Gareth A Davies reveals how a train accident helped to turn Nathan Stephens into an international athlete
Barrie and Helen Stephens always look skywards and thank the Lord, come April 11 every year. It happens to be the birthday of their son, Nathan Stephens, a 23-year-old with the potential to become a superstar at the Paralympic Games in London next year.
But the date of their son’s birth also heralds dark memories.
On April 11 1997, he lost his legs, sheared off as he tried to climb aboard the last carriage of a slow-moving freight train grinding to a halt on the Swansea to Paddington line. It was his ninth birthday.
“He was always a live wire – that’s what got him into situations, in spite of all the warnings,” explained his mother. “He was climbing trees and walls as a child, always wore the toes out in his trainers. From the time he could walk – and he was walking from 11 months – there was no stopping him.”
“The funny thing is, he got himself into trouble that day, and because of the way he is, his character got him out of it, too. He’s still the same. You never hear ‘I can’t do it’. He finds a way.”
Looking back on the incident over 14 years ago, Stephens, built with the bulging upper body of a professional rugby union centre and the arms of a wrestler, takes up the events of that fateful Friday evening.
“I was with Andrew, my brother, and my cousin, Josh, playing on the Swansea to Paddington line. A freight train was pulling to a stop.”
Stephens thought that he would climb on the last carriage because the train was moving so slowly. “As I got there, I slipped on the gravel and dropped underneath.
“The next thing I knew, Ricky was dragging me up the bank and away from the track. The train never stopped. I woke up in a bush drifting in and out of consciousness. My brother had run for help, and as we were waiting for the ambulance, I tried sitting, and I could see one of my legs on the track… I then drifted into unconsciousness again.”
Fighting for his life, he was taken to the Morris Hospital burns unit by helicopter ambulance. “I can remember thinking, as the helicopter ambulance took me, that I was getting a ride in a helicopter on my birthday. Bizarre.”
Helen was first on the scene. Barrie had received a call at the nearby Ford car plant where he works as an electrician, and was making his way there.
“I was with Nathan in the ambulance before he went in the helicopter, as he was drifting in and out of consciousness. The only thing he said to me was ‘Mammy, I’m sorry,’ ” said Helen. “By the time I got to the hospital he was already in emergency surgery.”
The surgeons had tried to save his right leg, but had to amputate just below the knee. The left leg had been shorn off from the hip. Stephens was in intensive care for two weeks, had several skin grafts as doctors repaired his legs, yet within eight weeks, he was ready to leave hospital in a wheelchair.
As the days went on, he began to feel “lucky to be alive”.
Back at Mynydd Cynffig, his junior school, in Bridgend, he was welcomed as a returning hero. “My friends never excluded me from play. I was out of my chair, playing in goal, diving all over the place, getting scarred on the tarmac,” he said.
At the time he did basic rehab. “I had to learn how to get myself into bed, on and off the toilet, basic stuff for independent living,” he explained. But his most pressing issue was not missing out on PE lessons at school.
“We worked out that I could go in goal when we played football, and I kept wicket for the school cricket team, by just sitting behind the stumps. I would scuttle and scramble after the ball and realised I had a very powerful throw, and could throw the ball a very long way.”
The family also made trips three times a week to the ice rink in Cardiff, and Stephens grew powerful. He held his own against adults, pushing the ice-sleds around with two mini sticks, in spite of being just 10 years old.
He then took up swimming at his comprehensive school, Ynysawdre, and continued to grow. At 13, he was also on the fringes of the national men’s senior sledge hockey team.
His athleticism was spotted at a multi-sport fun day by Anthony Hughes, national performance manager of Disability Sport Wales. He watched Stephens having a tryout at powerlifting and then playing wheelchair tennis. He saw a paralympian. And a phenomenon.
“Some athletes you can see it in straightaway,” he said. “Nathan had the natural physical attributes for a field athlete, and I told him and his parents that we could put him on a programme of core strength training. But he had attitude, too.”
In his first year of competition in the national junior championships, he won gold medals in shot, discus and javelin. He also qualified for the British senior championships.
A year later, at the British senior championships, he won two golds and a silver. Javelin and shot were his best events. Stephens had launched himself into the limelight at 14. Two years later, he was triple junior world champion in discus, shot and javelin in his wheelchair.
Developing his world standing from the age of 16 has taken time, as he has been competing against mature men. As in able-bodied field athletics, most competitors reach their peak from their mid-twenties.
Now 23, he has reached his third year as an undergraduate at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (UWIC), studying for a degree in Sports Coaching. He deferred his final year for 24 months to focus on the 2012 Games and it has paid off.
In January, he became the men’s senior javelin champion at IPC World Athletics Championships in New Zealand. He set a world record of 39.11m.
His eyes are now set firmly on London next year. The podium. And gold. He sees the impending BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester as an integral stepping stone to the those Games.
“There will never be another opportunity like London, at home, in front of the British public, with all your friends and family there. I deferred my last year at University because of it. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. A gold at a home games will be a dream realised for me,” he said.
“Events like the World Cup give you a chance to tune yourself, get mentally adjusted. It always good to rub shoulders with the opposition in high-profile competition.”
What a journey. Helen Stephens believes the accident changed her son’s life, in a strange way, for a fuller existence. “There is more determination to his life – you’ve only got one life, and you have to take every opportunity,” she said. “Nathan has done that.”
“Before the accident, he was wild and woolly. He would have been happy being a bin man and playing for the local rugby club. That’s down to the discipline and organisation he’s needed in his life.
“He lost something, but he gained something even greater.”
Nathan Stephens is a BT ambassador. BT is an official partner of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Visit www.bt.com/london2012Tags: amputate, Disability Sport Wales, Nathan Stephens, Paralympic Games, Paralympic World Cup, World Athletic Championships