Two weeks had passed since I had attended a Talent Identification Day for Great Britain’s Paracanoe Programme in April 2017. Unsure whether or not I was what they were looking for, life quickly shifted back to overcoming the day to day obstacles I still encountered during this early stage of my life post injury. All the while though still hoping and dreaming that they might have seen something in me. A spark of potential, a burning desire to overcome adversity, an inner fire.
Selection for Britain’s Paracanoe Programme is comprised of two core phases. Phase One, which includes an initial one-day Talent Identification Day, is a prolonged 10-day assessment carried out at the National Water Sports Centre, Nottingham. Candidates complete this first phase over a staggered two-month period and can be dropped at any stage. Phase Two, also known as ‘confirmation’, lasts between three and six months and puts candidates through a rigorous training and assessment programme. Total commitment is expected.
I had always been the sort of person who struggled to sit down all day, often opting for short, sharp 30-minute runs over a lunchtime – usually with a 50/50 chance of the office showers being out of order. Now, somewhat ironically, I found myself a ‘full time sitter’. It was something I struggled with at first, I felt like I had lost part of my identity – what made Darren ‘Darren’.
It was now early May. Sat in the office one afternoon I was overcome by a sudden sense of sadness, of loss. Removing myself from the office I took the lift to the unoccupied meeting room upstairs. Facing the large bay window, I stared at my reflection in the tinted glass. In ways it felt like my wings had been clipped, my sense of independence altered, my horizons lowered. Careful not to dwell on negativity I reached instinctively for my phone. ‘Missed Call – New Voicemail’ flashed on the screen. I pressed play. “Hi Darren, it’s Steve from British Canoeing. I wanted to call to let you know that we would like to invite you to the next stage of Phase One selection…” Perhaps my horizons had simply shifted direction?
I arrived on a particularly wet and windy day in May. Steve Train, the Head of Training, outlined how our first two days of Phase One would run. Our focus would be on getting accustomed to our kayak, not just any kayak but a characteristically unstable sprint kayak. I was joined by a familiar face in Jen Warren, an ex-Army Doctor who had attended the same assessment day as me. We were also joined by Will, a Welsh medical student from Swansea. Readying ourselves for our first session out on the expansive two-kilometre-long lake, our varying levels of disability were clear to see. Having removed his prosthetic leg, Will was already lowering himself into his kayak and getting his balanced accustomed. Meanwhile, Jen had quickly set about getting out of her chair and followed suit balance wise. Keen to impress, I made as little fuss as possible. Even as Steve steadied the kayak I could instantly feel the million and one ways this was different to my lavishly buoyant sea kayak. Every inch of muscle fibre and all seven of my controllable vertebrae were working overtime to react and counter react as I wobbled from side to side as if sat on a plate of jelly.
Steve looked at me with a reassuring smile, “Got it?” he enquired.
“Definitely getting the hang of it.” I replied, with a large measure of fake confidence. With Jen and Will gliding away from the pontoon ahead of me, I took the first few strokes of life’s newest adventure.
“One, two, three…four.” I counted each stroke like a cowboy counting seconds in a rodeo. That’s how it felt, like I was trying to tame a buccaneering Mustang determined to get me off its back. I kept my hands low and in the most stable position, my strokes scraping the surface of the water. I’d made it perhaps ten metres from the pontoon before the inevitable happened. A momentary lapse in concentration caused me to lean too far left, and just like that my delicate sense of balance was undone. SPLOSH! I was in! Frustrated (and cold), I eagerly swam back to the pontoon with the kayak hooked under my spare arm. Hauling me out of the water, Steve enquired whether I wanted to get showered and warmed up. “No, I’m alright Steve, get me back in the kayak.” I wasn’t going to give up that easily. Therein started a cycle which we would repeat three or four times that morning. Importantly, with each attempt I made it further and further from the pontoon. 20 metres. 30 metres. 40 metres. Emerging with a smile on my face after the fourth unplanned dunk of the morning, one thing I knew that Steve wouldn’t be able to doubt was my commitment and enthusiasm.
