NEWPORT, Wales (Reuters) - Jon-Allan Butterworth served with the British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he lost an arm, but says getting on a bicycle makes him most nervous.
The 25-year-old former Royal Air Force (RAF) weapons technician suffered his life-changing injury in a rocket attack on a British base in Basra in August 2007.
After watching the Beijing Olympics on TV he took up cycling as part of his rehabilitation and now has a good chance of making the British Paralympic cycling team for this summer’s London Games.
In 1948, when London last staged the Olympics, the first international disabled sports event was held for Second World War veterans at Stoke Mandeville hospital north of the capital.
Butterworth is one of a number of injured servicemen and veterans to go through the Ministry of Defence’s Battle Back rehabilitation program, 14 of whom have gone on to represent their country, but he is probably the best placed to make the team where only a podium place, preferably gold, is good enough.
His analytical skills, which he used in his job in the RAF, have also helped propel him to the top of his sport, along with a great physical and mental strength.
When shrapnel tore his left arm to pieces he had to apply his own tourniquet or face the prospect of bleeding to death.
“The blood was pouring out,” he told Reuters in a matter-of-fact way, the shiny black prosthetic arm resting on his blue tracksuit trouser leg.
“My desert camouflages were non-recognizable they were that red. All the sand around me was red.”
At first, Butterworth was a reluctant cyclist, not knowing what a velodrome was, but the sport has helped smooth his transition into civilian life, giving him focus and structure.
“Mentally, cycling is a lot tougher than the RAF,” he said, sitting in a hotel room in Newport, South Wales, with the frost still on the ground outside.
“I often joke that it was a lot easier to be out in Basra getting attacked than it is being on the start line. I was a lot more nervous in the starting gate on a bike.
“It’s all on your own merit really because in the RAF you are told what to do.
“In cycling, it is up to you to control how well you do. It means a lot to get a good result. That’s why I think I get nervous. Then you’ve got a secondary factor - you don’t want to let people down, anyone who has supported you.”
Battle Back, launched in 2008, encourages the injured to take up sport and outdoor activities, and also works with Parlaympics GB to identify talent.
“With the advent of Iraq and Afghanistan what we have done is bring sports back into the recovery process,” said Martin Colclough, head of the Battle Back Phoenix Programme.
Britain has supported NATO-led military operations in Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks on the U.S., and has about 9,500 military personnel still serving there.
It also took part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which toppled former President Saddam Hussein. All British combat forces withdrew from Iraq in July 2009.
Colclough said coaches enjoy working with servicemen because they have the attributes that allow rapid progress.
“Our servicemen are combat athletes,” he said.
“We have occasionally found athletes that aren’t super talented but their work ethic, and their reliability, commitment, ability to follow orders from coaches has actually made them progress a lot quicker.”
Britain’s Paralympic cycling team won 17 golds in Beijing, but lead coach Chris Furber expects Battle Back’s results to be strongest at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“We had a clear and targeted idea of what kind of athletes we were looking for,” Furber said.
“Ostensibly, I came up with a wish list and said I needed a one-legged person, (and) a one-armed person. As cruel as that sounds that is the kind of game you are in.”
Butterworth, who is a world champion and holds two world records, will shortly head off with the rest of the Paracycling team to the world championships in Los Angeles.
“There is no shame in getting silver or bronze in Games time, but I don’t feel there is any point in aspiring for silver,” Butterworth said.
“I have to think about being the best in the world ... if you are not working towards that, I don’t know what’s the point.”
Reporting by Avril Ormsby