PAUL Smith was one of the fittest men around until a car crash destroyed his life and wiped out 12 years. But he fought back, raising more than £2m for charity and he’s now training for the toughest challenge of them all.
Twelve days after he left school, Paul Smith joined the Royal Navy. It was 1975 and entering the senior service was a dream come true.
For it gave him the opportunity to continue his first love – sport. Oh, and there was the bit about seeing the world and learning a trade too.
As a schoolboy he had run for England Schools and he lived and breathed athletics – everything from the 1500 metres to marathons. He thought he was super-fit.
But then he won a coveted place in the Portsmouth Command’s field gun team and he discovered a whole new meaning to the words ‘fitness’ and ‘discipline’.
‘It was my proudest moment. Any member of the field gun crew won respect not just from those in the navy but from the other services too. They knew how tough that event was,’ says the 55-year-old from Cosham.
It was 1989 and Portsmouth triumphed at the once-annual event held at the Royal Tournament, beating arch rivals Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm.
Paul recalls: ‘The selection alone was very tough. I had the advantage that I was an athlete, but that didn’t come anywhere near the training and discipline you needed to be part of a field gun crew.
‘Remember, we were moving at speed and there was a lot of danger involved in moving more than a ton of metal around and over an obstacle course.’
To emphasise just how tough you had to be to take part, Paul adds: ‘I saw fingers disappear and one guy ran on a broken femur for about seven weeks. He didn’t know it was broken, but he’d been running on it, carrying a 120lb wheel banging against it week after week. No-one ever wants to give up their position on a field gun crew because it’s such a great honour.’
Paul was selected again for the 1991 event, reached the peak of physical fitness, again, but Portsmouth lost (‘there’s no second or third in field gun. You win or you don’t’).
He then had two weeks’ leave ‘to enjoy some time with the family after the Royal Tournament’. He, his wife Jane and their three daughters who were six, four and two, lived at Cosham even though Paul was based at Devonport. ‘It was important that the girls had continuity at their schools.’
As his leave ended he kissed goodbye to the four women in his life and set off for Plymouth.
He adds: ‘I was returning to HMS Chatham at Devonport and a young naval officer was in a hurry to get back to HMS Sultan at Gosport. Ironic really wasn’t it? He overtook on a blind bend at night and hit me head-on.’
Paul spent the next 12 years in military hospitals, much of it in a coma-like state. He suffered serious brain injuries and damage to his spine, chest and hip. He would never walk again.
‘For 12 years I didn’t know my own family. I don’t recall anything. I can only tell you about the accident because I have been told about it so many times. For most of their lives my daughters have only known their dad as being disabled. The thing that hurts most is that they lost so much of their childhood.
‘It was in 1998 that they decided nothing else could be done for me and now it’s just a case of ‘‘keep taking the medication’’. I’m in pain 24 hours a day, but I manage it even though I just don’t know what’s round the corner on any day,’ he says without a hint of irony.
But about eight years ago he says he suddenly became more aware of life going on around him. ‘All of a sudden I wanted to do physical things.
‘Before my accident I used to do a lot of charity work running from Portsmouth to Liverpool and Portsmouth to Glasgow, that sort of thing, raising money for children’s charities.
‘And then, suddenly, Jane tells me that I decided I’d like to take up a challenge and being a lifelong Arsenal fan I decided I’d push myself around the outside of the Emirates stadium in my NHS wheelchair.
‘I did 15 laps, which was about four miles, and raised £4,000. I hadn’t done any training and it was tough. But I’d done it’
Friends said they’d continue to support Paul if he wanted to do more. He did. He’d found a meaning to life again. ‘Every year since, I’ve completed a challenge of one kind or another in my wheelchair.’
Last year he pushed himself 325 miles from Plymouth to London via Portsmouth and this year increased the number of laps of the Emirates to 255.
And now he’s in full-time training for the biggest challenge of his disabled life – propelling himself the 2.7 miles up the incredibly steep Rock of Gibraltar. ‘If you think the last 200 metres of Farlington Avenue to the top of Portsdown Hill are steep, then parts of the Rock are much, much steeper,’ he says.
It happens next April and his goal is to raise £100,000 for the two children’s charities closest to his heart, Save The Children and Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Why children? ‘As a child I was a given a chance. I was born in Middlesborough and immediately put in a home for new-born babies. I was taken from that home by a couple – my parents – who fostered me and then a few weeks or months later they had a choice of returning me to the home or adopting me and taking me to Australia.
‘They’d already planned to emigrate and they chose to adopt me and bring me up as their own. And that’s where I grew up until I was about nine.
‘It’s them I have to thank for the views I have about children – that they all deserve a chance in life, just like I was given.’