A tale of hope emerges from the devastation as a Paralympian finds inspiration from volleyball – and flies high as she contemplates the 2012 Games. Alan Hubbard meets Martine Wright
Sunday, 10 October 2010
Fifty-two people died in the terrorist atrocities in London on the morning of 7 July 2005, eight on the Circle Line tube train at Aldgate in which Martine Wright was one of the worst-injured survivors, losing both her legs. But since then she has married, had a child, become a pilot and completed a parachute jump. Now, even more remarkably, this bright, spirited daughter of a retired London cabbie is poised to return to the 2012 Olympic heartland in east London where she was born 38 years ago as a member of the British team.
How bittersweet the irony, then, that it is because London won the bid to host the Games that she now finds herself in a wheelchair. The night before had been spent celebrating London’s triumph with work colleagues in Docklands and she overslept, catching a train 20 minutes later than usual. It was to prove fateful, for sitting just three feet away was the suicide bomber Shehzad Tanweer.
“The last thing I remember before the bomb went off was jumping up and down that night watching the big screen and thinking, ‘This is fantastic, I’d love to be there but I doubt I’ll be able to get a ticket’,” recalls Wright.
We were chatting in the cafeteria of Roehampton University in South London, where she drives herself from her specially modified bungalow in Tring, Hertfordshire, to train with the GB sitting volleyball squad twice a week. It is just across the road from the Queen Mary Hospital where she had spent eight months rebuilding her body, and her life – appropriately in the Douglas Bader ward, for she has since learned to fly light aircraft, winning a scholarship to South Africa to do so, as well as to ski again on a mono-bob.
Painstakingly she looked back on the horror of that summer morning. “I was sitting in a corner seat reading my paper and talking to people around me. Suddenly I wasn’t talking to them any more. There was a blinding white flash. It felt like I was being shaken from side to side and smacked on the head with a saucepan. It was weird. Then it was just black devastation.
“Initially I thought we had crashed. I was thrown around 90 degrees and the metal casing from the carriage where the bomb had exploded was twisted and tangled in my legs. Everyone was screaming. A man behind me had been electrocuted by live wires hanging from the roof.
“Then someone who turned out to be an off-duty policewoman saved my life. I was saying to her, ‘My name’s Martine Wright. Can you tell my mum and dad I’m OK?’ She gave me a belt and said, ‘Put this round your left leg’. I thought at the time it was like a scene from a Western film when someone had been shot. By then the screaming had stopped because everyone else had been evacuated, or was dying. I was the last person in the carriage and the paramedics had to cut me out. A small miracle saved me that day.”
At this point Martine’s eyes filled and she began to cry. Five years on, and the hurt, emotionally, if not physically, remains etched indelibly and understandably in the consciousness. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s hard talking about it even now. But why I say it’s a miracle is because I could have been sat somewhere else, even further away from the bomber, and been killed. I think I was cushioned a bit in that corner. I lost 10 pints of blood and had to be revived five times on the operating table. I was in a coma for 10 days. My family and my boyfriend Nick [now her husband] didn’t know where I was for almost two days, I had no identification on me.” Among friends assisting in the search was Jackie Larcombe, with a “Missing – can you help” placard.
“My family were going round all the hospitals but no one knew anything. Finally at midnight the following day they turned up at the Royal London again and insisted I must be there. I haven’t asked my mum and dad what was going on in their minds. It’s still a dark place for them. All I know is that they were put in this room for families who had loved ones missing. Eventually they were told there were three survivors, two women and a man.
“By then the police knew who I was because I had been reported missing and they had been to my flat and got DNA from my hairbrush. But someone still had to identify me. My brother and sister went into the room but they said, ‘It’s not her’. They said later they couldn’t recognise me because my body was about twice its size and the colour of my skin had changed. But the police knew it was me and asked for my mum and dad to go in, and my mum then said she recognised me from my eyebrows.
“My legs had already been amputated above the knee and I also nearly lost my arm. When I woke up, all I remember is looking down at the bed-sheets and there was nothing there. I burst into tears, crying, ‘I’ve got no legs’. My mum cuddled me, saying, ‘You are still here, you are still Martineand you can get new legs’.”
