Jonny Young – Paracanoeing to Rio 2016, Part One

In a two-part interview with nsif, Paralympic canoeist in training Jonny Young talks about the journey from his accident to Rio 2016.

Can you tell us about your plans for Rio 2016?

British Canoeing has a very high aim: to be the number one Olympic and Paralympic canoeing nation. That means winning gold medals! So the aim is to win one of the first paracanoe gold medals, as the sport makes its paralympic debut.

The plans to get us there are filled with hours on the water, in the gym, in bed recovering and eating well to be in the best shape I can be. With top-quality coaches and support staff, my role, as the athlete, is to deliver the best I can. So I guess the real measure of success will be if I can deliver my very best – but a gold medal would be a nice way of showing that!

How has paracanoeing helped you – physically and mentally – since your injury?

Early on in my stay at Stoke Mandeville I saw the value of using sport as rehab. It offered me a chance to play, to laugh and have fun. To push myself physically, let off some stream and experience some of the feelings I knew from before my injury.

When I was discharged I knew I wasn’t able to return to work any time soon, as an outdoor instructor – in the capacity I would like – so I decided to pursue sport as full time as possible. Very quickly I got into the canoeing program and started training full time. It offered all those things I’d experienced in hospital but it also gave me a focus to work towards. It put me into a community of people who knew what I was going through, who would be able to offer support and advice simply by being themselves.

I never felt isolated because of my injury, which I know some others I was in hospital with had experienced. It helped me keep perspective too. I thought hospital had been a good place for that. It was easy to feel how awful my situation is, yet simply looking around a ward I could see a broad spectrum of injuries that I would not want to deal with. Now I see people with various injuries pushing themselves hard everyday and if they can do why can’t I? In fact, as they are my competition I’d better push harder!!

I haven’t even started on the physical benefits!! My top half is stronger now than it has ever been. Having a strong top half in a wheelchair makes life easier. Simple things like transfers in and out of the chair but also improving fitness gave me more independence, the ability to go for a longer push and confidence to go out and explore. Plus nutritionally I eat more healthily than before and am leaner because of it. I have also seen a really dramatic improvement in my mobility. I have an incomplete injury and so canoeing has helped me get the most out of every muscle that might want to work. For me this has helped me to spend more time on my feet than in my wheelchair. But I am sure it would benefit other injuries than mine.

I was in Stockholm to take part in a classification study and one of the classifiers had done a PhD on the effects of kayaking in spinal injuries. She found that engaging the core through kayaking had improved high-level injuries in pushing wheelchairs uphill, along with many other benefits. I was really impressed with her work and she gave me a book that she had made off the back of the PhD. It’s all in Swedish so I don’t know the full ins and outs of it but the pictures are nice!

Has having a spinal injury changed the way you look at life, and if so, how?

Working as an outdoor instructor I was always chasing the next qualification, across a number of sports. I had always felt that if I was to focus on one of them I could be really good. The problem was I couldn’t decide which one to be really good at, so I settled at being good at lots of things!!  My commitment to sport since my injury, and the sacrifices needed to be the best I can be at canoeing means I have had to funnel everything into one area. That’s been a big shift. To fully maximise my potential feels like an exciting prospect but it is easy to be distracted! I wrote a blog exactly on that!

Having the injury has also highlighted the fact that I spend my time adapting to be able to do something. Simple things like finding a drop curb to cross the road for example. Before, I wouldn’t think twice about a lot of things and if I found something difficult I would persevere through it, simply working it out as I go. Now I feel I have to plan more efficiently. It’s actually helped me to get a little more punctual!

For Part Two, click here


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