As part of our #HuffPostListens week in Birmingham, we are publishing a series of Life Less Ordinary stories from extraordinary Birmingham residents. Today, aerospace engineer Rob Oliver tells his story of losing his leg following a serious football injury, finding a new passion in Paracanoe, and how his incident inspired new levels in him of determination and drive. To illustrate the series we have commissioned the respected photographer Vanley Burke to do a series of portraits, which will be on show in Birmingham this week.
I was playing for Solihull Red Diamonds, I was left back. I used to be a centre back when I was younger but I never grew so I was moved out onto the wings. I’ve always been quick, like a sprint speed sort of athlete - so we played to our strengths.
We were one-nil down, so I came up for the last three or four minutes of the match. The ball had gone out for a corner. The ball came in, was headed out, and I ran as hard as I could to get on the end of it. I volleyed it, and I actually scored. Ironically, I scored a goal with what would be the the last touch of a football with my foot.
All I remember is this weird sensation, I’d hit the ball and then felt this massive crunch - like a tree branch falling in the wind. I couldn’t run. I turned round and I looked at the floor and my leg was almost facing the wrong way. It had been completely shattered by an opposition defender trying to block my shot - completely unintentional, he obviously didn’t mean to do what he did - but he was a big guy and the force of me hitting the ball just shattered my tibula and fibula.
I knew it wasn’t a normal break. I knew something was wrong within the first few minutes. There was a paramedic from St John’s Ambulance on the scene - he was giving me gas and air and it wasn’t working, I was just screaming. When the ambulance arrived they gave me some morphine and then they had to give me a second shot, which they said is very unusual. I would normally knock someone out, but I was still screaming.
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It felt like the inside of my leg was trying to push through the outside of my skin, that’s the only way I can explain it - like someone’s popping a balloon inside my leg. When I got to the hospital, they immediately tried to move it round to put it in a cast, thinking that would relieve the pain. They gave me ketamine, often used as a horse tranquiliser, to try and calm me down. Then they told me to call my friend to keep me distracted, so I called one of my best mates and started a conversation with him. It didn’t really work. I was screaming down the phone while they were aligning my leg and he was just on the other end of the phone.
I then had 17 operations over the next nine months. I spent the first 5 days in Heartlands, then I went to Selly Oak. Originally they thought they just had to close up the leg, they thought they’d done it, but then the leg was dying off, so they had to take more and more muscle and tissue because there was no blood supply to the leg any more. I looked like a scene from The Walking Dead, just lying in hospital with half my leg muscle missing - you could see through it, you could see the bones.
I had compartment syndrome - but it wasn’t diagnosed originally. So I had all that initial pressure pain, that’s why it wasn’t a normal break because my leg was swelling and swelling.
There was no blood supply to my foot for two or three days, which at that point was too late. Selly Oak tried multiple operations to try and save it - one major operation, I had all my abs removed on the left side and that put into my leg, to get it working - which looked a bit weird.
I thought eventually they’d fix it. They kept saying “this should work” and it did work in a fashion, but I contracted MRSA, and there was a risk of the infection spreading. So they could either remove more of my leg, so I’d still have the whole limb but it would be quite useless and have the risk of infection spreading... or I could have my leg amputated below the knee. So I made the call.
Apparently I made the decision, but I don’t actually remember. It must have been so traumatic for me. I blanked out having that conversation. I only know of it because my family was always with me.
Thinking back because it’s been so long, it feels second nature to me but at the time, I thought ‘this is life-changing, it’s going to affect me for the rest of my life’. Because I don’t know anyone in my family or friends who’s got a disability, I had no point of reference to that. I thought it would be a lot more disabling than it is - I thought I’d never be able to play sport again or lead a ‘normal life’. I think that’s just because I didn’t have any education on it and was more scared than I needed to be.
I spent the first six months afterward learning to do bits and pieces. Then I started to feel sorry for myself, focusing on all the things I couldn’t do. So my best mate, who was a personal trainer at the time, dragged me into a gym. I’d never been in a gym in my life - I was really skinny, the skinniest I’d ever been in my life, just getting by, and he said ‘let’s find you a sport’.
Because London 2012 was coming up, there was a drive to get people into multisports. In June 2011 there was an open day trials in Guildford, so we used that as a target so I could try to be good at something. I turned up and had a go on every sport. I had a go in a machine like a rowing machine for a kayak - 200m, flat out, as hard as I could. I almost passed out because I was really going for it. I didn’t think anything of it, then they called me up two days later and said would I like to come for a trial? I had set the fastest time they’d from any open trial of anyone across the country.
My first international competition was another learning curve - I got absolutely destroyed by the rest of the world. I brought all my family out to watch it - they were like ‘it’s really good, he’s gonna have a chance’. Then we saw everyone else, and every one else looked like monsters, huge men with shoulders bigger than my waist. I realised I needed to spend some more time at the gym, but it was another great experience.
Rio 2016 was bittersweet for me. The year before I’d had the best year of my whole career, I’d won the European Championships, I’d come second in the World Championships. But immediately after the Worlds I got mugged in Milan, and dislocated my shoulder. If I had surgery I couldn’t go to Rio or I could train around it - I tore my labrum tendon in my shoulder, it isn’t attached, so surgery or training around it forever. So I chose the latter. I had three months intense rehab, didn’t get in the boat at all for three months. It was amazing to go, but I knew I had no chance - because I’d had three months doing nothing. It was devastating knowing that a year before I’d have gone challenging or gold, silver, bronze and now I’m challenging to get into the final.
In the moment when I crossed the line and knew I hadn’t done it, but knew that I could do it, I just crossed the line and I lost it. I was just sitting in my boat crying, on the jetty, all the cameras zoomed in on me for about 20 minutes. With my friends and family in the grandstand and watching at home - I should have tried to hold it together. All the emotion coming out, it was just how I felt, I couldn’t do anything about it - five or six years of work and then that’s how it happened to fall. Hopefully I’ll go to Tokyo and I’ll learn how to deal with the pressure and the crowds for the future. That immediate moment it was awful.
I went back to work as an aerospace engineer and I’d progressed a lot at work, I think it’d because before I was a bit shy. I could never stand up and present or do a meeting, I think I’d have a panic attack or something but because I’ve been forced to present and represent UK sport - to go into schools and do Sport Relief and explain it to big groups of kids. When you do anything else it makes things seem easy and has definitely brought my personality out.
Now, I’d say what do I have to do to become number one - that’s a mix of being younger and wanting everything immediately. Now, I’m more focused and determined. Now, I do everything in my power to chase something. It was like a switch, I didn’t do anything consciously, that seems to be my new way of life.
I’ve got one son, 15 months old. I want to teach him to be determined and driven. I should have been more so when I was younger - I had one bad experience and I let it crush me. I’d like to always make my son believe, if there is something he would like to pursue, you don’t have to win, just have to keep chasing it.
You don’t have to be good at everything. If he wants to chase a dream. I want to encourage it, let him chase that. And if he fails, let it be a learning, not the end.
As told to Brogan Driscoll
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