Following the double amputation Martine learned how to walk again using prosthetic legs each weighing a stone. But she says sport was the catalyst to her astonishing recovery. “When I lost my legs I needed a goal. Before I got into the rat race in London [she was a marketing manager in an international online company] I was quite sporty. I played netball at school and hockey at university. I’ve always been intensely competitive and there is no doubt that sport motivated me in my rehabilitation.”
Two years ago she attended a trial for Paralympic sport at Stoke Mandeville. “I started with wheelchair tennis but it was this comparatively new sport of sitting volleyball that really attracted me. What I like about it is that you are not in a chair, which is fantastic because I am not paralysed. I can move, in fact I can move very fast.
“The rules are the same as in standing volleyball, though the net is lower. You have to keep your bottom on the floor all the time and shuffle along. You are constantly moving.
“Also, I am very much a team person. There are about 16 of us in the squad and they are a great bunch of girls, some of them amputees, some with lesser disabilities. But just as I was getting into it, I got pregnant and didn’t play for a year. After my son was born, I heard they were trying to put a women’s team together for 2012 and our first international was actually in the World Championships in Oklahoma.” By chilling coincidence the day she flew out was 7 July 2010; it was also the date Oscar had been due last year but he was a week late.
“We had only had a GB team for eight months but we really surprised ourselves by getting some results. We actually won against Canada, who had been together for three years.
“I still can’t believe, two years away, that I could be part of the greatest sporting event this country has ever seen in the city where I was born. But sport has healed me and this is the goal I can grasp.”
Was there ever a time when she despaired of her future? “No, really, no. I have such an amazingly supportive family and I have Nick. Sure, I had bad days. You’re bound to when you go through something so traumatic and your life is turned upside down. Obviously you have your memories of what you did before and you have to deal with those. You have to think, ‘All right, I’m never going to do it like that again, but I am going to do it in a different way’. Sometimes when I see people running for a bus I think, ‘I’m never going to be able to do that’. But then, that person is never going to represent their country like I am and they can’t fly a plane. I can.”
Martine has succeeded Sir Geoff Hurst as ambassador for Typhoo Sports for All, a project that helps to make sport more accessible for the disabled. “I am meeting other potential Paralympians and seeing how sport can help you through trauma.”
With 2012 looming, Nick, also 38, an award-winning landscape photographer, is going part-time next year to help look after their son while Martine concentrates on achieving her golden goal. They married in 2008 and Oscar is now 14 months old.
When she returned to work for a few months, Martine had to drive past Aldgate every day. “At first it made me sick but then it became part of the healing process. I haven’t got on a train or a tube since that day but I will, though I’ve said to Nick it has to be Eurostar – first class – going somewhere nice.
“For a while, all my thoughts about London were negative but now to be able to go back and do something so positive, well, it’s like a dream. If someone had said to me five years ago when I woke up in that hospital bed without my legs that I would become a mum, fly a plane and be part of 2012, I’d have said they were off their rocker.”
24 hours London can’t forget
In Singapore, London’s jubilant Olympic bid team had danced and sung the balmy night of 6 July 2005 away until the early hours in joyous celebration of their triumph – even Princess Anne lustily joined in the chorus of Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. Bleary-eyed, a group of us sat later that afternoon having a cup of tea in 2012’s Swissotel HQ when an ashen-faced Ken Livingstone, carrying a shopping bag, walked in and whispered into the ear of the then BOA chief, Simon Clegg. As the mayor walked briskly towards the lifts, Clegg followed, saying simply: “There’s been an incident in London.” Within minutes the horrific news of the rush-hour bombings – there was a seven-hour time difference between London and Singapore – was flashing up on the TV screens. Euphoria evaporated, obliterated by despair. Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, immediately arranged for the homecoming celebrations to be cancelled while Livingstone, in one of his most impressive moments, emerged from his room, shaking with anger, to tell the world: “This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter.” In 24 hours, London’s dream victory had been shattered by a terrifying nightmare.
The Typhoo Sports for All campaign aims to increase participation in sport and ensure that disabled people can access the sport or physical activity of their choice. For more information, visit www.typhootea.co.ukTags: amputate, amputation, amputee, disabled, London bombing, Martine Wright, Paralympian, paralympic, rehabilitation, Roehampton, Stoke Mandeville