When Jordan Beecher lost his leg he turned to sport to cope, then discovered he excelled as an athlete – but how did it affect his mindset?
RISING What happened when you were on a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Parachute Regiment in 2012? JORDAN BEECHER, ATHLETE ‘I stepped on an IED – I knew I’d lost my foot straight away. I was lucky enough to be casevac’d to Camp Bastion, then to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. There were more operations, where I started to lose more and more of my leg at the time because of the infection. I realised I probably wasn't going to be a soldier anymore so decided there and then really that I was going to probably go into sport.’
RISING It must have been pretty tough to have to go through that? JB ‘I was on lots of drugs. It was 50/50 really. I still had my knee, which was a big thing. I didn't realise quite how bad it was, I think. I had a quite bad infection. I reckon there might have been excrement in the blast so I've got pretty dirty stuff inside me. It was quite a positive experience really because I was progressing. I'd gone from zero by losing a foot and thinking: ‘Christ, I lost my career,’ to within 16 days doing physio. It was a quite turnaround.’
I went from being in combat to being basically like a child again, like an adolescent
RISING So you kept a positive outlook then? JB ‘I was very lucky to have the family and the girlfriend at that time. It was very easy to feel sorry for myself, but it wasn't going to benefit me in any way. Christmas was pretty negative, to be fair. There was no physio I could do, I was stuck on crutches in a three bedroom maisonette up four flights of stairs to the front door. I couldn't carry a cup of tea to the living room, so that was probably one of the lower bits, because I had gone from being in combat to being basically like a child again, like an adolescent.’
RISING How did you progress from there? JB ‘I was walking by January, so probably three or four months after getting blown up, and that's where my physio said: “Do you want to do sport, what do you want to do?” I had no real ideas or inklings, so she suggested cycling or rowing because they're both fully sponsored by professional programmes. My whole thought process on that was that if I fall off a bike I hit a road, and if I fall out of a boat I get wet, so I went with the boat one!’
RISING How important are those sort of big changes to progress? JB ’It’s a hard one. It's very easy to feel sorry for yourself, but not only do you suffer for that, everyone else around you who cares about you suffers for it. Also, when you get knocked down, it's also very easy to get better. I find myself more driven when I've been knocked than when things are going swimmingly. So, if anything I need a good grounding now and again in order to spark me to do better things.’
RISING You had a setback with another operation, but fast forward to the Invictus Games, how did your mindset change as you got more serious about competition? JB ‘I cut my source off to the outside world. Basically if something wasn't going to make the boat go faster I didn't do it. So I was training six days a week, sometimes seven. I had a full-time coach, I was training three times a day. I was eating the right things, I lost 20kg (44lb) in eight to ten weeks from the point of the Paralympic Games up to Invictus. My whole mindset changed. It was a coping mechanism for getting over what happened to me. Maybe in hindsight not the healthiest one. But I've always been, since I was 16 years old, Jordan who’s a soldier and I was no longer Jordan who was a soldier, so I wanted to be Jordan the athlete, which is basically what I turned into.’
RISING How do you see yourself now? JB ’It took me a long time to realise actually I was the same person I was throughout the whole thing – at the time I was like. “Right, anybody who knew me as a soldier doesn't know me anymore,” so I kind of pushed everyone away. Whether that was the best thing to do, probably not, but actually it's what I needed at the time. That led through to GB trials the month after Invictus and I got on to the GB squad straight off the trials, the next day, because I beat everyone else, basically.’
RISING So sport became your way to move on from the Army? JB ‘It was a nice transition because I was actually due to be discharged from the army in February 2015 and that was November 2014. So, there was a three-month crossover where I was a paid athlete with physios, doctors, coaches, managers. I was going from the military environment, which is really regimented to a sport environment, which is still very similar. I thought it was a great way to transition. People tell you what to do, when to do it. I had to do my weight and heart rate every single morning, to get more out of every day. So if anything it was a more structured environment than the army.’