By the second afternoon I had quite possibly set a record for the most capsizes in a 48-hour period and I had long since run out of dry clothes. Yet none of this had dented my determination to overcome this challenge. What I had found hardest psychologically was seeing Jen and Will storm ahead of me in terms of progress, taking to kayaking like proverbial ducks to water. The voice of reason told me that this was why categories of disability existed within Paralympic sport and that within Paracanoe I would fall into the most impaired category. It was as if we were each being asked to build a house, but I was only given half of the tools. It was unknown, undiscovered territory to find myself in. Heading across to the British Canoeing office for a debrief meeting, I hoped that despite my predisposition towards capsizing I had shown promise.
“Darren, we were surprised.” Steve said cryptically as he opened the meeting. He was a gently spoken man, an unassuming icon of the sport – a world champion who had helped to pioneer Paracanoe. “Most people of your injury level don’t make it off the pontoon on day one…at all.” He stated, bluntly.
I was dumbstruck. I’d convinced myself that my performances had been substandard, focussing instead on showing determination and commitment to voluntarily recycle my body in and out of the cold water. It hadn’t been about damage limitation at all. For every ‘I’ll get it this time’, I had continued to exceed an expectation that I wouldn’t make it a matter of distance from the pontoon before capsizing. Steve stressed that I had to avoid drawing comparisons between Jen, Will, and myself. At my level of injury, and across the KL1 category as a whole, development rates were MUCH slower.
“Right, I’ll get dates for the five-day camp across to you when I can, and we’ll go from there.” Steve concluded, wrapping up the meeting.
I’d made it to the next stage! As I set off home a renewed sense of pride and self-belief washed over me. I could do this. I WOULD do this. From that moment on my life had new focus and my recovery a renewed purpose.
Back at home training began to step up a gear as I continued work with my PT, Alex. We started to work harder as we looked to add power and size to my still relatively weakened post-hospital body. To say that this part of my recovery resembled a slick ‘Rocky’ training montage would be somewhat inaccurate. On one particular occasion, as I lifted my body off my wheelchair to perform the first of 12 pull ups, something hadn’t gone according to plan. My trousers hadn’t come up with me….and I was blissfully unaware.
“JESUS!” Alex exclaimed as my naked crotch thrusted towards his face.
Glancing down to see what had caused the commotion I was horrified to see my pale midriff shining like a white beacon in the middle of the gym. Worse still, as Alex frantically scrambled to pull my trousers up, I noticed that three elderly ladies had front row seats from their rowing machines in front of us. With trousers firmly back in place and a large portion of the gym now mentally scarred I could get on with the 11 remaining pull ups! Although this would remain the only incident of public indecency (for the moment), it was one in a series of comical events with Alex which served to firmly cement our friendship. For every moment of weakness and for every “I can’t do it.”, would come words of encouragement in the form of, “think of 2020, think of Tokyo!” or a Braveheart-esque, “Strength Through Adversity.”
It wasn’t long before I found myself back at the training centre in Nottingham, this time for the five-day intensive camp and with (so I thought) enough dry clothing to last the week. As I headed down to the boat bay ahead of the first session, my intention was to spend as little time upside down as possible. I had no doubt that Jen and Will would be back so it was no surprise to see them both already waiting in the bay. Although slightly bewildering, I was also growing slowly accustomed to Will’s dietary requirements and noticed him swiftly finishing his second ham sandwich of the morning at 10.30am.
While I would continue to work directly with Steve in an area I had affectionately termed the ‘Kids Pool’ at the sheltered western most edge of the lake, Jen and Will would work on more advanced skills with Roger Weir, the team’s new Talent Development Coach. There we no nerves this time round. I knew what to expect, and I knew what was expected of me. After all, this wasn’t my first time at the rodeo.
Despite my best intentions, the on/off and in/out relationship with capsizing continued in earnest. I was still very much learning to understand my injury and to interpret the confused signals my brain was receiving from the partially functioning sections of my core muscles. A neurological algorithm I had yet to crack. Steve diligently did his best to impart his knowledge from the pontoon’s edge as I gingerly paddled back and forth to the far bank of the lake in front of him. With each failure came a learning point, and with each failure came a choice – do you give up or do you persevere? As the week progressed and as I doggedly persevered, my technique gradually improved. I started to make tangible progress. In order to maximise my chances of staying balanced, I had learnt to pick a point on the horizon and to focus solely on this as I paddled forward. It was a technique that would be put to the test on the afternoon of my third day on camp.
