to the river, we faced an unforeseen initial challenge. Separating us from the river bank was a padlocked farmer’s gate. Once the kayaks had been passed from Harry to Matt across the fence, it was time to look at getting me across. Taking a moment to contemplate our limited options, we set about tackling the task at hand. First off, I pulled myself off my chair and on top of the gate, which allowed Harry to pass the wheelchair across to Matt. With one hand still firmly gripping the gate, I managed to put my arm around Harry. With an almighty heave Harry managed to pass me over the gate to Matt, who then lowered me into my chair. Seldom do things go quite as well as we’d imagined, but this certainly had! Now on the right side of the gate, I set about pushing myself to the water’s edge. Although the field was muddy, and the grass long, I’d bought an off-road attachment for my chair known as a ‘free wheel’ which made lighter work of the challenging terrain. Down at the water’s edge, I set about transferring down into the kayak, getting my seat set up, and starting to position my legs within the kayak itself. With the river running to my right, I could feel the nerves building. Kayaking in a swimming pool, and capsizing in a swimming pool was one thing, but capsizing out here was an altogether more serious affair. I wouldn’t have the benefit of clear water to help myself clear the boat, and this time round there would be the river’s current to contend with. I knew that I could put my faith and trust in Matt and Harry to look after me, but I still couldn’t shake the nerves. Once I was set up and ready to go, Matt waded in next to me as I launched from the bank. He stood waist high in the river steadying me as I got my balance sorted. “How’s that feeling balance wise mate?” Matt asked. “Yep” I replied. “No, I said how’s that feeling balance wise?” he reaffirmed. “Yep”. This time he insisted, “Yep what?”. The truth was, I was so focussed on keeping upright in those first moments that I’d suffered some form of temporary conversational paralysis. Within a few minutes I’d started to grow in confidence, and I could start to feel where my balance points were. Matt and Harry jumped into their kayaks and pushed themselves away from the bank. As I entered the pull of the river’s current, I kept calm and let it take me gently downstream. The guys were shadowing me like hawks, constantly gauging how comfortable I felt, and offering bits of advice on where to avoid. Working as a team we navigated a few hundred metres downstream before turning against the current. It was harder work heading upstream, and it represented a different type of challenge balance wise as I had to put more power behind each stroke. At this point, Matt was diligently performing the role of ‘safety boat’, which allowed Harry to paddle a little quicker in his large two-man kayak. As Matt and I chatted, we suddenly heard an almost movie trailer style shouting of ‘SAFETY BOAT’ as Harry paddled furiously past us like some sort of alternative super hero. The only problem was that Harry’s speed, and the size of his boat, meant that he’d caused a series of waves to cut across us from the side. It was an unexpected test of my stability, but I managed to pass with flying colours. Venturing further upriver, we passed under an iron road bridge before entering into an area of dense forest. It was only then that I was able to sit back and appreciate the magnitude of what we’d achieved today. Here we were. Three best friends. Laughing, joking, and exploring a beautiful river in the fantastic county we are privileged enough to call home. Sure, the 6th August 2016 had served to change some things potentially irreversibly, but not even that could change the unbreakable spirit of friendship, the flame for adventure, and the bond that we shared in our love for the great outdoors. Our friendship would endure and flourish against adversity, like it always had, and like it always would.

My rehabilitation had been going really well in the months following my discharge from hospital, and I was searching for the next step, the next challenge in my recovery. After an ill-fated attempt at convincing my family that I wanted to join a team sailing the Atlantic Ocean in 2018, I started to consider how I could channel my passion for kayaking. When I was part way through my rehabilitation on Gladstone Ward, I’d received a letter from a Paralympian and ex-army officer called Nick Beighton, who offered his support and advice on overcoming challenges put before us. In Nick’s letter he explained that he was a member of Great Britain’s Paracanoe squad. As I thought back to receiving Nick’s letter, I made the decision to apply for selection at the squad’s next upcoming assessment day. A few days later, I received confirmation that I would be assessed a little over three weeks later.

Sat at the front of the cramped briefing room alongside the other would-be athletes, I could feel the tension in the room rising in anticipation of the opening address. “Welcome to the High-Performance Training Centre for Great Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic sprint kayak programme.” None of us yet knew what to expect from the day’s ‘Talent Identification’ assessment, but it was made abundantly clear to us by the team’s Head Coach that only the very best candidates would be recalled for further testing. Before the first stage of testing began, we were shown a series of short clips from the team’s recent success at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. As we watched footage from the men’s and women’s finals, I was in awe of the explosive power of the sport. The supreme focus. The sheer physical exertion. Each final consisted of eight athletes, with only 200m separating them from Paralympic stardom.

