Sochi 2014: Team GB hopeful Mick Brennan - "I don't feel disabled when I'm skiing"
It takes a special person to race downhill at 70mph without legs - Team GB's alpine skiing star tells his story...
I joined the Royal Signals in 1998. By 2004 I was a sergeant working with a bomb disposal team in Iraq, doing anything from deactivating devices to dealing with the aftermath at explosion sites. It was the best time I ever had in the Army.
On 7 November we were woken at 6am. We were tasked with doing a route clearance from Camp Dogwood, just outside Baghdad, to the main bridge over the River Euphrates. I can remember getting up; everything after that, I’ve had to piece together from what other people have told me.
I was just finishing dealing with a device we’d found along the route. The infantry are supposed to set up a 300-metre perimeter around us while we’re working, but for some reason the road had been opened up while we were still packing up our equipment.
A suicide bomber drove in and detonated his explosives five metres from me. I was standing behind a Warrior [armoured vehicle] door, so that shielded me from my knees upwards, but my lower legs were completely gone. I was thrown seven metres and landed heavily, hitting my head. That’s how I ended up with brain damage, too.
I was born in Doncaster and had never skied before the attack. Ten years on, I’m the first British ex-serviceman ever to compete in a Winter Paralympics. I was like Douglas Bader – I just refused to accept I’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.
When I got my first set of artificial legs, the physio told me I wouldn’t be able to walk without a stick. After one week, I walked straight past him, waving as I went. “You’ve proved me wrong then,” he said. “Better get used to it,” I replied.
By 2008 I was in Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit in Surrey. While I was there, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Hargreaves, who had set up the “Battle Back” [adventure training] initiative, asked me if I fancied doing some adaptive skiing. I liked the idea of doing something out of the ordinary, so I jumped at the chance.
By the time the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver came around, there was all this chat about what a dream it would be to compete at the next Games in Russia. Me being big-headed, all I said was, “When I get there in four years’ time...” Once I’d said it, I had to do it.
As a double amputee, I compete in a sit-ski, which is basically a frame that fits into a normal ski. Because I’m supported by the Combined Services Disabled Ski Team, all my kit is custom-made. My seat fits perfectly into my stumps, and works in essentially the same way as a ski boot.
The ski itself is no different from what able-bodied skiers use. The difference is that sit-skiers also use a pair of “outriggers”, or small skis attached to crutches on my arms. They basically act like stabilisers, allowing me to initiate turns and shift my body weight through the ski edge.
All this kit means I can be self-sufficient. I can go skiing wherever I want, take any lifts I want. I can go anywhere on skis – and probably much faster than most!
I wish it had been plain sailing since Vancouver, but it wasn’t. I went through a painful divorce. My wife and I both loved each other, but my brain damage led to anger management issues. It was just too much. I was chucked off the ski team for a time for threatening to beat up the military coach – not the best idea. That was around the same time as I was discharged from the Army. It felt as if a lot of people had turned their backs on me when I needed them most.
In retrospect, I was just being stubborn. I bit the bullet, said sorry, and started getting my life back together. I will be 34 in Sochi, and have already committed to competing in Korea in 2018. Then, hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you I’m going for a gold medal, but all I can say at the moment is I’m going to give it the best I can.
I don’t feel disabled when I’m skiing. We can ski better than the majority of the population, anyway. Some of the top guys reach speeds of more than 70mph. There’s nothing we can’t do that the able-bodied guys can. It’s just that we have an aid to help us do it.
You can’t beat getting up on a bright clear morning when it’s minus 10°C with beautiful views and fresh air; when you’re going down the hill with the wind in your face, speed suit on, all the hairs standing up on your arms. That’s what I love about the sport. Who’s going to win: me or the mountain?
Mick's customised kit...
Seat: The carbon fibre shell, custom-fitted to Mick’s legs, was supplied by NP Aerospace, a British engineering company that makes vehicle and body armour. The seat back protects Mick’s spine in the event of a crash.
Frame: This flexes as Mick shifts his weight through the suspension. It alone cost £5,000, bought courtesy of charity Help for Heroes.
Suspension: Similar to a car’s, and made by Supacat, a Devon-based company that builds the Army’s Jackal reconnaissance vehicle. Mick’s is calibrated to match his weight, and he can alter the set-up depending on the event.
Ski: The block at the bottom of the frame slots directly into a normal racing ski.
Outriggers: These titanium crutches are cut exactly to Mick’s arm length and help him to lean in to a turn when he’s on the course.
Watch the Winter Paralympics: Opening Ceremony - today from 3:30pm on Channel 4