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Dave Henson, Invictus hero who claimed Paralympic bronze

Dave Henson hugs his mentor Richard Whitehead Image copyright PA
Image caption Dave Henson (right) hugs his mentor and double gold winner Richard Whitehead (left)

A golden moment at the Invictus Games provided the inspiration that drove Dave Henson on to win a Paralympic bronze medal just two years later.

Henson ran his way into third place in the 200m in Rio on Sunday night, five years after he had both his legs blown off while on patrol for the Royal Engineers in Afghanistan.

But a key part of his road to his Paralympic success was training for, and becoming a champion in, the inaugural Invictus Games, which saw more than 400 injured former service personnel compete across several sports in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2014.

A week after that success in London, he decided to throw his efforts into making the ParalympicsGB team for Rio.

The former Army captain, now aged 31, has never sought pity for his injuries and instead says he believes it has allowed him to see the world with "fresh eyes".

In February 2011, was leading a patrol to clear what are known as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from an area in Helmand province.

'Sorrow'

The aim of the patrol was to make the area safe so displaced Afghan families could return to their homes.

But Henson, a father of one from Southampton, stepped on a bomb buried just beneath the surface.

He said: "I looked down and saw my legs were in pieces - skin and muscle hanging off and bones poking out. I started screaming, I don't think it was pain at that point, the adrenaline kept the pain off for a few minutes."

Image copyright Dave Henson
Image caption Capt Henson sustained his injuries in Afghanistan in 2011

Within the hour he was on an operating table at Camp Bastion having both legs amputated at the knee, and he was then flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham.

In a recorded video message on his website, set up to garner support for his Rio 2016 appearances, he outlined what effect his injury has had on his outlook.

"I am so lucky to be alive, so to look at me with pity or sorrow for these injuries when the alternative is not to be here at all is ridiculous," he said.

"I think we're blessed as a group of guys that had pretty much stared death in the face and come back from it.

"We can look around and see the world with these fresh eyes and realise just how beautiful it is."

It was during his rehabilitation that Henson found new passion for sport, first competing in a series of open water swims with his family to raise funds for military charities, before taking up sitting volleyball.

"When we were on the court nothing else mattered," he said.

"No-one cared how many legs you did or didn't have, it was all about getting across the court as quickly as possible, digging out blind to get that ball that would otherwise cost your team just one point.

"That's what sport in recovery is all about. Forgetting about the pain and the drama for ten minutes, an hour. Get your head in the game and don't let your team down."

Depression

Henson said he never allowed himself to slip into depression, as he believes, that to do so would be an insult to his fellow soldiers who lost their lives.

He joined the Army in 2008, starting his military career with a year of infantry and leadership training at Sandhurst.

He then joined the Corps of Royal Engineers, taking his first command in July 2009.

Seven months later he was deployed to Afghanistan as a Royal Engineer Search Advisor, responsible for planning and carrying out searches for improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Henson took the final podium place in Rio having completed the 200m in 24.74 seconds

On Sunday in Rio Henson took the bronze medal while his Para GB teammate Richard Whitehead retained his gold in the event.

In terms of Henson's track performance, last year proved to be a breakthrough.

Having shown such promise with his Invictus triumph, he joined Whitehead at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar, and finished in an impressive seventh place in the final.

Since then, the sprinter, who married his partner Hayley in 2013 and gained a first class degree in mechanical engineering the following year, has gone from strength to strength on the track, lowering his personal best in the 200m to 24.71 seconds.

He also added his first major medal at the European championships earlier this summer, collecting 200m silver, again behind Whitehead, who has acted as a mentor for Henson over the past two years.

Speaking just after he won bronze in Rio, Henson said: "Five and a half years ago I nearly died. I've got my wife and daughter watching at home. Words can't express how thankful I am or their support.

"A bronze medal shows how far I've come. I won gold at the Invictus Games in 2014 and a week later I gave up smoking and thought I'd give Rio a bash."

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