Hi Chris. Thank you for talking to Support through Sport UK.
So we’ve heard that, amongst other things, you ride monster waves in a kayak and are a fan of extreme mountain biking. Whilst this would be brave and daring for most people, you do all this despite having limited mobility in your legs. Tell us more …
I was always an outdoors kid, and was constantly off in the forest, out across the moors or down at the beach. The only team game I ever really enjoyed playing was rugby; everything else I did could be done on my own. When I wound up being discharged from the Army at the age of 25, with injuries to three of my four limbs, including my left foot and ankle and both knees, I got no help from the Army and very little help from the NHS. Soldiers were treated very differently back then and it took two years before I could try doing anything active. I guess I just went out and tried to find a new way of doing something I'd always done, and that was how I got into surfing kayaks. There were no doctors or parents telling me I couldn't, so I just went and found a way to make it work. For almost a decade, that was what I did, until I was diagnosed with a brain disorder that meant it was dangerous for me to go out on the water alone. However, having had no previous help from the NHS, I decided that there was no way that they were interfering in my life now, so I ignored them. As a result, I almost lost my life when my brain shut down whilst I was out on the water one day. Having determined for myself that this was a very real risk, I decided to find an alternative way to get my adrenaline fixes, and initially turned to adaptive skiing. Skiing is great, very much like surfing, and I enjoy it immensely, but it is very expensive, and the nearest place I could go skiing on snow was a 450 mile round trip away. Instead, I looked at what uninjured people do here in Devon, and that's when my mind went back to riding my mountain bike up Haytor when I was younger, or through Stover Woods. I thought there had to be an adaptive version of mountain biking and so started searching. Turns out there is very little out there, and most of what there is is even more ridiculously expensive than skiing, but the difference is that I have an abundance of great mountain biking right on my doorstep in Devon, so once again I decided I would make it work.
And this has led to you building up a company that will ultimately manufacture and sell such equipment?
When I first started surfing kayaks, it really used to annoy me that I would have to spend £1,400 on a kayak, when able-bodied surfers could get a board for £300 - 400. However, now I realise that actually that's a very reasonable price for a piece of adaptive sporting equipment! When I started looking into skiing, I found I'd need in the region of £4,500 to get fully kitted out, and mountain biking could cost anywhere up to £10,000! I don't care who you are, that's just ridiculous! It's morally wrong and I'm not going to accept that this is the way it has to be. I decided that things needed changing, so I set about putting together a company to change the status quo. It has taken me almost three years to get to where we are now, but in the last 12 months we have started working with some very exciting partners who want to help us to bring affordable equipment and accessible venues to people across the country. To date, I've probably spent between £5,000 and £10,000 out of my own pocket to get us to this stage, but I don't think we're a million miles away from seeing some real results in the near future. It's been a real hard slog at times, and I've wanted to give up on several ocassions, but I've come too far to just walk away (not that I'd get too far!), and have heard from too many people who really want to see this happen.
So your company - Merici Sports - should hopefully be able to provide kit at a more affordable rate?
We are having talks now about getting into production, which would see us selling bikes like the one I currently use for around £1,000 or less. We're also close to prototyping a second type of mountain bike that will sell at around the £1,500 mark. Now, when you see what I'm doing on these bikes, you have to ask yourself why there are companies out there charging upwards of three times that much for what they are claiming to be adaptive mountain bikes? Either they are severely over-engineering the bikes (which in some cases is what's happening), or they are radically over-charging for the products (which is what's happening in other instances). Merici Sports CIC is a regulated not-for-profit company, set up so that we can specifically sell our bikes as cheaply as possible! There are people out there who are making way more expensive products who will tell you our bikes aren't up to the extremes of real mountain biking - but in fairness I think the photos and films we have speak for themselves.
In addition to selling low-cost equipment, are we right in thinking that you are also going to be providing extreme sport training courses for people with disabilities?
What I want more than anything else is to start introducing kids to adaptive mounatin biking. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to be at an adaptive sports event for schools, and during this event I was able to get a 14 year old girl riding my bike around the tennis courts. I forget how many times she crashed, but in the end she just kept going round and round, and I watched as her two full-time carers wept whilst recording it on their phones. They were so excited to take this footage home to show the girl's parents, who had just assumed she would never ride a bike. About 18 months ago, I was able to take a member of the GB Para-skiing Team for a ride around Haldon Forest on my bike, and she was as happy as that 14 year old kid! If I could combine the two, and start to show kids with mobility problems that they can get out and ride the same stuff as their friends and family, we could set up habits for life that will allow us to break the horrendous cycle of disabled people feeling trapped and incapable of undertaking independent exercise.
So what would your message be to sports lovers who have faced similar adversity to yourself?
There is a way to make it happen, even if it takes you years to find it. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I recently saw a video of a paralysed woman surfing. She achieved this by being duct-taped to an able-bodied surfer. She found a way to make it happen, and you can too if you decide you are going to do it. I have come across negative people, even angry people, the whole time I've been trying to push this forward - but the most important thing has been having the determination to achieve my goals. Through that determination, I've been able to find a number of indiviuals, from a variety of organisations, who can see, and appreciate, what I'm trying to achieve and want to help me to reach that goal. If you search long enough, and hard enough, you can find those people too - but I'm hoping that the success of Merici Sports will mean that you might not have to look for quite as long and as far as I did!
Wow! Huge thanks for talking to us, Chris. Very, very inspiring.
Find out more about Merici Sports here.