Ben is 29 years old and from Swansea, Wales. A former cyclist and triathlete Ben had a serious accident during a time trial event that left him paralysed from the waist down. During his rehabilitation at the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital Ben rediscovered his love of sport alongside physical activity advisors from WheelPower. He attended the 2017 Inter Spinal Unit Games and whilst at the unit he was talent spotted by British Rowing who set him on the pathway to the Paralympics. In 2020 Ben will make his debut in Tokyo 2020 and here is his story ...
"I was quite a high level cyclist and I had a couple of sponsors on the programme. I was racing in the last race of the season and unfortunately was involved in a racing incident. There was my race on the circuit as well as an amateur time trial and there was a bit, how can I put it, a bit of an altercation between the two races and I just ended up on my back and three weeks later I was at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, with the news that they didn’t know if I would ever walk again, whether it's permanent or what!"
Ben is now a full time wheelchair user and following his accident he was determined to stay positive and in his words 'make the most of a bad situation'. Despite the new challenges of life Ben realised that sport would continue to be very important to him during his rehabilitation and it wasn't long until he was signing himself up at the first opportunity to take part in a weekly session with the WheelPower advisors.
When I came into hospital I had three goals. One was to leave hospital by Christmas, one was to return to work and the third was to get back into some form of sport. The first time I cried after my injury was when I recieved my weekly 'school like' planner at Stoke Mandeville. But I noticed a week away on the Tuesday was a sports session blocked up for the whole afternoon, so I thought right, I arrived at the hospital on the Thursday afternoon, got told I’ve probably never walk again, I thought right now I need something to focus on. The physio’s came around in the afternoon and told us about the sport and I thought great I need to get to that sports session, to put a smile on my face and get into it. I rolled down to the gym and there was a big sign on the door saying sport was cancelled. I just sat in the corridor and cried! It was the lowest point of the whole journey because it was something I was hoping for to distract myself. But it was something each week, no matter what happens there’ll be three hours where you can have a smile on your face. No matter what the lows are through the week, you get to that sports session and you instantly smile. So for me that was a really key part of my rehabilitation."
Mentoring and Support
Whilst at the unit Ben was supported by staff member Olivia and WheelPower Physical Activity Advisor Ian. As well as the weekly sports sessions Ben also was learning how to use his wheelchair through a variety of skills he worked on over time.
"Ian taught me how to wheel on a cambered pavement and going up and down kerbs, and how to go to the shops. He told me, 'you live in London, so you’re going to be doing a lot of pushing around because the transport’s not that great'. So when I met Ian next he said we’re not going to be pushing around the hospital on the smooth surfaces today, we’re going to push to town, which is a kilometre away! Another guy in the unit joined us more to build up his confidence. And that’s what Ian does he gets people who are too afraid to adventure, to go on little adventures. It might be just to go outside the hospital doors rather than push around in the hospital grounds, that’s a big step. But without people like Ian that wouldn’t happen."
As well as the practical skills and the sport the support of people like Ian in the units provides the patients with someone to talk openly to, about sport, life and whatever Ben wanted to discuss.
"I could sit and chat to Ian for hours and hours. He was also big into cycling so it was good for me, and it just took the disability away. Because I was highly competitive and quite sporty, I never realised that you could be that competitive and that sporty in a wheelchair and Ian helped me to see that it was possible. But as friendly as he was he also pushes you to do things that you think you can’t do, even if it took three hours sometimes!"
Inter Spinal Unit Games 2017
During the Inter Spinal Unit Games Ben got to try lots of different sports during the week of activity at Stoke Mandeville Stadium. Representing the nearby unit Ben joined fellow patients and competed across multiple sports. ben was chosen to take part in the Swimming and Shooting, and was the winner of the paraplegic division in the pool. The Unit also took home the silver medal overall finishing runners up over the course of the week.
"I was speaking to someone in the pool before the race, who was a bit nervous of swimming. 'I said look just do it, and he said if you can do it you’re the same age as me I can do it'. He swam the race and he said thank you at the end. I think this is what the Inter Spinal Unit Games are about - seeing other people doing what you think you can’t. You are around people either better or worse than yourself, but you just spur each other on, and if you know someone can’t do something you try and help them."
Benjamin started indoor rowing in late 2016 after the NSIC had arranged regular sessions from British Rowing. He was quickly spotted by British Rowing staff and officially joined the para rowing development squad in 2017.
"The British rowing girls came to the hospital every three weeks, to do an after school club sort of thing. They did a test and I was invited down to Caversham and I’ve since started training on the development pathway programme."
In the years that have followed Ben has had a phenomenal rise to the international stage. He made his international debut for the GB Rowing Team in 2019, claiming two bronze medals at the Gavirate International Regatta, before winning bronze at World Cup II in Poznan on his World Cup debut. He was then selected to represent Great Britain as the PR1 men’s single sculler at the 2019 World Championships where he finished just one second outside of the medals in fourth. (British Rowing)
In the summer of 2021 Ben was selected for the delayed 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games where he will compete in the PR1 category. Everyone at Stoke Mandeville Stadium/WheelPower is so proud to see Ben reach the Paralympics and we all wish him every success at his debut games in Japan.
The final quote was taken from Ben in 2017 during the Inter Spinal Unit Games ...
"The Paralympics are a big step, it’s something I‘ve struggled with at the hospital. Everyone says you’ve got your injury now you can be a Paralympian, well yes theoretically you could, but just because I’m in a wheelchair it doesn’t mean I’m going to be excessively good at sport and it’s not an easy route. I’ve still got four years of hard graft, even if I want to get there, but I’m not saying it’s not an aim. It’ll be great to represent your country, don’t get me wrong but not everyone ends up in that situation. You need the right attitude, strength, courage and you need all those attributes an Paralympian has already, but you can’t suddenly develop them because you are disabled." - Benjamin Pritchard (2017)
Ben made his Paralympic debut at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games (August 2021) competing in the PR1 Single Sculls. After making his way through the heats, and winning the repechage he took his place in the final where he finished in 5th place.
“The dream was a medal and I genuinely believed that I could do it until I crossed the line. I struggle in the headwind with my disability and I think I was gaining on them but ran out of track. It is three years to Paris now and hopefully in three years' time I will be back at my second Paralympic Games with this experience behind me and we will see where we go.” (Wales Online)
Have a look at the British Rowing website or Facebook page for further information on adaptive rowing, classification opportunities, Paralympic pathways and where to find your nearest club. Or email British Rowing at email@example.com