It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in April 2002 when Steve Judge’s life changed forever. He was driving back to his home in Yorkshire when his car skidded and he was involved in a devastating car accident that left a 28-year-old Steve fighting for his life.
Medical staff worked tirelessly to save him and many hours later when he came round in his hospital bed he was told that he might never walk again.
Steve made the decision to take responsibility for the rest of his life by accepting ownership of the difficult position he was in. He went through a traumatic rehabilitation process which included having to physically grow his own leg back.
Over this period Steve struggled to regain his independence, experiencing immense lows and extreme pain during his recovery, but he wasn’t prepared to accept the inevitable.
His determination drove him to continue to set goals and work towards them and then he did what many would deem impossible. Not only did he go on to walk, but Steve also ran, swam and cycled. Going on to become a multi-gold winning paratriathlon world champion representing Great Britain.
We spoke with Steve to talk about resilience in the face of adversity, the power of the mind and its importance in his recovery process and his successful career as a Team GB paratriathlete.
The MALESTROM: Although it must be hard to revisit, can we start by talking about that horrific accident you were involved in that changed your life massively…
Steve Judge: I think the thing with my story is it can happen to anyone, not that I wish it on anybody. But it was just an accident. There was a bit of water on the road, I wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t drink driving, there was no one else on the road and there was no one else in the car.
The car skidded and I was just hanging onto the steering wheel seeing my fate before me. There was this pole on the side of the road coming up to me and I just braced myself for impact. It was horrible, to be out of control.
I like to be independent, I like to be in control. So, when that’s taken away from you, it’s not good. I had to just brace myself and wait for the impact, and the crash knocked me out.
Just coming around and hearing the sound of the horn beeping was horrible. I couldn’t get out of the car. I think when anyone has an accident, you just want to pick yourself up and move away from it, brush yourself down and move on.
But I couldn’t do that, I was stuck, I couldn’t get out. And I was all alone until a dog walker came along and disconnected the horn. I still wasn’t happy in the situation until the paramedics turned up.
I can remember her leaning through the window and talking to me. As soon as she arrived, I felt calmer. I felt good that help was on the way. In the process, I felt down to my leg to see how bad the injury was. Luckily for me, I didn’t know how bad it was. Because if I’d known, I’m pretty sure my body would have gone into shock and who knows what would happened from there.
But just knowing that everybody was there to help me, that was really satisfying for me and then I was off to hospital. One of the positives is I’m quite ignorant to these things. I’m a positive thinker. I’m always very optimistic, but I’m also sometimes a bit of a head in the clouds, in that I didn’t realise how serious it was.
I thought they were trying to save my legs. Realistically, they were trying to save my life. That’s as serious as it was. But again, I’ve got faith in the people around me, the NHS who saved my life, my legs and did all the operations, they are just incredible.
I guess there are a lot of chunks that are missing out of my memory. Going back doing the book was very hard. Taking myself back to those dark places. And the more you do it, the more your brain reconnects all those memories that you have dug down deep and buried for various reasons to protect yourself, emotionally or whatever.
And I’ve had to unlock those thoughts and memories. And not only bring them out, but then go over and over and over them and then even more and then write it down so that other people understand it.
There have been times not just from the accident, but rehabilitation, where I’ve been in tears from reliving those moments, and then having to wipe the tears away, and literally type it on the computer to put it on the screen so that other people can read it. It’s been really difficult, but worth it.
TM: One of the themes throughout the book is your passion for running. Early on in the book when it looked like amputation was potentially on the cards, one thing going through your mind was how much you needed that in your life wasn’t it?
SJ: Yeah, running has always been a part of my life. From a kid from an adult. I’ve used it when I’m happy, I’ve used it when I’m sad. So it’s always been a tool for me. And yes, for them to say to me that I may never walk again, that’s big enough. When they were telling me about the amputation, it was horrible.
Just to have this thought that I may not be able to run again, that was just disastrous. I think quite early on in my journey, though I gave into it. I admitted to it. I said, “okay, okay, I guess I will never run again, but I will stand again and I will walk again, that’s a guarantee”. So that’s what I focused on, it was small chunks.
Sometimes if you can set your dreams to be too big and then you let yourself down, it’s not good. I understand about setting goals and, and failure. There’s no such thing as failure, there’s only feedback. But sometimes if you set your goals too high, and you keep on failing it’s difficult. So It was just bearing with it. I said, “okay, I’ll never run again, that’s done, but what can I do?”
I was always thinking about that. First of all, I’m going to get out of this hospital bed. Then I’ve got to grow my leg back, I’ve got to get the length back. I’m going to stand again, I’m going to walk again. Let’s just do those simple things first. Which weren’t simple. And the running, I’ll just forget that.
