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Description

NATHAN STEPHENS
a thrower’s tale

My name is Nathan Stephens. I was born on 11 April 1988 in Bridgend. As a young boy, I was rather adventurous, rather mischievous, always getting into trouble, always climbing trees, climbing into people’s gardens, nicking apples, all the stuff that kids do!

that’s my leg

On my ninth birthday, I stupidly tried jumping onto a moving train. Me, my brother and a couple of friends were down on the track – it’s where we always used to go to hang out – somewhere just to get away from the parents, to chill out. It was about half-past-six on a Friday afternoon, 1997, on my ninth birthday. A slow-moving freight train was going past. I decided to try to jump onto it, slipped, and got dragged underneath. I knocked myself out and woke up in a bush. One of my mates had dragged me off the track while my brother and my cousin ran to get help. I didn’t know what had happened until I tried sitting up and realised, “Yeah, that’s my leg on the track”.

It was a shock. I didn’t know whether I was going to survive but I was breathing. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness until the paramedics arrived. When I got back to the main path, there were loads of people there, my granddad, my mother and my father. My granddad actually lifted me into the back of the ambulance with my auntie, and my auntie stayed in the ambulance with me until we got to the helicopter. At the time I was quite happy, you know, ninth birthday, having a helicopter ride; in different circumstances, it would have been fantastic.

Two things I can remember: one, he was a really bad ambulance driver because he smashed a window reversing into a tree and, two, that I tried to look at the view out of the helicopter window, before the morphine kicked in and I fell asleep. I woke up two days later, in hospital – I think it was a couple of hours after the surgery – in a big daze, tubes everywhere and seeing my parents, and just broke down.

full contact

I think I was able to adapt a lot quicker because I was so young. But, sitting in intensive care in Tempest Ward in Morriston Hospital, I was just thinking I couldn’t play football, rugby, with any of friends anymore, couldn’t go cycling with my brother, couldn’t do anything. I got moved to the children’s ward where I met a girl called Chelsea. She was two, and she’d spilt a cup of tea over her and had third degree burns all over her body. When her mother wasn’t there, I helped out, looked after her, you know. It showed me that I could still do stuff, with legs or without. It showed me that my life wasn’t over.

I was sitting in the children’s ward one day and a lad called Aaron Rees came in and he said, “I know it’s early stages, I know you’ve only just lost your legs” – he’d lost his legs through meningitis – “but have you ever thought about doing sport?”. I said, “Well, I did sport before but I didn’t think that you could do sport without legs”. I was really naïve. I didn’t know anything about disabled sport. He said, “Have you ever thought about sledge hockey?” “What’s sledge hockey?” “Basically, it’s a disabled version of ice hockey, full contact, you know. Get in there, punch ups, everything” … but he had me with the words “full contact”. I was, like, “Yeah, done!” My parents had a big shocked look on their faces when they heard about it, taking into consideration I was still getting over skin grafts and still bandaged up, but it stayed in my mind all the way through my rehab.

It took me six weeks to get out of hospital and back into full-time school. The doctor said that, “If it was anyone else, it would have taken them a year!” I think it was just because I’m so stubborn. A year later, back in school, back with my mates, I thought, “Right, I’m ready now. I’m ready to take the step”, so I rung up Aaron and said, “When’s hockey?”, and he said, “On a Sunday evening, eleven o’clock in the evening”. I told my parents and they were, like, “What? You want me to take you training at eleven o’clock in the evening?”. I said, “Yeah”, and fair play to them, they did.

getting my life back on track

I was very small at the time as I’d lost all my weight in hospital. I was sat in this massive sled with sticks, the youngest there, at ten. The next guy, then, was Aaron, at sixteen. I was skating around on the ice, absolutely loved it. My mum and dad, though, had one issue with it. They said, “If you don’t wake up for school the next morning, you’re never doing it again”. They were two-hour sessions so we weren’t getting home until two o’clock in the morning, and I woke up for school every morning kicking and screaming, my mum dragging me out of bed, but I did it. That got me back into sport and got my life back on track.
I moved schools, left all my old friends – one of the hardest things to do – and had to find a whole new circle of friends in Ynysawdre Comprehensive. There was nothing really adaptable for disabled people, so it was basically, “You can do this or you can sit there”. I didn’t want to sit on the side and watch, so I was like, “If you’re playing football, then I’m going to play in goals; if you’re playing rugby, then I’m going to sit on the floor and tackle your ankles”, and I did, and they thought, “We’re not going to stop him from doing anything”. I did high-jump in school, kneeling on my wheelchair, wheeling up to the bar and jumping off; I did long-jump exactly the same way; I played cricket for the school as wicket-keeper and bowler and, if I went in to bat, I’d have someone running for me. I’d find a way to adapt my self to the sport, and I think the school actually learned from that as well.

