Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to unite people in a way little else can. Sport can create hope where there was once despair. It breaks down barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language that they can understand.”
One man who embodies this spirit of hope is Jamie Andrew, a quadruple amputee who lost his hands and feet in a climbing accident in the Alps but who has continued to defy his disablity as time after time he has rubbished the notion of the impossible.
Speaking at the launch of the University of Glasgow Sport and Wellbeing week to a crowd of over 300, Andrew told his inspirational story of overcoming and succeeding in the face of adversity.
“I want to show other people that, by focusing on the positives rather than negatives, they can surpass their dreams”
In 1999, Jamie alongside close friend Jamie Fisher travelled to Chamonix in the French Alps to tackle the notoriously difficult Les Droites. Given the go ahead for good weather, the experienced pair advanced yet on their second day of climbing they fell victims to a freak storm, the ferocity of which left them with no choice but to bunker down and pray for it to pass. Yet pass it did not, and the two found themselves camped precariously on a tiny ridge, with vast drops to either side.
They were trapped by the storm for 5 grueling days and nights, challenged with rapidly diminishing supplies whilst being buffered by 90mph winds and at the mercy of sub -30C temperatures. Rescue efforts were made but in the face of the colossal power of nature the helicopters were simply unable to get close enough and the pair suffered the agony of seeing salvation forced to abandon them countless times and fly off into the distance.
Eventually he was saved during one of the Alps most dramatic rescues, yet Fisher wasn’t so lucky and Andrew had to endure the pain of leaving his friend behind as he was winched to safety. His survival was a miracle, yet the savage conditions had taken their toll on his body. He was dangerously hypothermic whilst his body had been ravaged by frostbite and the French doctors took the action of amputating his hands and feet in order to prevent further damage. His recovery and return to sport, however is an inspiration for all regardless of physical ability. Within a couple months he had learnt to walk, whilst now he can Ski, has completed the London Marathon and became part of the first all-disabled team to scale Mount Kilimanjaro. Perhaps most remarkably however between all this he has even taught himself to juggle. His story is a story of what it means to not be able to perform everyday tasks like walking or brushing your teeth; a story of rebuilding an entire life all over. Andrews described in great detail how he set himself small challenges every day – and demonstrated resilience and motivation that lead him to do everything everyone told him he’d never do again.
His talk coincides with the huge strides being made by Glasgow University, GUSA and the disability service. Recent statistics released by Sport England show that almost half of all young disabled people do no exercise with only 8.8% regularly active. And it’s an issue that GUSA President Leo Howes is keen to discuss, “GUSA have been working tirelessly to enhance the university experience of students with disabilities.”
They have recently launched an online service offering all students the opportunity to contact members of the Glasgow Sport service to discuss working out individual plans, advice and opportunities for assistance, whilst Howes outlined his plans to ensure all future Council members have mental health aid and counseling training.
He discussed future plans for what else can be done to further improve the sports and recreation facilities: “we would like to run mental health aid course for council members [the course deals with aspects of mental health and approaches the issues of suicide as well] In the long term, I hope SW will continue with success. The issue of sports and disability will hopefully stay on the agenda and we can make progress and strengthen partnership with Disabilities Services too.”
One student who has recently befitted from the increased collaboration between the Sports and Disability Services is Wanda Merced a blind Puerto Rican Computer Science PhD student who lost her sight eleven years ago. Wanda lives alone and has her own support worker.
At the start of the year she approached the Disability Services asking whether or not she would be allowed to attend the gym, although she was not too optimistic as she had been repeatedly refused entry to other sports facilities whilst studying abroad. A support worker from the Disability Services took her to the Stevenson Building where Wanda learned how to use some of the equipment. It was to be the start of a journey that allowed Wanda to “feel human again” She was partnered with Calum Hill who became her personal trainer. One of the most empowering experiences she has had is running with Hill outside, something achieved by Wanda simply holding his elbow, which before had been simply impossible.
Speaking to her, Wanda seems deeply touched by the care and attention by the staff at the Stevenson Building, “The staff did much more than they had to do. They went way beyond their duties. I don’t think that the staff know how immense the work they are doing is. Calum has been exceptional in helping me go forward. I am also very grateful to other staff members who always greet me as I arrive and always show me the way to the changing rooms. This experience has helped me realise that I think that the word disability should be erased from the dictionary. I think that it does not mean, “not being able to do things”; it just means “another way of doing things”.”
Chatting to trainer Calum Hill, he reflects on some of the anxieties he first had when he agreed to start working with Wanda, “I felt very apprehensive. But I decided to give it a go and she really enjoyed it. Wanda inspired me. ” He went on to comment on the importance of sports in wider sense: “And it just shows how important exercise is both physically and mentally. ““People who don’t do sport and exercises are missing out. Sport and Exercise can give completeness. It is key for all people, even more so for disabled people – everything else works well in their lives if exercise is there.” he concludes by reflecting on how much working with Wanda has changed his perspective in life, “ When you meet someone who tries that hard despite how difficult it is you realise how good your life is.”
The National Disability Development Day will take place on the 3rd of March in the Glasgow Caledonian University. GUSA is providing buses for those wishing to attend please visit