Resilience in Sport

It’s not about what you used to do – it’s what you can do that matters

rory coleman

Q&A’s with six sportspeople who continue to compete despite serious injury or personal setbacks.

Rory Coleman (pictured above) is a marathon runner and lifestyle coach who was paralysed from the neck down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a very rare and serious condition that affects the nerves. He’s since recovered and has run 1,045 Marathons, 254 Ultras, has 9 Guinness World Records and 15 Marathon des Sables.

You said you have run over 1000 marathons, Am I right to assume you have been a keen runner all your life?

I started running when I was 31 and had played County Level Cricket as a schoolboy. Running was actually my therapy out of alcohol addiction and depression back in 1994. I didn’t set out to run over 1000 marathons.

Why extreme running events though?

If you enjoy running and how it makes you feel as much as I do, then the longer the better and I’ve discovered a real sense of self-belief and peace from running.

Three years ago, you were paralyzed from the neck down with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. How did this impact your running and how did you overcome it?

During the five months I spent in a hospital bed with the GBS I never thought I wouldn’t run again. I had to start my running all over again with fresh expectations and goals. Being stuck on 976 marathons was really annoying and completing the 1000 marathons a real focus of my recovery.

What advice would you give to a sportsperson who has suffered a serious injury or setback?

It’s not about what you used to do – it’s what you can do that matters. Time catches up with everyone eventually and whatever you are capable of, do it, do it well and enjoy it!

Mike Brunnock is a cancer survivor who has been diagnosed with tumors again, only this time they are terminal. Always a keen runner he completed the 2019 Cardiff Half Marathon just before he started radiotherapy. His running club, Pont-y-pwl & District Runners organised the Ponty Plod, a race in Mike’s honour. Half of the proceeds from the race were donated to Velindre Hospital which has cared for Mike and many others.

Mike Smith

Have you been a keen runner all your life?

I ran when I was a lot younger, I would run 6-7 miles each night, it felt wrong if I didn’t. As I got older, I specialized in Judo, Karate and lots of swimming and cycling. Then as I approached my twenties it tailed off due to relationships and work timetables, though I always followed major tournaments. After meeting Nicola [his partner] 11 years ago and moving to the area, we joined PP&DR to get fit, lose weight and gain a social standing.

You survived cancer in 2016 and fought back to run the Cardiff Half-Marathon in 2017. Then in early 2019 you were diagnosed with brain and lung tumours, but went on to complete the Cardiff Half-Marathon again. What is it that made you determined to do these two Half-Marathons despite the diagnosis?

I first ran the Cardiff half in 2015 and really enjoyed it. In 2016 I was so ill the club bought me the entry for a Christmas present, to give me something to focus on. I trained hard, even obtaining personal bests all that year, just to prove to myself that I beat the disease! I also PB’d again by 20 minutes over the year before, I wept like a child at the finish line as the relief came out. Just such an accomplishment in such a difficult year.

Your running club Pont-y-pwl & District Runners organised the Ponty-Plod in honour of the hospital Velindre. Has the club helped you through your time with cancer and in your attempts to run?

Pontypool and District runners are a family and we look after each other in both running matters and personal life. If you run with someone you gain a bond of trust and friendship and fulfilment. This club is no different.

What advice would you give to a sportsperson who has suffered a serious injury or setback?

If you are able to, set goals that are achievable – not too high. Achieve each of them as a progressive thing, if you win, you win but if you lose learn a different way to do it. There’s always another day. Respect is also a big thing, respect for yourself and for others, stay humble and always smile – you never know when someone has a camera.

Ben Thornton is a footballer who suffered a bad leg break to his tibia and fibula a couple of years ago and nearly lost his leg as a result of Compartment Syndrome. CS is a painful and potentially serious condition caused by bleeding or swelling within an enclosed bundle of muscles – known as a muscle compartment. After working hard on his recovery, he back playing for Aber Valley FC.

Ben Thornton at the Power Athletics gym in Caerphilly, Wales.

Have you always been a keen footballer?

I’ve played football since I was 9, playing for Aber Valley for since the age of 11 – 25 years this year.

You now play as a striker for Aber Valley FC now, but you used to be a defender before your injury, is this correct?

I had a couple of seasons as a striker but majority as a defender. I think having the chance to play again after my injury made me play to enjoy it more, so I decided to concentrate on playing striker as that’s the position I enjoy the most.

How did the injury impact you playing football and how did you overcome it?

Two years ago it happened, I had compartment syndrome due to the impact of the injury and would’ve more than likely lost my leg if they hadn’t carried out a last-minute fasciotomy [a surgical procedure to treat the loss of circulation to an area of muscle].

What advice would you give to a young sportsperson who has suffered a serious injury or setback?