So who would have thought seven and a half years later, the doors opened I guess. Because of the progress that I made, I actually found running again. And that was just an incredible moment, running for the first time, after seven and a half years, looking down at my legs, just going “wow, this is incredible.”
This thing that I love, this thing that I’m passionate about, this thing that drives me through life that was taken away from me. And to get that back, that was just incredible.
So that’s why I treasure that I can go for a run now. It is difficult in that I get pain and I have to think of the consequences before I go out. But I love running. So I’ll keep doing it when I can. Because one day I won’t be able to do it, the injuries will be too bad or the pain will be too bad. So at that moment, I want to say “that’s fine, I’ve done so much running I can let it go”.
TM: Looking at your recovery, there were certain things that helped you along the way and one thing was the way you channel these certain frustrations into very positive actions. And another reoccurring theme was music throughout the book which kept you going essentially…
SJ: Yeah, definitely. I always say that anger isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As long as you use it correctly. So that’s what I do. I use my anger, I obviously get angry, I get frustrated, and I do the sulking thing.
I realised at some point I have to stop sulking, so the sooner the better. Then I have to think what makes me angry? Let’s get that sorted out. I’m very impatient, but I use that impatience. Again, being impatient isn’t a bad thing. As long as you use it correctly. Use that feeling to do something about it, to take action.
Short term gratification is what I love, but long term gratification is the best thing. That’s what people do, you study, you go to university, you get a good job. That’s a long term gratification. Winning the lottery, that’s short term. Short term doesn’t usually work. Now, I understand that, but I can’t help being impatient and wanting the short term.
So it’s a case of using that, but accepting the long term gratification and accepting these things will take a long time. It’s about those things that you use along that journey. And yes, music is something that I use because we all have days where we’re struggling with motivation, and I call it anti kryptonite. So, kryptonite, is that thing that brings you down and you can’t shake it off.
What can you do to get rid of that kryptonite? What can you do to power through and to motivate yourself? Music for me is a really simple thing as in you just have to press play, you have to find that playlist, finding that music that you’ve already selected, and press play, and just let it happen.
Because that music just builds something up inside you get and the endorphins going. One, they helped me on my journey, but it’s also lovely to listen back to them. Because it reminds me of my journey and how I got through. So music is just one tool that I use to keep me motivated and help me to work towards the goals I’m passionate about.
TM: I wanted to talk about the visualisations as well. In the book you talk about drawing your future self, sort of where you wanted to be…
SJ: When I tell people about this, they assume a counsellor told me to do it. But no, I just grabbed a pencil, I drew a picture me walking up a mountain. Since then I’ve learned that’s what your brain needs to do. It needs to see something. And if it can see a photo of you or an image then that’s brilliant.
You don’t have to be the best drawer to do it, it’s amazing how you can trick the brain. To use this as an elite athlete when I wanted to become a world champion, I did the same kind of thing. I drew a picture that really helped me and now I run workshops and I tell everybody in the group to draw a picture of where you are now and where you want to be.
It’s about talking about where you want to be, maybe putting some more detail in. Are you smiling and happy? Who’s around you? Where are you? What exactly are you doing? The more detail you put in, the more you can see it, you can conceive it, you believe it and then you can work towards it.
It’s even just closing your eyes and visualising, which I did before races. I would visualise myself winning the race or just being the best I could be. I do that every single morning. So visualisation is a massive part of my journey, and it’s something that I’m glad I can pass on to others to help them to get their goals.
TM: It was the power of the mind and that constant positivity that got you over all these obstacles you faced. The power of the mind is quite incredible…
SJ: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, again, I sometimes take it for granted, because that’s just what I do. But other people don’t have that, you know, and it’s about owning up to it and taking responsibility and also having accountability and not blaming others. And not leaning on your excuses as well.
But taking that responsibility and doing something, taking action. I feel that everybody’s got the power to do that. Somebody might say, “I don’t think I have and I could have done the same if I was in your situation.”
I just think you don’t know, you do not know that if you’re put in my situation, if you’ve got your legs crushed, you don’t know what you’re capable of. The human body, the human mind, is an amazing thing.
And so hopefully nobody has to be pushed into that position. But I do believe that everybody has the ability, to be positive and optimistic. It takes practice, you’re going to practice every single day.
But there’s always a positive spin that you can put anything. And it’s about doing that over and over again to practice it so that when something disastrous happens, some big adversity, you can handle it a lot better.
