For Zach Washington-Young, Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day (19th May) means so much more than just raising awareness. The Manchester Performance Centre athlete has continued to make progress on the national and international stage, whilst continuing his recovery and management from a day that will stick with him forever.
We caught up with the 32 year-old to shed some light on that day, how he’s progressing, and his aspirations for the future as he continues to defy the odds.
“In 2012 I was travelling home from Bestival music festival with friends when the tyre exploded on the coach I was travelling on and caused a tragic crash”, explained Washington-Young.
“I suffered a [L1 incomplete] Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) but was extremely lucky to survive, I was instantly paralysed from the waist down and told I’d never walk again. I got into swimming as a form of physiotherapy and rehab at first.
“I soon found my love for the water and the freedom it gave me, I was able to move again and it reminded me of what life used to feel like before the injury. I instantly knew this was for me.”
Zach’s story is well documented, with the athlete having lost close friends to the same accident and having to deal with grief as well as focusing on his own health. He opened up about how the aftermath of the incident affected him, as well as what he did to try and cope with the ordeal.
“My everyday life was affected really negatively at first. I sank into a dark state of depression and stayed there for a number of years. However, since discovering new outlets to exercise through physiotherapy and later swimming, I was able to piece my quality of life back together over the course of a ten-year training program. Exercise is medicine and you will get out what you put in, simple as that.”
As Zach goes on to explain, his journey into swimming was not what many would consider a conventional one. Having been recommended many different forms of rehab, he discussed the journey that brought him to the sport and how he made the decision to take to the pool, as well as his escapades in different sports.
“I put on a lot of weight after my SCI. I didn’t care about the food I ate or how I handled myself. I was just wasting away day by day. I needed a new form of exercise but couldn’t get used to wheelchair rugby or basketball. In my head I wanted to be free from the chair - swimming enabled me to do just that. Then, the more I trained in the pool, the more weight I would lose. I started to tone up in my body and now I’m in the best shape of my life.
“My doctor told me in 2013 that if I took another step again in my life he would eat his own tie. In 2018 I became the world’s first person with a severance of the spinal cord to walk all of the London Marathon [in 11hrs 45mins]. I hope others can take something from this and use it to fight for their own personal goals.”
Getting to the pinnacle of any sport requires much more than just individual effort. All of the athletes at British Swimming's performance centres have world-leading staff members supporting them every step of the way.
Zach talks about some of the individuals at the Manchester Performance Centre that helped his performance, whilst also referencing those involved on a more specialised level in his general recovery.
“My main mentor throughout this journey has been Andy Galbraith, head coach at Prime Physio, Cambridge. It’s a very special centre and Andy quite literally saved my life. He gave me the tools I needed to succeed not just in swimming but for the course of my life.
“Once I had the tools and belief instilled in me, I went to train at Club Natacio Mataró in Barcelona, under the watchful eye of Team España head coach Maria Folgado. I didn’t know much about the sport at the time but she built me up to the point where I was ready to transition to the GB program.
"Jacquie Marshall, Rob Aubry and Dave Evitts have since been able to sharpen me up to the next level and really bring me through as a professional. I was genuinely surprised at the level of support I have been given here, my coaches at British Swimming have been first class."
Looking ahead to the future, Zach gave some thoughts about on his targets ahead of the Paralympic year, with some very special advice to those going through a similar ordeal also included.
“Let’s take it step by step. Firstly, I’m working to qualify for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. This is the plan. I see myself competing in the final at the Paris Games. After that, I’d like to think I’ll be in with a shot of the podium at the next games in Los Angeles 2028. A lot of progress can be made training for another 4 years with this team.
“I also have a very special project in development at the moment which I can’t mention yet, but watch this space and you will soon find out. My recovery journey has turned from complete tragedy to a shining career path. There’s no reason why other people with SCI can’t follow in the same direction.
“Competing is such a perfect form of wellness for me. The adrenaline I feel before and after a race (especially if I’ve nailed a new PB) is one of the healthiest feelings imaginable. There is nothing quite like pushing your body to new limits and realising your goals, feeling all the months and years of effort and sacrifice come to fruition. For me it is an addiction.
“I’m so glad I found this sport and I hope it can help others in similar situations to myself as much as it has helped me.”
More information about Zach’s story is available here.
Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day takes place on 19th May. You can read more about the initiative on the Spinal Injuries Association website.