Transcript: Off-piste at the Paras #8: Scott Meenagh

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This is a full transcript of Off-piste at the paras #8: Scott Meenagh: Losing my legs in Afghanistan was "a bad day at work"presented by Beth Rose and JJ Chalmers. Date: 16 March 2018

MUSIC - Off Piste at the Paras, from the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang. With Beth Rose.

JJ - I'm thinking more like a Justin Bieber or something.

BETH - Some rock and roll.

JJ - Maybe a Friends poster.

BETH - S Club 7?

JJ - S Club 7 yeah, S Club Juniors.

BETH - The reason we're talking about posters and rock stars of the early 2000s is because we're talking about JJ Chalmer's box that he is living in during the Paralympics. If you're listening to 5 Live then you've probably heard JJ through the night, which is our daytime here, he's basically living in a carpeted room.

JJ - Yeah, it's funny that you come to the other side of the world to South Korea to ultimately sit inside a radio studio and watch it from a TV. But arguably, if you're going to say 'well, what's the point?' Actually yes, I spend a lot of time in my little cupboard here, but you've got to be in the bubble: you've just to live and breathe the Paralympics when you're here. So, everything we're doing and everybody I work with that's all that's on their minds, all their focus. And it's a really interesting experience, but any moment I get free then I want to get outside and try and see whatever action I can.

But of course I'm excited to be here. And whether I'm a journalist or not I want our team to do well.

BETH - Yeah. And one of the more random sports that's kind of been rumbling along the whole time but hasn't had that kind of peak moment yet is the biathlon, which has kind of made a bit of a comeback for GB. We've got Scott Meenagh who took up Nordic skiing, which includes biathlon and cross-country, fairly recently. Basically the British team created a programme around him as he came through, so it's all around him.

JJ - The guy's an absolute beast. He's an absolute legend. Scott and I served in the same part of Afghanistan only a matter of months apart. So, he was in a parachute regiment who did what we would call the winter tour, so came in the early part of 2011, and then they handed over to us the Marines for the summer tour. Now, by that point Scott had already been injured, as you heard he's been wounded by an improvised explosive device, and little did I know that a few months into my tour something similar would happen to me.

So, we ended up in hospital together because both of us had quite long hospital stays to begin with, because of the complex nature of our wounds. Yes, Scott had lost his legs above the knee; but it was a lot of the other injuries that had come with him that he'd sustained that ultimately he was having to recover from.

And whilst I hadn't lost my legs or anything, the way that my body had been damaged head to toe meant that I spent a long time in hospital. And instantly, although as I say Scott would be a couple of months ahead of me in rehab, I knew that Scott was just an incredible character. He's just got just this… I've never seen a day where he's not had a smile on his face and he's not been pushing himself. And he never goes out there looking to inspire people, but he is such an inspiration because of what he's able to do and his ability, but ultimately it's down to his character: it's the way that he just carries himself with such pride, such determination and always has, as I say, a smile on his face. So, he's got an utterly infectious personality and he's just so good to be around.

So, yeah he kind of pushed the standard of rehabilitation - like so many guys have done, like Dave Henson who went on to win a medal at the Paralympics in Rio. These guys, people sometimes ask me, 'where do you get your inspiration from?' it's so simple: you just look at the guy next to you who's learning to walk; two weeks later he's running; three years later, two years later, whatever it is, he's now at the Paralympics. And it's just so, so simple.

But I think the most interesting thing I learned from him recently from talking to him is this sense of identity. Because, and my friend David Wiseman said it best, when you're in the military it's completely clear what your identity is: I was a Royal Marine; he was a Parachute Regiment soldier - it's very clear what you are. When you become wounded there are a lot of negative identities that you are given: you are the former soldier; you are the wounded soldier; dare I say it, you're disabled - and that can be quite a negative term. And so what we were always trying to do is find that new identity and a positive one.