RISING You had success as a rower on Team GB so why did you not trial for the Rio Olympics? JB ‘I spent 15 months rowing for GB and I was really successful. I rowed in an able-bodied eight, in the Henley to Marlow Royal Regatta – probably the biggest rowing event in the world. I won gold at Italy, men's double, in the International Para Regatta, but I realised winning medals for rowing is a, “yes, we won, it's great,” but it's also like a massive downer that you've got the next thing to worry about now. I realised it wasn't making me happy. I made a decision in January 2016 to leave rowing and not trial for Rio.’
‘I had ten days off for Christmas and I realised I was dreading going back to training and it wasn't what I wanted. I was missing all these things that my friends were doing outside the army. I was worried I was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, but the moment I told my manager it was like a weight released – I realised I probably had done the right thing. I ended up joining the civil service, and now I'm back in a job I love, where it's teamwork and building together.’
I still stay fit because it's a good coping mechanism, but with people I enjoy spending time with
RISING Do you still use sport as a coping mechanism? JB ‘I still find sport is a really good outlet, I really enjoy it. I enjoy it more with people I care for, have feelings for, or people I enjoy spending time with. So I did Three Peaks this year with some friends. I did a coastal marathon with a few friends and I still stay really fit because it's a good coping mechanism, but I now do it with people I enjoy spending time with as opposed to just cohabiting a boat with four individuals because we row.’
RISING Moving onto the current challenge, how did you get roped into rowing across the Atlantic with your friend and former Parachute Regiment comrade Jon Armstrong? JB ‘Jon came to me about a year ago and was: “Mate, you used to row, do you want to row the Pacific Ocean?” I told him no way, because I didn't want to spend eight months naked in a boat with him. The Pacific's 8000 miles! Turns out it was probably a way to hoodwink me into thinking the Atlantic's not so bad. He came back to me and said, “The Atlantic will only take a month or so.” I said I'd think about it.’
‘The next week my girlfriend at the time dumped me, and feeling sorry for myself on a Sunday evening I phoned Jon and was like, “Hey, let's do it.” Obviously at the time being in a boat by myself in the Atlantic sounded like a great idea. Now it's escalated to this – £80,000-odd worth of sponsorship and our souls sold to several different sponsors! I think up until the first person lands Antigua this year or next year, more people have been to space than have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rowing boat – it’s quite an endeavour.’
RISING You are old comrades and friends – is that going to help you in the tough moments? JB ‘I've known John a long time, we served in Afghanistan when we were both 19. To have six weeks together in an ocean rowing boat I think'll be quite an amazing experience. I mean, hopefully – the aim of it is to basically finish it and stay friends. That's our number one priority. Anything else that comes of it will be great.’
Jon reversed into a minefield when we were 19 and we got out of that one OK
RISING So how are you going to do that? Have you got any ways to keep morale up? JB ‘We've had a few talks, like Jonathan's not always the easiest person to convince to do stuff. Jon's got one of those things where he sounds really intelligent, everyone assumes he's really intelligent, but actually he's a moron at times! But me and his wife both have ways of battering around that, and Jon has an unfair amount of luck in life as well, so if I'm going to row across the ocean with someone it'd be John! He reversed into a minefield when we were 19 and we got over that experience, so I’m pretty sure there's not much we can do to each other we won't get over while rowing.’
RISING The average is around 40-50 days to complete – how far will you have to row? JB ’Three thousand miles. It's about 2700 nautical miles as the crow flies, there to Antigua, but basically the better winds are further south. You row 200 miles south first and then it's about 2800 miles across.’
RISING What kind of physical preparation did you do? JB ‘Lots of lifting weights, to be honest. We're looking at losing quite a significant amount of weight, and that'll be muscle wastage. We're going to be at a calorie deficit, with 6500 calories a day to eat, but we're going to be burning between 8000 and 12,000 calories depending on if the weather's against us or with us. There's been lots of rowing too, but in these last few months now it's been really broken down into just lifting big weights, lots of squats, lots of deadlifts, lots of bodyweight stuff, lots of core. Being able to steady yourself in a seven-and-a-half metres by two metres boat that's only a foot off the water line is quite important – you’re very close to the sea – we're never going to get dry!
WHAT NEXT? Follow the progress live of Jordan Beecher and Jon Armstrong’s team Row2Recovery as they attempt to row across the Atlantic from La Gomera to Antigua over the holidays in the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge – they’re currently 1st in pairs.
Follow the writer @mattfitnessray