As we moved through to the gym, we were introduced to the team’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. Pete explained a little about what we could expect from the day’s testing session. The overall aim of the day was to systematically test our physical and mental suitability for the programme, and to understand more about where our injuries would place us within the three Paralympic race categories. My morning schedule started with a physical assessment by the team’s Physio, Tom. At T6, Tom explained that my injury was on the upper limit of candidates they would consider as potential athletes. He went on to explain that the team had assessed a number of similar applicants in the past (T5/T6 thoracic spinal injuries), but that each had failed to meet the required standards. Instead of deterring me, hearing this only seemed to motivate me more. I wanted to prove that I couldn’t simply be defined by the number six, by my level of injury. Over the course of the next thirty minutes Tom replicated a number of the exercises I’d become familiar with during my time at the Spinal Centre. Can you try to sit up from a lying position? Can you sit unsupported and maintain your balance? Can you lean as far forward as possible without falling? Anxious to impress, I searched for any clue, any indication that I was performing better than expected. As the session came to an end, and as I transferred back into my chair, I looked eagerly at Tom for his assessment. “Impressive, really impressive.” I tried my best to contain my joy at hearing this, but I couldn’t do anything to stop a broad smile from appearing on my face.

The rest of the day was now to be spent testing my physical attributes, and mental suitability for life as a professional athlete. The team were looking to see whether we each had the raw materials from which they could forge a future Paralympic champion. The exercises chosen for us were those with functional links to the powers and abilities found in successful sprint kayakers: explosive chest power, cardiovascular fitness, and an impressive power to weight ratio. With the group divided into two for the morning session, it became apparent that whilst some of the exercises would be performed as an individual best effort, others would be alongside another potential applicant. Although it wasn’t suggested that we were competing against each other, we each knew that the day wasn’t just designed to test our physicality. They were looking for someone who would thrive in the competitive environment of elite sport, for someone who would raise their game in a one on one situation. As I took my place lying on my front for the bench pull exercise, which was designed to test our average, maximum, and explosive back power, I faced off against one of the guys I’d already identified as looking the strongest in the group. The opening couple of sets were designed to familiarise us with the exercise. They were looking for three reps where we would explosively pull the loaded bar towards our chest, rattling the bar against the frame we were lying on. As the weight started to increase, I could sense that I was making harder work of the three reps. There was still a thunderous noise of the bar rattling against the bench frame from the other machine, whilst mine began to sound more and more like a polite knock on a front door. Despite how hard I strained, I couldn’t keep up. It was the first time since my injury that I’d pitted myself against someone in a similar situation, and I couldn’t keep up the pace. I had to keep my head up.

The next few exercises focussed on body to weight power: pull ups, triceps dips, press ups. A lot of my fitness in the build up to my accident had focussed on this sort of fitness, whether that was climbing, running, or training with the army. I’d also pushed myself in each of these exercises in the gym with Alex since January. As I hung patiently below the pull up bar, I waited for my signal to start. “3,2,1…off you go.” I started slowly, taking my time to pull my chest towards the bar, and to warm into the exercise. I felt strong. With each controlled rep, I could feel the day’s early nerves and stresses start to dissipate, and I remembered that I was ultimately here to show them what I had to offer, not to compare myself against others on their behalf. I completed nine full pull ups, a personal best since my accident. Buoyed by my strong performance, I managed to perform well in the remaining body weight exercises. After a brief break for lunch, we continued into the afternoon’s session, before finally progressing to the last exercise of the day…a best effort 200m sprint on the sprint kayak ergo machine. Adopting a strategically backward position in the group, I had the benefit of watching others use the machine before it was my turn. It looked difficult, really difficult. As my turn came around, I took my position on the machine, with my legs bent slightly out in front of me, and a strap around my abdomen to provide better core support. This was it, one last chance to show my potential. “3…2…1…GO!” Gripping the paddle tightly, I drove the right blade powerfully backwards, then the left, then the right. The cables offered greater resistance than I’d expected, but I dug deep and continued my acceleration away from the start line. Approaching the 100m mark, I started to fatigue rapidly, and I struggled more and more to maintain my balance. With each stroke, I had to fight desperately to not lunge from side to side. My balance, coordination, strength, and cardiovascular ability were all being tested at the same time, and it was a shock to the system. As time elapsed, it became harder to keep my technique, and to keep my head and body from dropping forward. With shouts of encouragement from the coaches and those in my group, I dragged myself across the 200m mark. I was utterly spent. With my time recorded, the day’s assessment had drawn to an end. It was now time for the coaches to reflect on what they’d seen, and to decide whether we would be progressed to the next phase of selection. All we could do now was wait…

 

 

2 Comments
  1. I must admit , I thought that your first blogs were very well written . They seemed a way for you to expel the demons of your injury . To open up and explain your hopes and fears for your future as a young man with a SCI .
    This blog has a new voice . Your confidence for the future and the joy of life and all it’s challenges is
    evedent in every sentence .
    I find myself skipping forwards in my reading ,to check that it’s not going to end to soon .
    Your have an ability to paint such a colourful description
    We could almost be there with you .
    Looking forward to the next one 😊
    As my first ever comment on your first blog , you should think about writing a book 📚

    Like

  2. As Kate says Darren you have got to write that book you definitely have a talent for describing your fantastic ability to look forward and to be determined to keep going forward with whatever new challenges life throws at you

    Like

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