Callum Russell - Wheelwrights Fund 2021

Meet Callum ...

Callum is 24 and from Manchester. A keen sportsman Callum was always very active during his childhood and when he discovered mountain biking there was no looking back. As he explains, “It started with rides out with my family when I was younger and then once I joined high school I started to make friends through cycling and it grew from there.”

As his love for the sport continued to grow his natural talent was being recognised and he decided to take part in some races. “When I was younger I’d always looked up to the professional athletes in the sport but found it difficult to get into it competitively, that was until I found some local races held near me. As time went on and I got more races under my belt I decided I wanted to make something from my racing.”

At this time Callum’s life was ‘Mountain Biking’. As well as the daily training, the weekend races Callum was also working full time as a bike mechanic. “Mountain biking was all I knew! Over the summer I spent most weekends away and the work in the week meant I could afford to do it. I was self-employed which meant I could manage my time to try and make a career out of sport.”

Callum Russell riding for Orange (Image courtesy of Orange Bikes/Jim Toplis)

Callum was now riding at a semi-professional level, competing across the United Kingdom, as well as at some races on the World Series. As he explains, "My last result in 2017 was at a national enduro comp where I was 3rd alongside some top people on the podium." In the off-season Callum had also recently caught the attention of some key sponsors as he headed into 2018. “It was all I ever wanted and I genuinely felt privileged to sign with a great British brand like Orange Bikes.  After a great end to last year I was really looking forward to getting the new season started."

The Accident ... 

On 17th March 2018 everything changed for Callum at the very first race of the season.

“It was the day before the PMBA Enduro race and I went along to Gisburn Forest to do a few practice laps with some friends. It was a track that I’ve done loads of times but on one of the last stages of practice there was a line we were just trying. It was 2 jumps, but instead of making the two I was trying to jump over both. It was quite a big gap but something I’d done before. I wasn’t massively into going out of my comfort zone and I knew what I could do and didn’t take huge risks, which is why this was such a freak accident.”

Image Courtesy of @callumrussell

In the moments after his accident Callum was fully conscious and very aware that it was really bad straight away. “My legs were so heavy and it felt like my legs had been tied down to the ground. My biggest worry initially was that it was freezing cold and that I would be left for a long time. Fortunately, someone who saw my accident was a guy from Switzerland. None of my friends had signal but with his phone the air ambulance was called which was very lucky. I was on the ground for about half an hour and it was about 45 minutes till I left. So, it wasn’t that long but it felt like a long time. Everyone who was there did an amazing job of getting me out of the forest and the Air Ambulance were also fantastic. I can't thank them all enough.”

“I knew straight away that I’d be very lucky if there was any coming back from it and I had almost come to terms with it before I even reached the hospital in Preston. It was here I was told that I had broken my back at T8, T10, T12 and severed my spinal cord, meaning I can't feel or move anything past T12 (waist level). I had surgery that night and the physios had a good understanding of spinal injury which was great in the weeks that followed.”

After waiting on a bed at the Spinal Unit Callum was transferred to Southport where he continued his rehabilitation for a further 5 months. “I went into their normal unit for 2 weeks bed rest before moving to an outreach centre. I was desperate to get moving a bit more so after moving to the new centre I started to do more and more each day. A lot of it was learning in my chair and transfers, as getting off a bed and into a chair was so hard at first! There were only 5 beds there and it was for people looking to make an active recovery which suited me.”

Whilst at the unit Callum met Karl Nicholson (Physical Activity Advisor from WheelPower) who supported him to maintain fitness and access new sporting opportunities. “Working with people like Karl was a huge boost. I would love to do something like that in the future and it genuinely changed my recovery when people like that came in.” Sport and physical activity were an important aspect of Callum’s recovery period and whilst at the unit he took part in regular gym workouts, used a handbike attachment, and had swimming sessions in the onsite therapy pool. The spinal unit also had a wheelchair basketball club which Callum attended. “It was a great distraction from everything that was going on around me and it was also great to be around and learn from other people who had also had similar injuries to me.”

“For me exercise and being physically active was as important as ever and it was the first thing I wanted to go and do. It’s what I’d always turn to before my accident and I knew that it'd have massive health benefits but also my mental health too. Everyone at the spinal unit was really encouraging of this which massively helped in my recovery.”

Unfortunately, Callum missed out on the opportunity to take part in the Inter Spinal Unit Games as the timings didn’t quite work out for him. “I would have loved to have gone but I think it came at the time I was coming out of the hospital and I was just so busy with getting back home. I had already sorted some stuff with wheelchair racing but I remember everyone spoke really highly of it.”

After leaving the unit Callum returned home. During the 6 months spent in rehab a just giving page was set up for him and it reached over £30,000. The money raised by friends, family and the wider mountain biking community helped Callum and his family to adapt their home with a new stairlift, which allowed him to convert his bedroom and to buy a new chair too. “The money meant I could go home when I was discharged. I was so touched and overwhelmed at the time. It helped me a huge amount in me getting on my way and I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am now without that initial support.”

Callum was already thinking about the future and what sports he would like to take part in in the future and once home these thoughts grew stronger as more options opened up to him. “As soon as I got home I wanted to get into something and straight away I was thinking about getting into sport, but not necessarily competitive. I knew it would help my recovery, and keep me fit and give me a goal. About a week after I'd left the spinal unit I went to a local wheelchair racing club. Having the opportunity to take part in this and having something to look forward to was really helpful but nothing really came of it in the end. As it was very soon after my accident getting back into normal life took over.”

