When you’re given the chance to meet and swim with a bronze-medalist, you’d be daft to turn it down. Jack Cummings isn’t your average swimmer, though. After losing both his legs above the knee while working as a Bomb Disposal Officer in Afghanistan, swimming gave him a focus for his physical rehab, while the Invictus Games became a motivational force as his skills improved.
So what is it like to learn to swim again – and to take that bronze medal? We met Jack at the Victory Swim, where he was swimming in open water for the first time and taking on a 1500m distance. The event was organised by the Felix Fund, a charity which supports the UK’s bomb disposal experts and the wider EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) community and their families. We also grabbed some time with Captain James Wadsworth, bomb disposal expert and founder of the Victory Swim, to find out more about how triathletes can get involved in the fund’s charity challenges.
220: Were you always a keen swimmer?
Jack Cummings: Well, I got my 25m badge when I was a kid! My mum and dad took me to the pool growing up and I like to think I took to the water pretty well as a kid, but not so much as a teenager! Sport for me was more about keeping fit. I was a keen footballer and used to play most sports but didn’t excel in any particular. I did everything from swimming, to cricket to football.
When I joined the army we had to do our military swim test which was to jump off the 5m board in full rig and then swim to the end and back again – not too far. It was more when I got injured and taken to Headley Court [the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre] that I went back to the pool. Obviously I couldn’t run any more, so it was really good exercise for me to start swimming and burn off some calories.
Headley Court was great because they offered me a whole range of disabled sports from swimming to wheelchair basketball. I also learned to handbike and I try to go out at least three or four times a week – weather permitting in England!
220: How important was swimming in your recovery?
Jack: It’s been a huge part of my rehab. Otherwise I’d have been just sat on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle or something – it’s got me out and I’ve lost a load of weight. I was in a coma for a month so I lost everything in terms of muscle. I went from an able-bodied lad to a skeleton basically – and the doctors and nurses panicked and kept telling me I needed to eat, so I put on a load of weight!
We had the hydropool at Headley Court which was a small pool where I started. It was about finding that balance point again first because obviously I lost both legs above the knee, but for some reason I float better now! Yeah, it was all about starting from scratch though.
It took a while to get into it and I had to build up the distance starting with a couple of lengths at first – but by the time I left Headley I was up to a mile, which I was really happy with.
220 Triathlon’s Editor Helen Webster chats to Jack Cummings about ahead of this year’s Victory Swim
220: How did you get involved in the Invictus Games?
Jack: The letter from Invictus came and I spoke to my wife Sarah and she said ‘go for it!’. I went for swimming and archery. I’m not really an archer though, more a swimmer! I did 50m free and 50m breaststroke and got bronze in the breaststroke.
The Invictus Games gave me an aim. I never gave up, it’s just I didn’t have anything to aim for and Invictus gave me the motivation to go for something. It was great watching the guys from previous years and I thought well if they can do it, then I can do it too! They inspired me and I hope I can do the same for others.
I swim in the local pool with the old girls in the morning and they always say hello and cheer me on. I feel like I’m able-bodied again because I’m zooming past everyone. It’s great, it keeps me focussed. I’m up at 5:30am every day, do an hour in the gym from 6am and then I’m in the pool from 7am.
The lake is a brand new environment for me! I’m doing 1500m today… Go big or go home! I’ll switch between front crawl and breaststroke.
220: What next? Have you been tempted to pursue Paratriathlon?
Jack: I don’t think so! I did the Royal Marines Rehab Tri with Joe Townsend and he blew me out of the water! It was great to see him go from where he was to being an elite – that takes a different type of dedication. Joe is absolutely amazing. He’s the marine machine!
I’m on the reserve list for the next Invictus Games. Hopefully I’ll get called up. I wouldn’t rule out doing another triathlon too, maybe a half-Ironman, something like that. Like I said, I do the handbike already so I’ve got two out of three – and I’m used to pushing a wheelchair so that’s doable as the third!
Jack Cummings exists the water after the 1500m Victory Swim. Image: Jo’s Photos https://www.facebook.com/memoriesforsharing/posts/
220: How has the Felix Fund helped you?
Jack: The Felix Fund is a bomb disposal charity. I was part of a search team, so searching for bombs and IEDs. If we found one, then they’d come and snip the wire and defuse the bomb. The Felix Fund have done loads to support me and my wife – we’ve been to events such as carol services and they’ve supported us financially too, by buying a load of adapted furniture for our house, so they’ve looked after us that way as well. They’re not a huge charity, but they’re always in touch and looking after us.
As well as last week’s Victory Swim, the Felix Fund host a series of sporting challenges triathletes can get involved in, spearheaded by ammunition technician Captain James Wadsworth who counts the Rat Race series, Ironmans, the Marathon de Sables, Land’s End to John O’Groats on a bike and other endurance events amongst his fundraising achievements.
220’s Editor at the Victory Swim with Captain James Wadsworth, who next year will attempt the Channel Swim amongst other endurance challenges to raise funds and awareness for the Felix Fund.
We asked Captain Wadsworth what’s next: “I’m building up to 2019 at the moment. Between the 4-8th June we are doing the Castle Cycle Ride from Edinburgh, via Windsor to Cardiff. Following that I’m doing the Frankfurt Ironman, then I’ve got a small break before the Channel Swim attempt from 13-19th September, which is daunting right now! After that we’ve got a running event on 12th October which is open to anyone of any ability from 5km to 100km. Halfway through September (date TBC) will be our Felix Festival, where we pitch a big tent in the middle of nowhere and you can come along and enjoy a beer and some good food and music!
“Felix Fund supports the IED community and I’ve worked within this area for my whole career. Around the time of Northern Ireland but also of Iraq and Afghanistan I was operating in those countries and I lost friends who were killed in those operations and I had friends and colleagues that were injured. We now have people who are still suffering with mental and physical injuries and while I am still (relatively!) able-bodied I want to raise money and awareness so I do as many events as I can and encourage others to join me.”