MOST kids would love a helicopter ride on their ninth birthday and Nathan Stephens was no different – except his was a matter of life and death.
He made that air-ambulance dash without his legs. They were left behind on a railway line near Bridgend in South Wales along with the new trainers he had just been given for his birthday. He was worried his mum would be cross with him. It is a story to make you shudder, but also one to make you marvel at the human spirit, of which Stephens, now 22, has by the bucketful.
Next week in Manchester, Stephens will be competing in the Paralympic World Cup, the next major event for him on his journey to London 2012, for which he is hotly fancied to win gold in the javelin.
There is no javelin event in Manchester so Stephens will be competing in the discus, another discipline in which he is a serious medal hope for London.
Current world champion in the javelin, Stephens says: “I wanted to work on my discus anyway because I know I can achieve the qualifying standards for that for London, and it will be good to see where I am. I finished 11th in Beijing but I have been getting better since then.”
Like all Paralympic athletes, Stephens would prefer to talk about his sport rather than his disability, but there is not a hint of self-pity when he recounts the appalling accident that changed his life.
Fishing by a railway line with some mates on his birthday, like lots of little boys, Stephens was fascinated by the freight trains rattling by.
“I noticed each train had a ladder on it. One was just about to pull in to let an inter-city pass and for some stupid reason I decided to try to jump and grab the ladder and see how far I could go. My foot slipped and I got dragged under.
“I remember waking up in a bush. My mate had dragged me off the track. I was going in and out of consciousness but I realised what had happened. I was not crying or anything and when they told me the helicopter was coming to pick me up I was excited because I was getting a helicopter ride on my birthday.
“There were strange mixed emotions; I was annoyed because a firemen had to cut off my Manchester United shirt. I realised it was bad when I saw my new pair of trainers on the track and thinking mum is going to be annoyed with me.”
Stephens lost his left leg from the hip and his right from the knee, but amazed the doctors by being determined to leave hospital after only six weeks.
Back at school he tried to play rugby by tackling opponents from his wheelchair. He would go in goal for football and throw himself around, but he needed something more. He had heard about sledge hockey for disabled athletes and decided to give it a go. “When I heard it was full contact like rugby and football, I thought, ‘Yes, I’m getting back in the saddle’.
“That’s what kicked off my whole sporting career. I needed something to get me focused again.
“There was the social side of it all as well. I didn’t want to sit back and watch the world go by. I had to get involved and my parents were very supportive.”
One sport led to another until Stephens discovered he was very good at throwing things. He went to Beijing and finished 11th in the discus, eighth in the shot and fourth in the javelin – and that after a tearful bout of self-doubt.
“I always beat myself up in big competitions thinking I was not good enough to be there. The night before the javelin I was ringing my coach up in tears and saying, ‘I can’t do it’. That was midnight and I was competing the next morning and he just said, ‘Nathan, shut up and go to sleep’.”
Now Stephens, who has deferred a sports science degree course in Cardiff until after London, knows he is good enough having won javelin gold in the world championships last January.
The throwing is done from a raised swivel chair that his father Barrie makes for him in the garage at home. Meanwhile, mum Helen is organising the family day out to the Olympic Stadium in August next year.
“Mum plans to get a boat up the Thames and jump off at the stadium. And I have always wanted my grandad [George Beard] to be at one of my events.
“He has been ill for a couple of years, but he is fighting on to watch in London.
“That would be awesome to hear him shouting for me. He has always been important for me. When I had my accident he was there to lift me up into the ambulance so he has been really close. So if he can’t make it I will be doing it on his behalf.”
THE BT Paralympic World Cup will take place in Manchester between May 23 and 28, featuring athletics, swimming, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball and boccia, broadcast on Channel 4. Tickets are on sale at www.btparalympicworldcup.com