Rowing ...

It was these individual sports that Callum was most interested in and a few months after leaving the unit and after seeing a few posts on social media about rowing he got in contact with British Rowing and he has been rowing ever since.

On the water ready for practice 

“I had never rowed before but I’d seen they were looking for people to join the team. I organised to meet up with one of the coaches at my nearest rowing club and it was great to chat. It reminded me of the training I did for cycling. Next, they organised for me to get in a boat down at Caversham. Getting in a boat for the first time was great to finally try something that I could possibly see myself taking up. I wasn't instantly attracted to rowing and it was so hard to know whether I actually would enjoy it, or even be any good at it. The first sessions I struggled to even stay away from the pontoon and kept getting tangled in a rope they had me attached to! Something about it made me want to try it again though and I remember seeing other rowers who made it look so effortless. I knew that if I could row anything like them I would enjoy it.”

After visiting Caversham Callum continued to attend sessions at his local club in Salford and soon after lots of equipment was sent to him as training continued to grow. “British Rowing has got a really great system to get people set up in sport and to get you on that pathway which is really good. There was no pressure from anyone and I could have changed my mind at any time if I decided it wasn’t for me.”

“After enjoying my initial introductions I decided to take on a training plan and I attended one of my first training camps at Marlow. They set me up with my local club and coach, and then they sent me a few sessions to do a week and the support grew more and more from there. The training is a lot more regimented than what I was doing in mountain biking, when you could sometimes fall back on natural talent. It was a lot to get used to, and the reporting back to coaches was initially strange for me but I’m getting used to it more now.”

Callum is now training twice a day and is currently on the Paralympic Development Programme with aspirations to compete at future Paralympics. He competes in the PR1 category which is for arms and shoulders and is showing real potential for the sport. Although Covid-19 has meant he has had less opportunity to compete so far he has been having tests throughout the year which have gone very well, and he has also taken part in the British Indoor Rowing Champs.

“I can’t wait to do some racing on the water and we are now working towards the world champs in China in 2021. I am also hoping to get down to Marlow to meet up with other members of the team as there are now more guys who have joined my category.”

The Wheelwrights Fund ... 

With his career in rowing progressing quickly Callum got in touch with WheelPower after reading about the 2020 Wheelwrights Fund on social media and subsequently applied for some funding to support his development in the sport. Callum was awarded £940 to purchase the items he needed and we are pleased to hear how much they have helped him so far.  

“The GPS speedcoach, the clothing and the support towards travel costs will mean I can continue doing what I’m doing. It means I can take my training to that next step and provide me what its needs to help me progress.”

“GPS speedcoach is basically a screen you might get on your rowing machine that goes on the boat. It’s an amazing bit of kit and has your stroke rate on there, and helps me keep track of times when I’m on the water. Before the device my coach was timing it on a stopwatch and working out the stroke rate but with this new kit I can now do a session without his input and I can just do it on my own depending on what session I’m doing. It’s just a really good way of keeping track of things and knowing I am going in the right direction. Making a tiny change in rowing can make a big difference and now I have the data I can see if it’s helped or not.”

Callum and his new GPS Speedcoach

In addition to the GPS the clothing and travel costs will support Callum to attend extra sessions both at his local club and in South East where British Rowing are based. “I now have clothing dedicated to rowing and it’s been a huge help to have the right equipment for the right sport. I now look like a rower!”

Callum is now looking ahead to a positive future in sport and with the support of the Wheelwrights fund he is able to progress to the next level and maybe one day be on the podium once more, as a rower.

“I’m confident in what I do and I enjoy what I do, I believe in the people around me who are helping me get to where I want to be in the sport. The goal and training plan are based towards Paris 2024. I know it’s still a long way off and things can change but that is the ultimate aim.”

In addition to sport Callum is also excited to be moving into a new home with his girlfriend and he recently appeared in an inclusive television advert for Virgin Media Broadband. As he explains, “I went for an audition and got it! It was amazing, a mad experience and I’m so proud of it. I would love to do more stuff like this and this is why I love to do sport. When I was in the hospital and saw these people from charities like WheelPower to do sport it gave me such a boost. I would love to inspire someone who has just had an accident or growing up with a disability in the future and I would love to help get disability into the media in a more positive way too.”

Thank you to Callum for sharing your story with WheelPower and we wish you all the best for the future. 

Update: May 2022 - First International Medal

"Big learning curve this weekend first international race off the back of a big training camp (International Para Rowing-Regatta, Gavirate, Italy) Happy to come away with my first international medal (a bronze) Onwards and upwards from here." @callumrussell 

British Rowing (The national governing body for rowing) - Anyone can get involved in rowing, regardless of physical disability, sensory or learning impairment. There are many benefits to being involved in rowing; the sense of freedom, making life-long friends, and learning new skills whilst keeping fit and healthy. You can do all this on the water or indoors, just for fun or to compete in races.

Find out more about para-rowing  

The Wheelwrights Fund is open to anyone who has acquired a spinal cord injury within the past five years. You are able to apply for any money for any equipment or activities to help you stay active, get active, or help you achieve your sporting potential. The funding has been made available through the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, in association with National Tyre Distributors Association. Find out more: The Wheelwrights Fund 2021

NEXT: Wheelwrights Fund - Melanie's Story

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