Personal Column: Walking tall

The man who lost both his legs in the Tube bombings will walk up the aisle to his wedding this week. John McFall, a Paralympian, knows how he'll feel
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I was in Thailand as part of a gap year when I had to have my lower right leg amputated. I was 19, about to go to university to study sport and exercise science and had hoped to join the Army.

It was August 2000 and I was on Koh Samui on my motorbike going to see a monument called the Big Buddha. I knew I was going too fast around a corner. I muttered a couple of expletives to my mate on the back and he bailed off. The bike skidded over to the right and I put out my leg to stop it going down. I bust my knee. It was if my knee had been smashed from the outside forcing the thigh in and ankle out. The bike then came down on top of me. The chain cut my thigh up and I severed some major blood vessels.

I was picked up by a passing truck driver and taken to hospital. Not long afterwards, I was flown by air ambulance to a hospital in Bangkok, by which time my Dad had flown out to be with me. I'd lost the blood supply to my lower leg and my foot had started to smell a bit and had gone black.

The consultant told my Dad that they could try and revascularise the lower leg, which would offer only about a 20 per cent chance of saving it and of me surviving. Then there was amputation, which would give me about a 40 per cent chance of surviving.

When my Dad went through the options I chose amputation. I was still pretty out of it. Although my Dad did consult me it was largely his decision. He was always really worried that he was going to make the wrong decision, which he did not do. He made an absolutely fantastic decision. I wasn't scared. I've got a bit of history of breaking things and having operations.

I felt that a bit of closure had been achieved after the operation, but very soon I went drastically downhill. I had a seizure, as well as pulmonary oedema, which is where your lungs fill up with fluid.

After about two-and-a-half weeks in Bangkok I had recovered sufficiently to be flown home. A few days before, a nurse came to give me my drugs and when she left I just burst into tears. It was the first recognition of what had happened and just a very natural grieving process. I had lost a part of me. It was sad to see it go.

I also felt I had let my parents down. They had invested all this energy into bringing me up into the person I was and then I went and carelessly had an accident and lost my leg. I'd just spent three weeks on a beach playing Frisbee and I was very athletic before I had the accident. One of my first concerns was not being able to play Frisbee on the beach with the kids I might have in the future, or ever drive again. I wasn't sure I would walk again. Over the first six months I had a few episodes like that. It was the uncertainty that scared me.

When I came back to the UK I was told that I would in fact walk again. I spent about seven weeks in Queen Mary's Hospital in Roehampton, which is where a number of the guys from the 7/7 bombings were rehabilitated. My days were broken down into two sessions at walking school.

I spent time in the gym getting fit again and preparing my gait so it would be as symmetrical as possible for my prosthesis. I'm quite a perfectionist, and learning to walk again was one of those challenges. I wanted to be a good walker. After about five weeks I got my first prosthesis. As soon as I put it on I was excited. It was like having a new toy.

I spent the next year at home learning to be a good amputee, took up mountain biking and climbing again and worked as a fitness instructor at my local leisure centre. I then took up my place at university and my walking ability sky-rocketed. I had a new type of leg with more functions and I learnt to walk down hills. For me the pinnacle of returning to mobility was learning to run again, so I went to see the physiotherapists at Roehampton and spent two days with them learning some special exercises.

I practised on the running track at university and trained with the local running club, but the cylinders kept exploding and all the hydraulic fluid would come out all over my legs. There was no way I could compete against able-bodied people because it just wasn't feasible, so I decided to explore disability sport. I went to see Anthony Hughes, the performance manager for Disability Sport Wales, to see whether it would be worth pursuing it. He said if I did what I was told and got the right prosthesis I would be amazing.

Using a sprinting prosthesis, I started training with an ex-Paralympian. I graduated in summer 2004 and in early 2005 transferred coaches and started training with an able-bodied squad. That year I was selected to represent Great Britain in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) European Championships in Finland. I was absolutely gobsmacked. But I managed to get a bronze in the 200 metres. I was very, very happy. My parents came to watch and my Mum shed a little tear. I believe that it gave them quite a lot of closure. They, too, had wondered what I'd be able to do again in the future. I was then put on to a funding programme, so now I get paid as a full-time athlete.

Last year I won the 100 metres at the Paralympic Challenge in Germany, and the silver in the 100 metres and the bronze in the 200 metres at the World Championships in the Netherlands. I'm ranked third in the world overall in the 100 metres and 200 metres, and now my aim is to get selected to go to the Paralympics next year in Beijing. I would be very proud if I went.

I couldn't be happier. I've got absolutely no complaints. I've got fantastic friends and family, a beautiful girlfriend, and I'm doing something I love doing. I'm a very fortunate young man. I love a challenge and becoming an amputee is an awesome challenge. It sucks losing a leg. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but it's not as bad as people think it is.

When I look back at the last six-and-a-half years, in some ways becoming an amputee is the best thing that could have happened to me. I don't regret anything.