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Fighting back: Nathan Ford on positivity and the power of the mind

After suffering a spinal cord injury in 2021, Welsh triathlete Nathan Ford speaks in-depth to The Brick Session podcast about his recovery.

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In August last year the triathlon world received news that top Welsh Age-Group triathlete, Nathan Ford, had suffered life-changing injuries after an accident during the cycle leg at the British Middle Distance Triathlon Championships in Aberfeldy.

The injuries suffered were severe, with Nathan’s wife Catrin writing at the time:

“It appears that his brain injury isn’t as severe as initially thought but his spinal injury is worse than we could have ever imagined. Currently Nathan is not able to breathe independently and is unable to move.”

500 miles away from his home, Nathan was unable to be transferred back to Wales, such was the severity of the injuries incurred. There was a long road ahead for Nathan and his family.

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Progress

In more recent weeks, Nathan has been able to provide some updates from his hospital bed through his Instagram page, having finally been able to be transferred back to Cardiff via air ambulance.

That first update featured the ‘halo’ – all too familiar to Tim Don, among others – with a broken neck, just one of the many complications from the accident, along with a spinal cord injury. That halo was there for 14 weeks.

Podcast

A couple of weeks ago Nathan was able to speak to Mark Livesey on The Brick Session podcast (www.thebricksession.com) in an extended and in-depth interview. You really should give it a listen.

Mark, an excellent athlete himself, has previously spent time training with Nathan in Mallorca, and during his days in the military, Mark was also involved in prescribing rehabilitation exercise for injured soldiers. That background brings additional depth to their discussion.

What follows below is just a few excerpts from their discussion – but you really should take the time to take in the whole chat for the full experience.

You can find the podcast via Spotify, Apple and the usual outlets. It’s essential listening; dark at times, motivating and positive at others, but open and honest throughout.

Starting from the bottom

Nathan’s journey will be a long one and significant progress has already been made. But it started from almost nothing. Had he not received CPR from a passing doctor at the accident site, he may not have survived at all.

“To start with, the only movement I had after my injury was the big toe on my left foot, flickering up and down, that was it, nothing else.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow – but Nathan was somehow able to take a positive from that. He explained to Mark, “That’s the furthest part of my body the brain signals have to travel, so that was a good sign – even though it was just a big toe. Now I can lift my left arm up and take a drink myself and feed myself. The right arm is not so good, but it is coming.”

The accident

“My memory stops when I got onto the bike course. Initially I didn’t even remember the swim… I think I did about 50-miles of the bike course and was coming towards the end, but I don’t remember any of it.

“I’m extremely lucky, and extremely unlucky at the some time.

“I’m unlucky in terms of the area that I crashed on the course, it was on a corner and when I looked at my Garmin file, I wasn’t even going fast, it wasn’t a downhill section of the course, it was just a freak accident. From the damage that’s sustained on my helmet, that’s where I’ve landed – right on the top of my head. I think if I’d crashed there another 100,000 times, I’d have been fine.

“I count myself lucky because I’m here speaking to you, I’m gaining movement back in my body – I was paralysed from the neck down and they thought I had a brain injury initially, so I’ve got to count my blessings.”

The injuries

“I’ve broken the C1 and C2 vertebrae in my neck which are the highest two bones and the worst two that you can break. I’ve also broke L1 and L2 in my back but the biggest injury I sustained is that I’ve damaged my spinal cord. So, it’s not just a case of these bones healing and get back onto a bike, I’m probably never going to be able to get back on a bike again. It takes years and years and years of rehab – probably for the rest of my life – in order to try and get as much movement as I can back into my body.

“It’s coming… but it’s so bloody slow. It’s just not the way I work. Being an athlete, you are training six/seven hours a day sometimes, and then you come into rehab and they limit you to an hour a day. It’s really frustrating.”

The athlete inside

“Initially the doctors said you are going to be on a ventilator for the rest of your life – and that’s one thing I remember them saying to me, and I thought oh my god, I’m not going to be able to go out and do stuff, I’m going to have to have 24 hour care. It’s one of those things that I didn’t want to accept – and that’s probably a good thing.

“I thought, I’m not having that… You have to put up a fight, and that’s what I’m still doing. My end goal is to be self-sufficient in what I do in day-to-day things. I know I’m not going to get back to triathlon, but just being a normal person again, that’s my motivation.

“They also said I’d never move my legs again – but when you see things happening, it gives you that positive energy to do more and achieve more. I won’t stop until I can’t do any more.

“I didn’t realise how powerful your mind can be. I’ve seen people on the same ward as me and they’ve almost given up, accepted this is what I’ll live with… being positive, it goes such a long way, and having goals to achieve makes such a difference.

Support

As big as we sometimes think ‘our’ sport is, it’s also a supportive and close-knit one. If you enjoyed the podcast and would like to support Nathan further, then I know that Mark would want nothing more than for you to donate a couple of pounds, if you are able, to help support Nathan and his family, in what will be a long, difficult and at times expensive journey towards making the best life from this challenging situation.

You can find the donation link below. Thank you.

https://www.gofundme.com/f/nathan-ford

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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