i want one of those

I’d loved water from a very young age. When I was a baby, mum and dad had left me by the side of the pool with my armbands on, and they turned around and I was gone. So, I got back in the pool and started swimming. I couldn’t swim to start off with. I could do breast-stroke fine but, losing one leg and having only half of the other, my balance in the pool was really bad. It took me a while to get used to it, but, like I said, I’m stubborn. I won’t stop until I get it right. Then, the school got in contact with David Roberts and said, “We’ve got a young swimmer who’s lost his legs. Can you come and have a look at him?”

I think it was just after 2000, the Sydney Olympics, so he actually brought his medal in with him, and I was, like, “Wow! I want one of them. I don’t care how long it’s going to take me, I’m going to get one of them”. And he took me under his wing, took me to Caerphilly to the Dragons Swimming Club, and I started swimming with David Roberts.

juggling ice hockey, swimming and athletics

That, then, got me known to the Disability Sports Council of Wales. I started swimming for Bridgend, got into the Welsh squad, and started swimming for Wales. I got invited to a Rotary Club Games in Newport where I met my current coach. I was doing weightlifting and table tennis and he said, “Have you ever tried athletics?” I was, like, “No, never. They wouldn’t let anybody touch a real javelin at school. It would be quite dangerous, especially in Ynysawdre!”, so I went across and met a whole new bunch of people. I’d never touched a javelin, a shot, a discus. They just gave me a little rubber ball and a dog ring and said, “Chuck them about”. I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was going to get me anywhere, but I stuck at it.

I was then juggling ice hockey, swimming and athletics, and one of them was going to have to go. I couldn’t do all three. Swimming got me fit but classification was a bit of an issue. I was actually in the same classification as David Roberts, who’s got two arms, two legs and he’s like a fish and I’m, like, “How am I going to compete against that?” I was thinking, “I love swimming to bits but I have to stop. It’s not going to get me where I want to go. I’m not going to get that gold medal David Roberts showed me, I’m never going to get there in swimming.” I had to concentrate on either ice hockey or athletics.

Athletics took the more dominant role. For eighteen months, it was throwing rubber rings and balls and I was, like, “Am I going to be doing this for the rest of my life?” I was really getting tired of it but the coach knew what he was doing. He’s a brilliant coach; he knows how to get the best out of you. He saw the frustration on my face. Just as I was about to hit that switch and snap, he said, “Right, come on then, Nath. We’re going to throw!” “I’ve been throwing for eighteen months!”. And then, he gave me a javelin; he gave me a discus; he gave me a shot. And I went outside and it went absolutely awfully! They were going two metres, three metres. I’d done all that for nothing, and he said, “No, it wasn’t for nothing. You’ve got the basics. Now we need to build on it”. Week after week, metre by metre, we kept on building and building and building. The first year of competition, I went across to the juniors, didn’t think I was going to do anything, came back with three golds. Then, I qualified for the seniors, thinking that I was going to be the whipping boy, went there, came back with two golds and a silver! If it wasn’t for some Jamaican discus-thrower, I would have got all three, you know. He only beat me by a metre.

going to be great

In my first European Championships, I didn’t expect anything. I just went there for the shot-put and finished fifth. I was tiny against these absolutely massive blokes, and it was, like, “I finished fifth, here. This is in my shot put. I can go on from this!”. Then, it was the World Champs, where I did javelin and shot put, and again finished fifth in both. I was still young, you know: “These guys are twice my age and I’m keeping up with them”. My coach had said, from the first day he met me, “You’re going to be great, you know. You’re going to go to the Paralympics. You’re going to be the best thrower in seated throws”. That’s pressure, but he knew how to get the best out of me.

