It’s not often that a long haul flight of 11 hours literally flies by. Thanks to the inspirational man sitting next to me, I actually enjoyed my flight back from South Africa to the UK in September.
I couldn’t help noticing 2 things about Jaco Van Gass as he sat down in the seat next to me. His warm smile and his missing left arm. We started by talking about what was on every South Africans lips – the defeat of the Springboks by Japan in the opening rugby world cup game. I was enthralled as Jaco shared his own rugby playing experiences with me and how his disability changed his life.
Jaco’s Bio – As he was growing up in South Africa, Jaco Van Gass had a passion to either join the army or become a farmer. The South African Defence Force was not an option so he decided to apply to join the British army as a member of a commonwealth country. He hopped on a plane to the UK in July 2006 and whilst he passed the fitness test, legal wranglings between the 2 countries meant a delay in starting his basic training, which began in February 2007. After 6 weeks he was selected to join the Parachute regiment and was one of 20 of the original 110 applicants who received their wings in September 2007. His outstanding performance resulted in Jaco being selected to join 1 Para (every paratroopers aim) attached to the Special Forces (SAS and SBS services). On his second tour of Afghanistan in August 2009, he was badly injured. His heart stopped twice, he lost half his left arm and nearly lost his left leg. Jaco went on to join the first Walking with the Wounded expedition to the North Pole, then attempted Everest and was a member of the South Pole expedition. Discharged from the army on medical grounds in August 2012, Jaco found adjusting to civvie life behind a desk difficult. He heard that British Para Cycling was having an open day searching for new talent in early 2013. After being accepted he made the decision to leave his desk job and become a full-time professional athlete.
Why I nominate Jaco Van Gass as a #leadinglight:
- Doesn’t let setbacks deter him from his goals. During his basic training he was constantly punished and made to do extra fitness exercises because as an Afrikaans speaker new to the UK he couldn’t understand the Scottish corporal’s accent! 12 weeks before competing in the Invictus Games he fractured his left shoulder blade and couldn’t train on the road. He was under pressure to win a gold for the British team even though he hadn’t raced for 2 months. After a sleepless night, he just focused on doing his best and brought home 2 gold medals for cycling.
- Jaco’s passion and commitment to whatever he does is palpable. He loved every minute of his army career and took the opportunity to constantly learn new skills and become the best he could be. He always knew he could get hurt and lose friends yet that didn’t hold him back. He has never regretted his army career because “it has led to so much more.” This passion motivates him to train 4 hours a day 6 days a week on his bike in all weathers to compete at Rio in 2016 in the Paralympics (and Tokyo comes next!).
- His extraordinary mental strength. Jaco went from doing an active job in the army and being in the best shape of his life, to lying in a hospital bed for 7 months having lost an arm, some of his leg and having to be fed by others. At times he felt he would have been better off dying and cried himself to sleep at night. The minute he flicked the switch and made peace with his injuries, he was happier and his recovery accelerated. His acceptance that he couldn’t go back to active service but that he could do something else pushed him to learn to walk again and prove that he could live independently.
- He is still competing at the highest level. Most cyclists either do track or road. You won’t be surprised that Jaco competes in both disciplines (one of 4 riders out of a team of 20 to do this) which means no off season. This desire to tackle the unknown, broaden his skill-set and do something different has underpinned his working life.
Jaco’s nominations for career attributes: Passion – love what you’re doing in your career as it will get you through the times when you want to give up; the end goal is sometimes too far away – break it down into smaller achievable goals; constantly challenge yourself – always want something more.