My advice for anyone who has suffered a serious injury would be to not rush back and listen to your body. I’d put nearly 3 stone on and found it difficult to lose the weight as I couldn’t do any running. I joined a gym and did a lot of indoor cycling and upper body weights, doing anything you can comfortably without risking further injury is beneficial in the long run. As the injury healed, I kept adding extra exercises in, slowly building up until I was confident to go back to football training.

Kayla Morris & Lauren Moyle

Lauren Moyle in action training at the Cardiff Central Youth Club in Wales.

Lauren was British regional grade champion gymnast last year. This year she had a sudden family bereavement, then at the following competition, she dislocated and broke her elbow. She is just coming back to full strength now after a long while out.

How old were you when you got into gymnastics?

I started gym when I was around 8yrs old

You are 14 now and have other live/school commitments, what is it that still makes you want to train so heavily.

I just love the sport, all disciplines.  I have lots of lovely friends and it keeps me busy and keeps my mind off school stuff.

When you broke your elbow, how did you feel about the sport – did it put you off doing gymnastics again?

Doing gymnastics is what I do, it keeps my mind busy and my body fit.  I was scared at first, but my friends all helped.

So, how’s it going? Are you going to compete this year/next year?

Yes, I am competing in both the welsh championships in tumbling and the double mini trampoline. My coach always makes sure we have lots to work towards.

Kayla has had to change schools last year, and it was hugely affecting her mental health.

You are 14 and been doing gymnastics for ten years, what makes you want to work so hard?

Gymnastics and training help me to stop in fidgeting, it takes my mind off all my thoughts.  I love the social side to gymnastics, and I have loads of friends.

So, do you see that gymnastics is helping with the stress of school and helping with good mental health?

Yes, definitely It stops my fidgeting and keeps me fit.  Training makes me feels better…….achieving my goals also makes me feel better.

…and are you going to compete this year/next year?

We do lots of competitions, I sometimes find them scary and challenging but I have Double Mini Trampoline and tumbling welsh championships

Dan Thomas is a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter and is blind. Despite his condition he trains 5 days a week and participates in competitions. His coach said it best with “whenever someone tells me they can’t train or fight I tell them to look at Dan, he’s an inspiration”.

Have you always been a keen Jiu-jitsu fighter?

No, I only discovered this about two years ago. I’ve always had an interest in combat sports and did judo for a while as a child but gave it up in the end. I trained some Krav McGarr in my mid 20s but with all the knife defence and gun defence and striking… it really didn’t seem like a unrealistic thing for somebody without much sight to do.

I was talking to a blind girl just over two years ago, and she told me she was training Brazilian jujitsu. So, after asking a couple of questions about it, I did a quick google and found Rob’s place and was pretty much hooked after my first lesson.

Dan Thomas at the Rob Taylor Jiu Jitsu Academy in Cardiff, Wales.

What is it that makes you determined to train so much and fight in competitions despite your blindness?

I think my reasons for training so much are twofold. Firstly; as somebody who can’t learn by seeing, I have to learn by doing. So, the more I train and the more I do, the more I learn. I feel I have a good memory for technique and the like. Secondly, I’ve had some depression and anxiety issues throughout my life, and I have discovered that the best way to deal with them is to keep myself busy. The more free time I have, the more time I spend in my own head. So, jujitsu is a great way to keep busy and take the focus of things that may be bothering me. It’s a great outlet for stress at the end of the day. Plus, sparring is just so fun and addictive. As for why I compete, I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, so that’s a great way to get my fix. Also, jujitsu is a sport where my lack of eyesight won’t dictate how good I can be. It will come down to my dedication and my physical attributes. I enjoy being able to compete against people who can see and testing myself against them.

How has the Rob Taylor Academy helped you negotiate being blind and a fighter?

I’m 32 years old now and blindness has been a part of my life in some form or another ever since I was born. It’s something I learnt to live with. I think what the academy has really improved is my confidence. Everyone down there is incredibly helpful and supportive. Whether it’s just with normal training, or whether I’m looking for advice before a competition. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people. Plus, it’s just really enjoyable when some big strong dude comes in for the first time and I’m able to dominate them. That never seems to get old.

What advice would you give to a younger sportsperson who has been affected by a serious injury or personal tragedy in overcoming it?

The only advice I would give anyone else is to keep working at whatever it is they’re doing. The most important thing is to try and be better than you were the day before. This is something I have discovered with jujitsu and now try to take into everyday life. I think as much as sport is a competitive thing competing against other people, you are also competing against yourself. If you can look at yourself at the end of the day and say I am better at what I’m doing now than I was a week ago or a month ago or year ago, I think that’s a good thing.

The only advice I would give anyone is to keep working at whatever it is they’re doing. The most important thing is to try and be better than you were the day before

Dan Thomas

Words and images by Matthew Lofthouse

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