Now, I think the Invictus Games did it well: they took our generation of wounded soldiers who were the lads that got blown up in Iraq and Afghanistan and actually made us the Invictus generation, made us the unconquered generation. But what Scott's trying to do is as an individual gain that new identity, so it's not just Scott Meenagh the injured soldier, Scott Meenagh the former soldier; it becomes Scott Meenagh the athlete, Scott Meenagh the Paralympian.

BETH - And before the competition started you had a chat with him so let's have a listen.

[Music]

JJ - Fitness and activity has obviously been a massive part of your life because obviously you served in the Parachute Regiment initially.

SCOTT - Yeah, joining the Parachute Regiment was a huge milestone in my life, and their ethos and their kind of standards. They often say once you're in you're never out because you carry across that creed and that infectious optimism that the Regiment pride themselves on, you carry that into everything. So, I would say I try to apply a lot of those attitudes to my sport day to day. In the cross-country skiing world and then the biathlon world we pride ourselves as being one of the toughest sports in the world, never mind winter sports, and the Parachute Regiment pride themselves on being the toughest out there, so I'm extremely proud to be amongst it.

JJ - Listen mate, can you tell me a little bit about the day that you lost your legs in Afghanistan?

SCOTT - It started off a fairly routine day, but unfortunately as we moved into an area we'd never been to before, one of the lads had stepped on a device and actually suffered almost exactly the same injuries as myself. I was then tasked to go in there and almost kind of pick up the pieces. So, it was a pretty gruelling task. Whilst in the process of doing that search and leaving I triggered a device myself and lost both my legs above my knee. So, it was a pretty bad day and it got much worse as the stretcher party who came in to get me then activated another device which wounded most other members of the platoon. So, we had to dig pretty deep and find a lot of character to get out of that worst-case scenario.

But I'm extremely lucky to be here and I'm extremely lucky to have had such brave people around me who got me home that day. So, I've got a lot to thank them for, for being able to sit on this start line today.

JJ - I've seen you through your recovery; in fact you inspired me throughout it if I'm completely honest. Give us an idea of what the process is of going from that day in Afghanistan to where you are now?

SCOTT - It's no mean feat, I must say. But sport is a recovery tool. Sport's a medicine, and sport's introduced to you very really on in the recovery process. And you don't just wake up one day and say, 'I'm going to go to the Paralympic Games!' Going into sport, you learn to retake control of certain areas of your life. You find areas that you can then be strong in again.

I can't walk upstairs the way I used to, but by taking part in sports in my recovery I learned that I can ski down hills and I can kayak and I can run, I can play… the opportunities that come your way. And what sport really became for me was my purpose: I found a lot of reason again through sport that gave me that reason to get out of bed in the morning, it gave me that kind of glint in my eyes, that spark, that confidence and that infectious optimism that we talk about. That's what I think inspired me to be a little bit better - a better version of myself every single day. And I think that's obviously a cumulative effort is what has got us into this line of sport.

It's been an amazing journey and I've learned so much about myself. And actually I've got so much from it; it's really saved my life. But now that I've just got onto the start line in my first Paralympic Games I feel like I'm only just scratching the surface, which is actually such an exciting feeling to have.

JJ - Now, I know one of the things that you're keen to do is give yourself this new identity effectively through sport, this idea that the military will always be a massive part of who you were, that day in Afghanistan will always be a defining day within your life, but I know you're keen ultimately to be seen as Scott Meenagh, the Paralympic athlete.

SCOTT - Yeah, absolutely. When we look back at that day in Afghanistan that, in its simplest form, was a bad day at work. It had serious consequences and it changed our lives. But again, that was one day seven years ago. And it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I didn't want to let that one day and that black cloud that was that day and my injuries define me for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be known as the guy that lost his legs at work one day. I wanted to, in going into the world of sport, it really showed me people in sport don't… when you get on that start line everyone's got a different story. Some of the people in my class are phenomenal, and some of the stories and the lives they've lived; but when you get on that start line no one cares anymore. They want to see what that person can do on that day and how they can produce their very best self.

