Luckily I've got an adventurous gene, as life in a wheelchair is full of unexpected adventure. I was a keen runner, climber and all round outdoor addict, and then at the age of 21, I fell off a cliff and became paralysed from the chest down. There begins the opening chapter of my book ‘If You Fall…’ and the beginning of an extraordinary new life.
Just the night before my accident, I said I would rather die than be paralysed, but little did I know what lay ahead. Instead I found fortune in my misfortune, inspiration from people in similar and more challenging situations all around me, and began pursuing alternative ways to access the outdoors. Not being able to move or feel anything below my chest level has of course been a challenge, but I’ve come to learn that nothing is impossible if we set our mind and our efforts to it.
I’ve had to challenge my own physical and mental barriers, completing many trips that others, including myself, believed impossible; from marathons and triathlons, to kayaking, sit-skiing and hand-cycling in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
These trips have included a crossing of the Tien Shan and Karakoram mountains of Central Asia on a hand bike (1997 and raising £12,000 for charity), handcycling the length of the Japanese archipelago (2000), sea kayaking a 1200 mile length of the Canada – Alaska coastline (2003), crossing the Indian Himalaya by handcycle (2006) and skiing the Valle Blanche on a sit ski.
The most physically challenging adventure was a 600 kilometre traverse of the Greenland ice cap, a month long journey across one the world’s last great expanses of wilderness. The winds can reach 200 miles per hour and temperatures drop below 40 degrees. I seriously doubted our chances of success, particularly as paralysis means you can’t regulate your body temperature, yet with hard work, determination and a lot of support, it was a journey that became possible.
Climbing the kilometre high overhanging precipice of El Capitan, a giant granite rock face in Yosemite National Park, USA, was a huge mental challenge, overcoming my doubts about climbing and dread of heights, getting back on the ropes and working through the fear. 4000 pull ups felt easy in comparison to the mental obstacles. However, it was perfect preparation for what was to come next... making it to the London 2012 Paralympics in the sport of handcycling, as part of the British Cycling Team.
In my first race, the time trial (the race of truth) I gave it everything I had, completing the 16-kilometer course in 33:16.09, earning me a Silver medal behind Muffy Davis of the USA.
In my next event, the road race, I worked with fellow British team-mate Rachel Morris to stay with the main group for six laps of Brands Hatch, the competition dropping off with each lap. On the final lap, 40 seconds behind the American team who took Gold and Silver, we made one of the most controversial wins of the games, and instead of sprinting for they line, we crossed holding hands.
It was a decision that ultimately me my second medal, as the photo finish gave Rachel third place.
But I had no complaints, as Rachel (the Beijing gold medallist who'd inspired me to get to London, whose participation in the Games was in doubt after a recent training accident) deserved it more.
"We've worked so hard together over the last few years we couldn't bear the thought of pipping each other to the line. It wasn't that one of us was stronger than the other, so we just thought 'let's do it, let's grab our hands at 50m and go'."
In the next year I'm focusing on Para Triathlon, Iron Man races, and preparing for a trip to the South Pole in 2013 (and perhaps Rio in 2016!).
Her story is not just one of the triumph of the human spirit, but of the ‘spiritual’. It’s ‘spirit’ that makes us what we are, ‘spirit’ that calls out to us in wilderness places" Sir Ranulph Fiennes