14 Oct 2010

Paralympics: war veterans aim for sporting glory

Two men who fought for their country in Iraq and Afghanistan are now aiming to be on the British team for the London 2012 Paralympics. Katie Razzall writes about their impressive journey.

For months, Britain’s cycling authorities have been trying to keep a story under wraps – that two soldiers injured while serving their country are set to be medal-winners at London’s 2012 Paralympics.

The fear was that media pressure would distract them from their training. But their progress has been so fast, the story got out – and Channel 4 News was given access to them for their first broadcast television interviews. Today they head to Germany for their first international competition representing Great Britain.

Corporal Tel Byrne’s been in the army since he was 17. After tours in Ireland and Iraq with the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment, he was injured in Afghanistan when he stepped on an IED just over 2 years ago. He lost his lower leg and a finger. “Sport has aided me,” he told us. “I don’t worry about my leg, I think about my times.”

Lost arm
Jon-Allan Butterworth was hit by a rocket in Basra, Iraq in August 2007. The RAF weapons technician had his lower arm amputated in a battlefield hospital.

“When I woke up, the doctor had to tell me that it was gone. I didn’t fully accept it for at least a week,” he said.

Competitive cycling has focussed their minds, they say. Through the MOD’s Battleback scheme, which uses sport to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, they were spotted at a Paralympics GB talent day (the next one’s in Sheffield in November). Tel Byrne went to the talent day just 8 weeks after he was injured. He didn’t want the coaches to see he was in a wheelchair. So he hid it from the coaches, put on the prosthetic leg that, at that stage, he was only allowed to wear for 40 minutes a day, walked to the bike and pedalled as hard as he could. The ruse worked.

“I don’t worry about my leg, I think about my times.” Corporal Tel Byrne

Two years on, he and Jon train with British Cycling. They’ve also been given funding by BLESMA, the charity that supports wounded service personnel.

Competing veterans
There’s a proud history of war veterans competing in the Paralympics. The Games were originally conceived as an elite competition for injured World War Two soldiers, their doctor at Stoke Mandeville hospital inventing an event to rival the Olympics.

Paralympics GB say that – despite the injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent times – the number of war veterans competing in 2012 will be small. But they’ve been amazed by the fast progress these two athletes have made.

Cycling was Britain’s most successful Paralympic sport in Beijing: 20 medals, 17 of which were gold. Corporal Byrne and Jon-Allan Butterworth intend to be next.

Read more from Channel 4 on the London 2012 Paralympic Games