Alongside athletics, I was still doing ice hockey. I turned the age where I got accepted into the GB squad and went to the World Champs, enjoyed it, but it was still tearing me apart which one to take. I got selected for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, but it was the same year as Turin. They knocked on my door saying, “We’ve just qualified for Turin. We want you to be part of the team”. I was, like, “How am I going to do this? Can I do both a Commonwealth Games and a Winter Paralympics?” My coach said, “We’ll find a way for you to do both”.

the class system

So, as soon as Turin had finished, I’d get a plane to Melbourne. I’d have someone in the airport waiting to pick me up. I was, like, “Right, okay”. That’s a big ask, you know, a long-haul flight, and I think the day I arrived or the day after I’d be throwing. That’s some going. Then, I got re-classified from an F56 to an F57, which meant I wasn’t actually eligible to compete in the Commonwealth Games. Probably the biggest beef I’ve got with Paralympic sport at the minute is the classification system. You’ve got one-armed guys running against one-legged guys; you’ve got guys with no legs throwing against guys with legs. There’s fifty-eight different classifications and, in my classification, you’ve got myself, double-leg amputee throwing against guys with two legs. And in the visually impaired classes eleven, twelve and thirteen, you’ve got some running with guides in the same race as some guys running without guides. It’s a minefield.

punched in the face

I was really gutted that I wasn’t going to be able to throw for Wales in the Commonwealths, but, at the end of the day, I was still in Turin. I was still doing the Winter Paralympics. I was, like, “Yeah, there’s going to be other Commonwealth Games. My first ever winter Paralympics is now”. I was the youngest-ever competitor at the Winter Paralympics. It was fantastic. I don’t think anything can ever beat your first big Opening Ceremony.

The team absolutely sucked. We got caned 8-0 by Canada. I got punched in the face by a Canadian, I got punched in the face by a Korean, but I enjoyed it. The whole team experience was phenomenal. It’s the one thing that I miss in athletics, that whole team camaraderie in the changing room, bigging each other up. You don’t get that in athletics.

After I came back from Turin, I got told by GB Athletics, “You’re going to have to stop hockey, now. It’s time to hit the big time in athletics”. That hit me. It was the sport that got me back doing sport. It was the first sport I took up after I lost my legs. It was a big step to think, “It’s one sport and one sport only”, and that’s when athletics really took a more dominant role in my life.

qualifying for beijing

I didn’t think I’d ever qualify for Beijing; it was a long hard haul. I was in the gym training twice a day, three times a day, six days a week. I’d have Sundays off because my body was dead, the only day I’d have to rest … and it paid off. I qualified in the javelin, my best event, in the first competition of the season, hit the qualifying distance, hit my PB. I hit the A-standard for Beijing and, then, the other two events were just, you know, “If I get them I get them”. I was there for the one I wanted, my javelin. I was two metres off the world record at the time. Throughout the season, I kept up with my javelin and qualified for my shot put. The discus was always going to be a long shot, always my weakest event, and then, in the last competition of the season, I actually hit a massive PB and qualified for my discus as well, and they said, “Right, Nath, we’re taking you for all three”. I think I’m probably still the only British athlete to go to a Paralympics in all three throws, and that, for me, was a big enough achievement in itself.

not ugly enough

They took me for the shot put and discus knowing that I wasn’t going to do very well. That was their thinking, you know. If you ask any athlete, they’re not going out there to be second best; they want to try and win, and that was the mindset I had going into it. I went into my shot put first and saw these guys towering above me, massive. The big Russian, Alexi, he stands about six foot eight and I’m sitting in my chair. He took his prosthetic leg off and it was up to my shoulder. I’m looking at it, looking up at him, and I’m thinking, “I’ve got to throw against you? You’ve got to be joking”, and I think that was the turning point where I thought, “Right, shot-put I don’t think is going to be my event, anymore. Yeah, I’m quick but I’m not strong enough, I’m not big enough, I’m not tall enough, I’m not wide enough”. “And not ugly enough!” as my coach added. I was happy I got to the final in my first ever Paralympic shot put competition, finished eighth. Discus was after that. I wanted to do well; I didn’t want to get caned. It turned out I got caned, finished eleventh.

making up the numbers?

