“I sort of feel like I deserve to be here,” muses Martine Wright, before pausing, steeling herself and starting again. “I definitely feel like I’m meant to be here.”
The conviction in her voice is arresting and a slightly fragile self-assurance makes her story riveting even in the mouth of the dullest teller. “Here” for the cheery 38 year-old is less than a year away from competing for Great Britain in a home Paralympics. Given the six-year period she has had to endure to get to this point, it is an extraordinary place to be.
Should the British Paralympic Association grant their sitting volleyball squad the right to compete at 2012, Wright will have completed a remarkable journey back to London that started on of July 7, 2005, when her world was, quite literally, blown apart.
On that summer morning, she was late for work after staying up late the previous night with friends to celebrate London’s successful Olympic bid. She had to run in order to get a seat on the Circle line train. Tragically, it would be the last time she would use her legs for strenuous exercise as a 22 year-old suicide bomber called Shehzad Tanweer threw London into chaos. Nine days after the explosion, Wright woke up in hospital, a double amputee.
“We were just going along as normal and there was a big, white flash,” she explains, now admirably composed when relating the horror and even willing to characterise the tale with a charmingly cheeky sense of humour. “It was almost like a cartoon, because I felt like I was in Tom and Jerry and someone had hit me on the head with a frying pan!
“After that split second, it was a scene of total devastation. I was conscious the whole way through so I was able to gauge the carnage from the smells and the screams. I remember looking down and seeing all this metal in my legs. Then I looked up and saw my new pair of trainers hanging from the ledge above.
“Luckily, my guardian angel saved me. She was a policewoman called Liz (Elizabeth Kenworthy) and she put a tourniquet around one of my legs. It almost felt like a film and I was never in pain and never thought I was going to die. All I was doing was telling Liz to let my Mum and Dad know that I was OK.”
From such terrifying depths, Wright’s road to recovery was long and arduous. Three years after the blast, the regular hospital trips had finished but the psychological damage was still debilitating. Being shorn of both physical ability and the gainful employment that her position as an international marketing manager for technical news service CNET offered was a sickening double-blow. Then sport, in the shape of the Beijing Paralympics, offered a route to mental recuperation.
“When Beijing was on, I was getting my life back,” she smiles in fond reminiscence. “I was getting married but I knew that alone wouldn’t be enough. Seeing the Paralympics on the television brought some ambition – the ambition I had lost when I wasn’t working – back to me.
“I realised whilst watching the coverage that I wanted to have a go so I went to a Paralympic open day and tried the different sports. Wheelchair tennis attracted me for a while but I wanted to be involved in a team and absolutely fell in love with sitting volleyball. Everything about it – the confidence it gives me, the new dream it instilled me and the feeling that I am doing something I never thought I could do – is fantastic.”
Progress has been rapid for Wright. In 2009, just months after trying out the sport for the first time at a local club, she was contacted and told that a Great Britain side was being put together. A year later, she made her international debut against China at a fixture in Kent. She has been to Okalahoma for the World Championships and, last month, to Rotterdam to challenge for the European crown. A seventh placed finish was not enough to ensure qualification for next year, but very encouraging for a group who have barely been together for eighteen months.
When I catch up with Wright on the eve of the Paralympics GB Simulation Camp in Bath, designed to integrate athletes from all sports and enhance the sense of togetherness across the team as a whole, London is looming large. Understandably, she is very excited about what lies ahead.
“We are good enough to go next year and prove that we are hitting our targets and are able to fill that home nation place. ” Wright explains, briefly adopting the determined tone of a competitor before humbly recoiling when I ask her how she feels to have reached this point.
“I don’t think you can underestimate what sport can give you,” she adds thoughtfully. “I have come a long way mentally, physically and with my skills in the last year. It always feels quite surreal to be classed as an elite athlete and I am just looking forward to using the great facilities and personnel we have to better myself. Last year, I was just absorbing everything.”
Since the incident that altered her so drastically, Wright has sturdily rebuilt her life. Her husband, Nick, and a two year-old son, Oscar, bring her great joy. She has skied, walked and clearly regained the confidence that must have evaporated so unexpectedly. An aura of destiny surrounds next summer, though, and fulfillment is a clear goal.
“There are just too many coincidences,” she continues, grinning. “I truly believe that this was always what I was meant to do in my life and next year will complete a full circle, celebrating my new life and what I can achieve in it. It will be completely cathartic.
“The last thing I was reading on the tube before the bomb went off was about the Olympics, the first international event I went to in America last year and we flew out on July 7. The two places I now train in London face the two hospitals I spent time in during my recovery. It is just a weird feeling. I feel like a miracle saved my life that day but maybe this is the reason why I was saved and sustained those injuries.”
There is the conviction again and, even if Wright weren’t as awe-inspiring as she is personable, I wouldn’t argue with her.
“I am not sure if there is someone up there but I do know that I was sitting where I was sitting that day because of this,” she finishes. “It was always what I was meant to do. Maybe all of us have that path mapped out in front of us but I love doing this so much that I have to draw the conclusion that I am meant to be there next year.”
Team 2012, presented by Visa, is raising funds to support 1,200 British athletes as they prepare for a place at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. For athlete updates and to show your support, visit www.visa.co.uk/goldenspaceTags: British Paralympic Association, double amputee, Elizabeth Kenworthy, Martin Wright, Paralympics, sitting volleyball, wheelchair tennis