The inspiration behind Andy’s golden victory

Andy McElean won a gold medal in the Invictus Games in wheelchair basketball. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142739-898)
Andy McElean won a gold medal in the Invictus Games in wheelchair basketball. ''Picture: Allan Hutchings (142739-898)

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Being paralysed has not stopped former soldier Andy McErlean achieving his dreams.

The pinnacle of his sporting career came this month with a gold medal at the Invictus Games in London. Reporter Jeff Travis went to meet Andy at his home in Denmead.

A shiny gold medal hangs proudly around the neck of Andy McErlean – and seven words glisten.

142739_INVICTUS_23/9/14''Andy McElean won a gold medal in the Invictus Games in wheelchair basketball, pictured with his family. ''Picture: Collect PPP-140923-121308001

142739_INVICTUS_23/9/14''Andy McElean won a gold medal in the Invictus Games in wheelchair basketball, pictured with his family. ''Picture: Collect PPP-140923-121308001

The words on the medal are: ‘I am the master of my fate’.

No phrase could be more pertinent to the life of this 44-year-old, who went from the despair of being paralysed as a teenager, to the sporting triumph of winning a gold medal at the Invictus Games in London’s Olympic Copper Box Arena as more than 8,000 fans cheered him on.

Earlier this month, Andy was on the winning British team that defeated America in the basketball final of the Invictus Games, an international multi-sport event in which wounded soldiers took part in sports such as sitting volleyball and indoor rowing.

Every competitor had suffered their own heartbreak, some losing arms and legs in warfare, but they were united in a common goal to harness the power of competitive sport to inspire recovery.

File photo dated 6/3/2014 of Prince Harry with the wheelchair Basketball teams at the Copper Box in the Queen Elizabeth Park, London where he announced the Invictus Games, a Paralympic-style sporting championship for injured servicemen and women. Prince Harry turns 30 on September 15. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday September 7, 2014. See PA story ROYAL Harry. Photo credit should read: John Stillwell/PA Wire YPN-140709-114704038

File photo dated 6/3/2014 of Prince Harry with the wheelchair Basketball teams at the Copper Box in the Queen Elizabeth Park, London where he announced the Invictus Games, a Paralympic-style sporting championship for injured servicemen and women. Prince Harry turns 30 on September 15. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Sunday September 7, 2014. See PA story ROYAL Harry. Photo credit should read: John Stillwell/PA Wire YPN-140709-114704038

I meet Andy at his bungalow in Denmead where he lives with his wife Cathy, a school teacher.

He is still riding high on the wave of euphoria following his gold medal victory, but is also very humble about his achievements.

‘It means a great deal, it’s fantastic,’ he says.

‘It was a surreal moment.

‘I have never played in front of a crowd like that before.’

With the shoulders of a giant and hands the size of boxing mitts, Andy always excelled at sport, whether it be tennis, cricket, basketball or rugby. But his life changed forever when he snapped his spine in half in a car crash in Germany.

Then 19 and just a year after joining the army, he was seriously injured as the car turned over on the way back from a rugby trial.

It came just a couple of years after his parents had watched with pride at the Guildhall in Portsmouth as their son received the Victor Ludorum trophy for being an outstanding sportsman at St John’s College.

But being paralysed never killed his love for sport or the desire to train and compete.

Andy says: ‘I just wanted to get back out there.

‘When I was in bed, I wanted to get out in the wheelchair.

‘I wanted to be independent. It was a big shock at the time.

‘But then you just get on with it, which is a bit like the Invictus Games for these guys.’

A short walk to Andy’s garage proves just how determined he was.

There is a cabinet full of medals and trophies from all the competitions he has won over the years, sitting a few feet from the multi-gym he uses most days.

He won a gold this year in table tennis and pool at the Paralysed Veterans Games in Philadelphia, USA.

He is twice the winner of the national UK doubles championships for wheelchair tennis.

He regularly jets off to Egypt to pursue his love of diving and as we speak, he is packing for a visit to Spain to play tennis.

Sport runs through his veins.

His entire life revolves around getting the most out of himself and his body, despite only having two working limbs.

Even tearing his left biceps when he fell out of his wheelchair four years ago, leading to a weakened left arm, has not hindered him.

‘It’s just the adrenaline,’ says Andy, a member of the British Ex-Services Wheelchair Sports Association.

‘I love all the training.

‘Not so much as I am getting older!’

All those years of training came to a climax when his sporting talents went on show on a world stage as he was cheered on by Prince Harry, who spearheaded the games.

Andy says: ‘It made you feel quite proud out there when you hear the crowd chanting.

‘The anticipation and waiting for the TV to say five, four, three, two, one.

‘It was immense pride.

‘Prince Harry is a fantastic fella – just like his mother.

‘They were his games.

‘He was so exuberant when he saw us after the games.’

He was cheered on by his proud parents Ann McErlean, a retired nurse at Queen Alexandra Hospital, and Dr Peter McErlean, the former doctor for Kingston Prison.

Ann, a member of Rowlands Castle Golf Club and a big fan of sport, said: ‘It was unbelievable.

‘How the roof didn’t come off, I don’t know.

‘We watched in the morning the Americans playing the Australians, the French and the Danes. They were so good.

‘The Yanks were very slick.

‘The final was the Yanks and the UK – just what you wanted.

‘The arena was full and there were over 8,000 people.

‘It was absolutely amazing and when they scored, everybody jumped up.’

But her son winning a medal came as no huge surprise as she realises how hard he had worked for it.

‘Andrew has always been a star in everything to do with sport,’ says the 75-year-old.

‘I know he’s absolutely amazing. He always has been.’

Andy says he will never forget his experience in the Invictus Games and hopes to get the opportunity to compete again if it returns.

He said: ‘It was great being with the other players. The training was great.

‘It was quite emotional.’

He is not ready to store his medal in the garage with his other accolades quite yet.

He laughs: ‘As my nephew said, aunty Cathy is probably going to put it in the garage! But it has pride of place, yes.’

And the words on the medal do resonate with his outlook on life.

‘You can control yourself and affect your own destiny,’ he says.

‘I just try to be the best I can be. There are far better players out there, but you have to play to the best of your ability.’

About the games

PRINCE Harry (pictured) was the driving force behind the Invictus Games, named after the Latin for ‘unconquered, invincible’.

Having seen a British team competing at the US Warrior Games held in Colorado in 2013, the prince wanted to bring the concept of a similar international sporting event to the UK.

The event was put together over 10 months with £1m funding provided by the Royal Foundation, a charity established by Prince Harry along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

The opening ceremony was attended by David Cameron and the royal family and there was a recorded message from America’s First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Speaking at the launch, the prince said that the games would ‘demonstrate the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and demonstrate life beyond disability’.

He also said their long-term objective was to ensure injured troops are not forgotten as Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan comes to an end.

Around 300 competitors from 13 countries which have fought alongside the United Kingdom in recent military campaigns participated.

These included the United States, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand and Afghanistan.

Sports included athletics, powerlifting and wheelchair rugby.

The motto of the games was ‘I am’ and the words engraved on the medals were from the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley.