Great Britain’s Wheelchair Rugby captain Steve Brown has a wicked sense of humour. When a Blue Peter presenter took part in a training session with the squad two years ago, he advised him to “lean forward when you’ve got the ball, to protect it.” Blue Peter shouldn’t have taken that tip at face value.
“When you lean forward, all your weight’s at the front of the chair, you’re not stable,” he told The Independent. When a reporter trained with the squad earlier this year, he tried the same trick again. “I smacked into him from behind and he went flying. Supermanning across the court! Superb! Never made it on to the telly for some reason.”
Brown, from Sittingbourne, was 23 and working in Cologne, Germany in 2005 when he fell off a first floor balcony. He landed on his backside, but was looking skywards, so his head went backwards as he landed, like whiplash but one that broke his neck and trapped his spinal cord. He was paralysed from the chest down, instantly, and his use of his hands have been affected too.
More recently, during a match, he was hit simultaneously by two opponents, and fell forward out of his chair and broke his sternum and four ribs on an opposing player’s knees. “I was in hospital for six weeks,” he said, laughing. For most people, it might be a big deal.
Wheelchair rugby, widely known as murderball, is by far the most intense and injury-prone sport of the Paralympics, and probably the Olympics too, but Brown doesn’t see it that way. “Ballerinas get injured too.”
Following his accident, he was eventually transferred from Germany to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the birthplace of the Paralympic Games. It was his dad who took him to watch wheelchair rugby a few weeks later. It was quite an awakening. “I didn’t have that much confidence in what I was doing. I was just trying to learn how to stay in my chair, and keep my balance,” he said.
Brown’s injuries mean he has no control over the muscles in his torso, crucial to maintaining balance. “And there were these guys, in the same situation as me, smacking into each other, trying to knock each other out of their chairs. They were miles ahead of me.”
Undaunted, he took up the sport almost immediately, and was unlucky not to make the Great Britain squad for the Beijing Olympics. He did, however, lead a parade through London on the team’s return, as one to look out for at London 2012. They were right. Now Brown is the team captain.
He is also one of those instantly likeable people, and rather handsome.
If wheelchair rugby proves to be a jewel in the crown of Channel 4’s Paralympic coverage, as the broadcaster hopes it will, his is a face you will be getting used to.
The team have finished agonisingly in fourth place in the last two Games, and desperately hope to go one better this time. It is the Australians, Canadians and Americans that stand in their way. They had better look out.