With confidence high after a dry morning session and with temperatures soaring as the sun blazed overhead, I took to the water with a genuine sense that my commitment and determination was beginning to pay off. I’d picked my point on the horizon, and I was paddling along the edge of the lake towards it. Suddenly, I became aware of a group of athletic looking women walking towards me. ‘Don’t look, just don’t look!’ I told myself, desperate not make a ‘tit’ of myself by falling in right in front of them. The group stopped and looked in my direction as we drew level with each other. I caved. Before they’d even realised that I’d attempted to smile at them, the unmistakable squeaking noise and splash of the kayak capsizing had stolen their attention.
“I fancied a swim anyway,” I joked unconvincingly to the on-looking group, clearly unimpressed as I clung to the semi-submerged kayak.
By the end of our fifth day on camp, I was exhausted both physically and mentally. I’d pushed my body harder than at any other stage in my recovery and I’d overcome frustration and negativity by not giving up on myself when, at times, it had seemed the easiest way to avoid failure. We hadn’t simply tested the limits of my endurance and strength, we’d tested the very boundaries of what I could achieve in spite of my injury. I was by no means transformed from ‘floppy mess’ to ‘expert kayaker’ in the space of a week but I had taken a couple of important steps in the right direction. There was also no denying that the hotel room I’d occupied for the duration of camp would benefit from my leaving, it had adopted a ripe and peculiar wetland stench – owed perhaps entirely to the never-ending piles of wet clothing hung from every available towel rail, door knob and window handle. Nan would love having me being back home but even she might think twice upon seeing the extent of my latest laundry haul.
In the days and weeks that followed, I felt a sense of self-confidence that I hadn’t experienced for quite some time. I had never lost my self-belief, even in the immediate aftermath of my accident I knew that I could overcome this adversity but confidence in how I perceived myself had taken a significant hit. Now there was something new and exciting in my life, which was helping to repair and remould my sense of identity. Better still, it was an environment in which I was surrounded by individuals who had overcome their own personal battles, be that: cancer; paralysis; or traumatic injury. They epitomised the term ‘Strength Through Adversity’, and it was an infectious positive energy!
The final two day assessment was all that now remained of Phase One selection. The next stage was tantalizingly within reach. Reunited once again with Jen and Will, we basked in the warm summer sun as we continued to press our individual cases to be taken forward to Phase Two. The three of us had formed a close bond, and as we spent more time together I learnt more about the paths which had brought them to Paracanoe. Jen had been a doctor in the Army until a serious skiing accident left her with a complex incomplete spinal cord injury. Not one to give in, Jen had gone on to represent Great Britain at multiple Invictus Games – with an impressive medal haul to show for it. Will, at only 17 years of age was left with no option but to have the lower half of his left leg amputated following complication after complication. Now 19, Will was in great physical shape and had a steely determination to progress in parasport. Having spent the best part of 10 days waiting to see someone other than I capsize, it was with great pleasure that I saw Will capsize, twice…in one session! London buses indeed.
It was fast approaching the 6th August 2017, nearly a year to the date this journey started and my world had been turned upside down. Back in Shrewsbury having completed all 10 days of Phase One, I eagerly waited to hear whether I’d be given the opportunity to train two days each week with the Paracanoe team. On the 5th August, I received an email from Steve Train…I’d done it! Almost a year to the date of my accident. I’d unequivocally transformed my life for the better. I’d made lemonade from lemons!
I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my accident alongside my family as we tucked into a windswept picnic on top of the stunning Shropshire Hills. Breathing in the fresh countryside air, surrounded by those I loved, I felt no sense of sadness or loss for what I’d been through. In its place, there was a genuine sense of self-pride in what I’d achieved and, most importantly, a total appreciation for the unconditional love and support of family and friends. After all, life would always come with its challenges. The only real tragedy would be to let it stop you living.