12:28 16 March 2017
FEATURE: 3-time Paralympian Barrow wouldn't change his life for anything
By Rich Freeman
TOKYO, March 16, Kyodo
Three-time Paralympian Andy Barrow would be horrified if people still had the same general view of the disabled as prevailed in William Shakespeare's time, when they were often regarded and portrayed as being evil.
But the Bard's words from Henry VI, Part III, are very much something the 37-year-old understands and embraces as students at the British School Tokyo recently discovered when the school hosted the former British wheelchair rugby captain.
"Let me embrace thee, sour adversity, for wise men say it is the wisest course."
Back in 1997, Barrow was a keen sportsman. But his life changed forever during a rugby game when he suffered a spinal-cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down with limited use of his hands. He was just 17 at the time.
"Four things happened really fast," he told students and parents at the BST campus.
"There was a loud crack, searing pain went through my neck, my ears popped louder and deeper than they ever have before or since, and there was a scream, and that scream was me."
But that, Barrow said, was not the worst day of his life.
That came a few days later when a nurse came into his ward and told Barrow that despite the positive talk from the doctors, the truth was "'You are not going to make any kind of recovery. In fact, you are not going to walk out of here. You are never going to walk again.'"
"It was the worst moment of my life but also the most important. It made me realize you cannot change the past and if you take too much time worrying about the future you take your eye off what is happening in the present."
During the next five months in hospital, Barrow had to reteach himself to do all the things that most people take for granted.
He also discovered that sports did not end when you became disabled, and as a former rugby player he turned his attention to the wheelchair version of the sport.
Wheelchair rugby evolved from wheelchair basketball when some athletes with spinal injuries in Canada decided they needed to invent a new game as they were uncompetitive in the latter through "nothing other than a lack of functionality."
Wheelchair basketball was primarily for those who had suffered back injuries and still had full use of their hands. Wheelchair rugby players generally had neck injuries that also limited the use of their hands.
But as Barrow pointed out that does not mean "we cannot smash into one another," which is why it was known initially as "Murderball," until the name changed when it applied for Paralympic status.
Barrow initially joined the London Wheelchair Rugby club and "played for fun."
But the competitiveness within him soon took over and he started attending more and more training sessions and gym sessions, eventually progressing to the Great Britain squad in 1999.
Having just missed out on a spot at the Sydney Paralympics, he became a full-time athlete, making his international debut at the World Championships in Gothenburg in 2002.
By the time he retired 10 years later, Barrow had played professionally in the United States, taken part in three Paralympic Games, three World Championships, and five European Championships, where he won three straight gold medals.
"Three things come to mind," he once said on the best advice he was ever given. "Never give up, there is no substitute for hard work and to quote golfer Arnold Palmer 'the harder I work, the luckier I get.'"
The 2012 Paralympics, played across the river from where he grew up, provided the perfect opportunity for Barrow -- who captained the British team to fifth place -- to end his career on a high.
"Representing my country was a real honor but leading Great Britain was huge. Singing the national anthem in front of 12,000 people every time we played. And then to parade around London after the games in front of half a million people."
"It was more than just sport. An entire cultural Olympiad ran alongside the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The Paralympics are the biggest single event for social change. To experience that and understand it was such a gift for me."
Having stepped away from the sport "at the perfect time," Barrow now spends his time as a motivational speaker and mentor and intends to spend quite a bit of time in Asia in the build-up to Rugby World Cup 2019 and the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, both of which will be hosted by Japan.
"I believe a big part of being an athlete is giving back to people who want to listen and learn from it. I want people to take something from what I say and apply it to their life so (they) can be better and aspire to what (they) want to achieve."
"Your life is a series of opportunities or chances, strung together by the choices and decisions you make. You are ultimately in charge of your own destiny."
And one of his key messages to people with and without a disability is "It is possible to triumph over adversity, and take positives from everything in life."
So much so that he said he would not change anything that has happened to him.
"If someone came to me the night before my accident and told me 'Tomorrow you are going to have an accident, and you will lose a lot. You will lose the ability to walk. It will be a life-changing event.'...I would still go. Because this is my life based on the opportunities I've made for myself based on the luck and chances I've had. Your life is what it is. You're shaping it but only by what you do now."