As a teenager Andy Lewis thought he had his life mapped out. He dreamt of a career in the army, alongside his brother. Then one day, at the age of just 16, a devastating motorcycle accident with a 38-tonne truck changed his life beyond all recognition.
His story is a story of sport as salvation. After his accident and so many months spent in hospital it would have been easy to think his life was over. Anything that had gone before could never be again. But a lifelong love of running and a determination that would have made the Parachute Regiment proud has seen him become European, World and Paralympic champion.
“I made the decision that my leg was not going to be my disability but in fact my ability to achieve something incredible and something that would change my life for the better, forever.” Says Lewis.
Sat in the confines of the Airbus’ employee’s café at Filton the 33-year-old recounts his incredible journey.
“2012 was really the defining moment when I knew I wanted to get back into sport. I’d always been a keen runner and competed for Gloucestershire but after the accident I thought I’d never be able to run properly again. Seeing all those amazing Paralympians made me think, ‘I could do that’, and so I set about trying.”
“First things first, I needed a prosthetic limb. The running blades are really expensive, about £8000. I went to my bosses here at Airbus, explained what I wanted to do and asked for help. Airbus agreed to part-fund it and I raised the rest.”
“I then started training after work three evenings week, at the Bristol & West Athletics Club. In 2013 I went to an event at the Stoke Mandeville Stadium. It was an event run by the ArticOne Foundation, who fundraise for young people and adults to buy prosthetic limbs to get them into sport. It was my first go at triathlon.”
“I enjoyed it but the swimming was really tough. The imbalance in the water since losing my leg meant I had to learn to swim all over again, which I did, in my lunch breaks at Bradley Stoke pool. By April 2014 I was ready to do my first real triathlon.
“It was an able-bodied triathlon in my hometown of Lydney. I found it really, really difficult and I didn’t think I was going to finish it. To make it worse my brother beat me which really upset me! He’s younger and he has two legs!”
Galvanised by a healthy bit of sibling rivalry Lewis was accepted onto the GB Talent programme and invited to compete in the World Tri Series in Hyde Park.
“It was my first open water swim and the first time I was given a triathlon suit with my name on it. “I was so proud. I thought I’d crossed the line in fourth, so I went straight to the medical tent because my leg was really sore. Suddenly this woman comes running in to say ‘what are you doing in here? They’re calling your name you need to get up on the podium, you came third!’”.
Lewis followed up bronze with a gold in Madrid and the powers that be at Team GB started to realise that they just might have a very real Paralympic medal contender in their sights.
“It was a bit of a rapid ascent from obscurity to World Series medallist!” laughs Lewis. “I remember being here at work in Pegasus House (Airbus’ Filton HQ), I was standing on the top floor window looking out over the airfield and I had a call from the GB programme manager saying, ‘we want you to come on the World Class Performance Programme, we are offering you the chance to be a paid athlete’. I was stunned, thinking wow they are going to pay me to do sport! That was quickly censured though when I realised the pay cut I would have to take from my job with Airbus in order to accept it. It was a horrible dilemma. On the one hand I was being offered this incredible opportunity to qualify for Rio and the Olympic Games. On the other I have a mortgage, two kids and a well-paid job. I knew I had to find a middle ground and thank god Airbus came on-board! I went to them with a plan of a sabbatical which would give me job security if it didn’t work out but also keep some of the money coming in. I couldn’t have done this without the support from Airbus.”
Suddenly the road to Rio was looking financially more viable there was just the small matter of qualifying!
At the beginning of 2016 Lewis took the decision to move to Loughborough to train full-time. “It was a huge decision, not least for the impact on our family life, but it was the right call. In April I went to Australia to compete in the first Olympic qualification tournament. I went and won it with a four-minute lead. The next race was the European Championships in June, in Lisbon. My coach Steve Casson said ‘If you don’t podium you won’t be going to Rio’.
“I felt so much pressure, I felt physically and mentally sick. Amazingly I won, this time by two minutes. So, with two months to go to the Paralympics, I had done two races and won two golds. The next month I received the letter from Paralympics GB saying I was going to Rio! I had one more race as preparation which was the World Championships in Rotterdam. I went into it thinking it would be great if I could go into the Paralympics as World Champion.”
Incredibly that is exactly what he did. Suddenly the 33-year-old had gone from little-known contender to reigning World and European champion and the man to beat.
“Psychologically it was really hard when we arrived in Belo, our pre-Games holding camp. I hated it, I just couldn’t stand the waiting around and just wanted raceday to arrive. Once we got to Rio I was happy, I’d raced there previously in 2015 so it felt comfortable. Because I suffer from ADHD I think I’m quite good at blocking noise out. I go into my own world. As soon as I stood on the pontoon for the swim all I could hear was my coach’s voice, nothing else. When I’m racing I’m racing for me. It is utterly selfish.
“I came out of the water third, which I was disappointed by, but I stuck to our game plan. My coach had told me to stick with the process, with the power and cadence that we’d agreed for the ride. A group of guys powered ahead, had gone off really fast, too fast. My coach was convinced they wouldn’t maintain it and he was right. Slowly I pulled back into third place. After transition I was back to fourth because pulling my blade on takes longer. I started the run and could hear another guy tap tapping behind me with his blade. I broke away from him and saw the French guy in third and thought I’m going to take him next. Once I had passed him I saw the American runner in second and I gradually pegged him back. On the last lap of the run at a hairpin bend I saw the leader, an Italian. He looked over his shoulder at me and I just pointed at him to say, ‘I’ve got you, I’m coming!’. I wanted to just get in his head. I got behind him with about three-quarters of a lap to go and thought ‘I’m going to sit here and enjoy this moment. We were running into the wind, so I let him take all the wind to get my breath back, just as I pulled alongside his coaches I overtook him. They were shouting at me in Italian, but I didn’t look back until I got on the finishing straight I knew I was the strongest runner in the field and that barring anything major no one was going to catch me. I just wanted to enjoy that moment. It was official I was European, World and Paralympic champion!”
Just as Lewis was inspired by 2012 he hopes that by winning the first-ever Paralympic Triathlon event that he will attract others into sport. “It has been an incredible year and I hope to go on to Tokyo, but I have to consider that very carefully. I just hope by hearing my story others will look at what I’ve achieved and think ‘I can do that’. You don’t know what you can achieve until you try!”.
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