Then, it was time for me to step it up with my javelin. The coaches had their star athletes and they had their medal hopefuls, and then, you had the section of us who were just there to make up the numbers. I didn’t want to be the guy who made up numbers, you know. I wanted to go out there and compete. They never thought I’d make it to the final in my shot put, and they probably thought I was just going to make it to the final in my javelin and finish maybe top six. The night before I can still remember as if it was yesterday. I always set my goals and expectations way above the bar, just because I know that, if I don’t hit them, I’ve still done well. I built it up so much the night before. I was in tears. 12 o’clock in the evening, I’m ringing my coach saying, “Ant, I shouldn’t be here. I’m not good enough to be on this stage”, and his famous words were, “You’re good looking, you’re talented, shut up, stop crying, go to bed and you’ll see in the morning, you’ll do fine”. I wiped away the tears, woke up the next morning, went to the call-up room absolutely bricking it still. I went into the stadium, 94,000 people screaming, and it was deafening. I pushed in, sat there, all the guys around me all twice my age. I was like, “Okay, I can do this”.

I threw an appalling first three throws, finished seventh and just managed to scrape into the final. They throw in reverse order, so they go eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, so I threw second in the final. I threw out a massive throw - for me anyway - just might be a PB, and got myself into third position. Six other people to throw. I couldn’t watch. I sat there, head in hands, just wishing, hoping that no one would beat it. Then, it came to the top three, the guy who I had just knocked into fourth and the only guy who could knock me back down. His first throw, 32 metres, nowhere near me, fantastic. Second throw, that’s a bit closer but still he hasn’t beaten me. On his final throw, bang and it was, like, “No, no, no!”. It landed flat – my coach has got it on video – it was a foul throw, hands down, but it didn’t get called. It was a throw and it landed a metre further than mine. I came fourth. He came up to me afterwards and said, “Better luck next time”, and I looked at him and I was, like, “Yeah, thanks. Well done. How old are you?” “I’m forty.” “Yeah, better luck next time. I’m twenty and you’re twice my age. The next one’s going to be on my home ground. I’ve got a lot of growing to do and you’re only going to go downhill”.

And the next competition was in the Czech Republic, his home competition, and I beat him and it was, like, “Yep, if only this was last year”. Finishing fourth in Beijing, I was absolutely gutted. I would have loved to have come home with that bronze medal, but it wasn’t my time. I’m still young. I still put too much expectation on myself; I still set my goals too high. Come London, it’s going to be a different type of pressure. I need to bring home not just for me, not just for my family, but for Britain.

something in the water

I’m Welsh through and through. I’ve come through the system in Wales; Wales has brought me up and nurtured me. We’ve got one of the best talent programmes going; people in England look at our squad and ask how we do it. I think they’ve put something in the water.

When we go away on competitions as Wales, we are a family. Because we are a small nation, we don’t have to be split up into regions, north south, east, west, Midlands, whatever. We connect like no other teams. We’ve got guys coming over now who aren’t Welsh just to be part of the Welsh squad. We all train together; when we go away we live together; we eat together; and there’s no split between track and field; we’re just all athletes, we’re all Welsh, we’re all for Wales. And, you know, if one person has a bad day, we all have a bad day; if one person has a good day, we all have a good day and celebrate it together. That’s what probably spoilt it for me in Beijing. There was no team spirit. If one person did rubbish, they’d suffer alone; if one person did fantastically, they’d celebrate alone. That’s one thing we’re working on now in the Great Britain squad, to get that team spirit back. If we don’t become a team in London, we’re never going to become a team. It’s on home ground and, look, we’re not here for ourselves anymore, this is for ourselves and the nation.

travel

People say it’s a glamorous lifestyle, jet-setting everywhere but we don’t get to see anything; we see hotel rooms and athletics stadiums. In Beijing, I didn’t even see the Great Wall, I never got to see the Forbidden City, because I was competing all the way through. Some guys were there for one event and went, “Oh, we’re going to the Great Wall, today”, and I was, like, “Fantastic, take some pictures for me!” I can say that I’ve been to all these places but I haven’t actually. I’ve just been to the stadiums.

less body parts to worry about

Come London, I want to bring back two golds. I won’t settle for anything less, and then after that, who knows. Rio 2016, definitely. I’m hoping to do another five Paralympics. I’ve competed against guys who are in their 50s and they’re still strong lads, still throwing well. I think you have got a longer life expectancy in seated throw. You don’t have to worry about a run-up. I don’t have to worry about ankle joints, knee joints, because I haven’t got them, so it’s less body parts to worry about. I’ve just got to hope that my shoulder stays in good condition.

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