Only six months after injury I was rafting in Colorado. It gave me an idea of what might be possible if I didn’t dwell on the dark side of things.
Nick was injured in 2009 whilst serving as a troop commander in the Royal Engineers. He got involved in sport as part of his rehab and competed at the London 2012 and Rio2016 Paralympic Games. He now has his eye on a Paralympic hat-trick in Tokyo in 2020.
Why did you decide to join the military?
As a kid I loved climbing, camping, sport, and adventures. I was in the Army Cadet Force and got up to Master Cadet, so I fancied the military. I took a gap year commission, went to Sheffield University, then Sandhurst. My first unit as a troop commander was in the Royal Engineers. I enjoyed it a lot and travelled to Germany, Canada, Kenya, and then Afghanistan.
You were injured on your first tour…
I was supposed to have been posted to a new job, but I stayed on and deployed to Afghanistan to help out the guy who was coming in. It was October 2009. I was with the Light Dragoons at first and then the Coldstream Guards. It was intense; we were doing big clearances, building checkpoints, all with significant enemy activity around us. I was injured doing a route recce. It was a kilometre away, which felt as far as the moon!
What do you remember?
I’m not sure I believe in fate, but I’d had a profound premonition that something bad was going to happen that day. It was during a night patrol, we were about 40 metres away from base, on a narrow path, and I stood on a pressure plate. A couple of guys ahead of me hadn’t initiated it – maybe they were lighter than me. I remember the noise, landing, screaming, and being blown away by the elemental ferocity. It’s startling what clarity you have. I knew my life would never be the same again, but I was remarkably calm really, looking at my little finger dangling off.
What were the extent of your injuries?
My left leg was blown off, and my right leg was badly damaged. I’d broken my pelvis, had internal injuries, perforated eardrums, collapsed lungs, and a pulmonary embolism. I lost a finger, had damaged my forearm, had nerve damage, tissue loss... Luckily, the medics were there in minutes. I don’t know how I survived, I was bleeding from so many different parts. I was put in a coma when I got back to Camp Bastion and was given 36 units of blood – and there are only eight in your body! It was touch and go for a long while.
How was rehab?
It was extremely tough. My body was absolutely wrecked. I was losing weight and suffering from hallucinations, paranoia, and stress. I had about 35 operations, including removing my right leg. It took me years to get straight, and it’s still very much an ongoing project. But Headley Court was great. There was so much love and attention and there was a great group of us working together. I realised the value of staying focused. I decided to smash it!
Blesma helped to lead you towards sport…
Yes. Only six months after injury I was rafting in Colorado. It gave me an idea of what might be possible if I didn’t dwell on the dark side of things. It opened my mind. I went sailing and learned to mono-ski. The Blesma attitude really helped me, and I realised that sport could give me a goal. I did a talent ID day for Team GB in 2010. I wasn’t in great shape, but my attributes fitted rowing, so I started to learn. By 2011, I was rowing six days a week, training for London 2012.
How were those first Paralympics?
Incredible! I’d gone from injury to rehab, to trying rowing, to London 2012 so quickly. In the end, we came fourth, 0.21 seconds off a medal. At the time it was frustrating, but in hindsight I think losing was a good thing because I learned from it. And I was burned out! I loved the structure of training. My focus might have been unhealthy, but it was probably the only way I could deal with what had happened to me.
So you changed things up?
Yes, I did Beeline Britain, travelling from Land’s End to John O’Groats in a straight line, and raised £35,000 for Blesma. I also switched to canoeing; it’s a solo sport, so I’m totally responsible for all my successes and failures. And I’ve had kids. My partner has been brilliant and has stood by me whenever I’ve been grumpy. Having a family has given me a new perspective and priority.
And you also trained for Rio 2016…
It was intense. I didn’t have much time – just 18 months to prepare to race in a new discipline. But I approached training in a different way and tried to enjoy everything. Rio was great – I got a bronze medal, which was such a buzz, and I’ve got my mojo for Tokyo 2020. To compete in a third Paralympics would be amazing, I’ll be a better athlete by then, and after that I know I will be happy to walk away and try something else.