And I think that that, I'll never forget that day in Afghanistan and I've learned a lot of lessons on the way and it's taught me a lot about life, but I feel that I'm such a stronger person for being able to carry those lessons on and apply them in what I do now. And I want to be known for being that athlete who gives absolutely everything, who commits, who shows courage and infectious optimism with the way that he races now.

And actually sitting on the start line today that is what is coming true, and it's a great feeling.

[Music]

BETH - And what's it like in rehab beyond the actual exercises and everything you have to do? What happens when you guys are all together?

JJ - Call it rose-tinted glasses but my time in Headley Court - and people know the name of it; it's the UK's rehabilitation centre - some of the best moments of my life happened in it.

Yes, it was hard, yes it was gruelling in the exercise and the physical, the physio was painful; but actually you're surrounded by guys who are going through exactly what you're going through, are having this shared experience and ultimately, whenever you're having a bad day, there's always someone having a worse day, but ultimately it's not about that, it's about whenever you're having a bad day there are guys around you who will always try and pick you up. And honestly when you've got guys like Scott in particular that have always got a smile on their face, you just keep going, and ultimately have a great laugh.

We used to go on nights out and stuff like that, because that's all part of the healing process, that's all part of learning to be confident within yourself. It's like... a Michael Jackson Thriller video, I always describe it as. These guys in wheelchairs and limps and crutches, sort of came down the high street together, but it was all part of this team. I had a rubbish hand so that meant that someone was carrying my drinks for me and got me to the table, but then some bloke would be in a wheelchair so somebody would be pushing him. And together we sort of formed this actual functioning unit; but individually we had no real independence.

BETH - Is that part of their programme or is it just kind of putting lads together, you want to go out, you want to escape?

JJ - It's a bit of both. I think you've got to understand that Headley Court -- and the process of Headley Court completely evolved over the space of 10 years. It was never designed, or it wasn't meant to be designed -- certainly hasn't run for the last 30 years -- as a place that would take severely wounded soldiers and give them their independence back and put them back on the street. Actually what it was meant to do was take guys who had minimal injuries in training accidents or something like that that ultimately are an asset to the military, they've got 20 years' experience, if they have an accident playing five-a-side football or they've slipped and their leg goes down a rabbit hole in an exercise, whatever it is, if that guy ends up being medically discharged you lose all that experience. You can't buy that guy off the shelf. So, it was about trying to get guys back into service.

But then Iraq and Afghanistan came along and actually the whole sense of the place changed because it was clear that none of us were going back to work, and so it was about trying to get us independence and then ultimately onto the next thing. And the guys have gone on - Scott's gone on to become a Paralympian; I've gone on to become a presenter - but there are guys that have just gone out into the world of work; I have friends that have joined all sorts of branches of the Civil Service, whatever it is. So, it's not just about rehabilitation; it's also about finding what is the next part of the journey.

But ultimately yes, if you stick a whole bunch of soldiers in a room together they're going to get up to mischief, particularly when you are experiencing things which are relatively mundane. Like rehabilitation is mundane: I used to spend most of my days picking up marbles from one jar and putting them into another to train my hands to work again.

So, I eventually, this is funny, started building a Meccano helicopter, and that was my sort of rehab process. And because of where Headley Court is located I also used to build quite a lot of Lego. And Scott Meenagh and I actually went to Legolnd together for the day, and I went there and played with the Lego. And people probably don't know this, but it's built on a big hill, so it was an opportunity for Scott to go out into the real world and go about on his prosthetic legs.

And put it this way: the point that I knew that Scott Meenagh was independent and would be all right was when I saw him climbing onto a log flume with his prosthetic legs on. A log flume doesn't even stop; that thing continues to move. They're dodgy things to get on when you're able bodied. And this guy had robotic legs that he'd only been using for a few months and he climbed down into the log flume, like I say. And that was it, I was just like well, you can do anything.

MUSIC - This has been a Winter Paralympics podcast brought to you by BBC Ouch from Pyeongchang in South Korea. You can email the team ouch@bbc.co.uk or tweet @bbcouch.