TM: Tell us about that journey to becoming a gold-winning paratriathlon athlete for GB. It was clearly a massive slog, but obviously very worthwhile…
SJ: I never set out on that journey. I didn’t know what I could do or couldn’t do, I found Paratriathlon. But on that journey that I started, I found opportunities, and it’s totally about being aware of your vision, and seizing opportunities along the way. Having the opportunity to represent Great Britain, wow, yeah, of course, I’d love to do that. And you’ve got to accept that these things aren’t easy.
I think it was really hard having a full-time job, as a father to kids, as a husband, to then squeeze in swimming, cycling and running. But it was an amazing opportunity and not something that I just wanted to flash by.
The training was tough. People say to me, “why didn’t you carry on, why did you retire? It’s because I was absolutely shattered. I did it for five years, training six days a week, squeezing it in. There are consequences. And with my body as well, with the injuries that I’ve had, I was going through a lot of pain.
And I know I was mixing it up between swimming, cycling & running, but there’s exhaustion as well. I mentioned in the book a few times where I’ve just questioned myself saying,
“Is this all worth it? Is this really worth it? Because I am shattered? Do all athletes feel like this?”
Because you look at them, and they’re like Greek gods and goddesses and you just think, wow, they look amazing, I feel like bullshit.
However, when I got to the start line, then I did, because the preparation was there, I’ve done all the hard work, I’ve had my down period. And then on the start line, I was stood there healthy, and with absolutely no regrets.
No regrets with my fitness, with my health, with the equipment, with my nutrition, with my mindset. And to feel that 100% perfect on the start line is an amazing feeling.
And then you’re just waiting, you’re just really impatient, you’re waiting for that horn to go, to compete, to be the best that you can be. And that’s awesome as well.
That’s why by the end of the book, I’ve got the concept that it wasn’t necessarily about winning, having the gold is absolute, but just to be the best that you can be. That’s what success is all about.
TM: We have to touch on the Paratriathlon World Championships in China. That must have been an incredible experience. And of course, to win gold, that’s a massive bonus on top…
SJ: It was. It goes back to how the book starts, me crossing the line and getting that medal. That was just a finishers medal, but I just hugged it and thought, look at where I am! I’ve got the GB kit on, I’m in China, the crowds are cheering. It doesn’t matter about the gold medal. What a moment to live.
I got the gold medal and I think about it now, it’s very emotional when you’re stood there, when you see your flag lifted, and they’re playing your national anthem. There aren’t many people that get that moment in their life, where they’ve represented, they’ve given everything and you see that your flag go up there, that feeling you just can’t hold back.
I got that in China when I won the World Championships to be the best in the world in my category and to see my flag hoisted, gold medal around my neck. Just an incredible, and satisfaction that all that hard work, all the consequences, all the things that I’ve been through were worth it for that moment.
TM: You went on to win more gold medals, what would you say your finest moment in the sport was?
SJ: That’s really hard to answer. A lot of people say, what’s your best medal? I just think every single one’s got a story behind it. Whether it’s a finishers medal, or there’s one that I really like, which is just a medal when I did the Yorkshire triathlon, a nice local event. I came fifth. But that was fifth out of 100 elite or able-bodied athletes.
I was like a triathlon machine. It was just incredible. There was no gold medal there. But the satisfaction I got from that. I was just at my peak. And again, as I said earlier when you’ve got that feeling that you are 100% perfect in a way, and your glowing, you can do things like that.
TM: What do you hope people take away from reading the book?
SJ: My why in life is to help people. A lot of people when I ask them, “how are things? How’s life? How’s the job?” They say, “yeah, it’s okay.” And what a shame that it’s just okay when I know what it’s like when it’s amazing when it’s fantastic. I’ve been there.
So my goal is to help these people to experience happiness, the fulfilment of achieving their true life goals. Because I know how much joy they get from that. So, if they read my book, then see what I did and where I’ve come from, they will be inspired and they will be motivated.
TM: We always like to finish by, by asking for a piece of wisdom or maybe a mantra that you’ve sort of live by, you know, over your journey.
SJ: My mantra is don’t lean on your excuses, but turn your excuses into challenges. Because challenges aren’t easy, none of this is easy and people don’t always realise that.
But if you can be a little bit competitive, if you can see those excuses as a barrier, that are stopping you, and can smash through that barrier, by turning those excuses into challenges that will help keep you going.
Because at times on anybody’s journey, there’s going to be moments when you can’t achieve your goal. And it’s not about changing the goal. It’s about changing the plan. And if you can do that, you can still keep going for your goal, but you just choose a different plan on how you’re going to get there.
Steve’s book Don’t Lean on Your Excuses is out to buy now
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