A little over five years ago, Ben Pritchard was lying in a hospital bed wondering what the future held for him. It was September 10th, 2016, a day on which Ben’s life would change forever. At just 24 years old, the native of Mumbles, Wales was involved in a competitive cycling accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. What he had worked for his entire life up to this point vanished in an instant. It was a moment in time that would break most people, but not Ben Pritchard as he used the devastating accident as fuel for the fire to lead an inspirational life. This is the story of Ben, his entire family, and how they have overcome the challenges presented to them.
Ben’s difficulties started at a very early age when the then 5-year-old was diagnosed with a congenital cataract that all but ended any hope for a future pursuit in contact sports. In a family such as the Pritchards where sports play a significant role in everyday life, this was a major blow for the eldest brother of three and proud Welshman.
“At the age of five, all any Welsh boy wants to do is play rugby,” says Ben. “The cataract took that away from me, unfortunately. My parents did an amazing job, however, at exploring any alternatives possible and opening the doors to some pretty awesome sports.”
Growing up in the small coastal area of Mumbles on the western edge of Swansea Bay on the southern coast of Wales, Ben was drawn to the sea at a very young age. So, it was only natural that some of these sports included swimming, sailing and surfing. But, it was sailing that was ultimately his first foray into sports, and a sport that gave him the bug to compete. What he might not have known at the time, however, is that he started competing as soon as his two younger brothers came into the world.
“I grew up in a family with two brothers so you learn to love competition from a young age,” Ben says with a wry smile. “Be that racing in the garden, who can climb the stairs to bed fastest or who can eat the most food. Every day I had two mates to play with, push boundaries and discover my limitations. It was only natural that this led to a passion for sport.”
And that’s where it all began. Ben’s sporting career started at the Mumbles Yacht Club, where he learned to sail and fine tune his competitive edge, ultimately representing Wales and Great Britain in varying boat classes. Sailing took care of his afterschool sports fix, but he wasn’t left with a whole lot of options for Physical Education (P.E.) classes while all the other boys were out playing rugby. He found himself running around the fields, which led to an invitation to join the cross country team and eventually the sport of triathlon. During his first
competitive season, Ben qualified and raced in the 2013 age group European and World Triathlon Championships in Turkey and London respectively, all while studying for a law degree. Upon entering the “real world,” and faced with the prospect of working in marine insurance as a full-time career, he realized that competing at the highest level of triathlon was no longer a viable option and he turned his attention to cycling – his favorite event out of the three triathlon disciplines.
Ben quickly progressed through the domestic cycling ranks in Time Trials, Criteriums and Road Racing, looking to secure a place on a “shop team” for the 2017 season. He was well on his way to cycling greatness, but in September of 2016 his unintended and unplanned para-rowing journey began after the devastating accident that left him unable to walk. A second hurdle to overcome in his short time on this planet.
“I remember being told that I would never walk again and just looking straight at my Mum and Dad in shock. It was like an outer body experience,” vividly remembers Ben. “The prospect of never riding my bike again hit me. I sat in the corridor of the hospital and cried like a newborn baby. Raw emotion is all I can remember. Of course, you still hope that one day there will be a permanent cure for a spinal cord injury (SCI) but I stuck my head down, got on with rehabilitation and decided I wanted to make the most of my newfound life on 4 wheels. I wanted to be as independent as possible!”
Sam, Ben’s younger brother, adds, “I remember the day we found out that Ben was going to swap his life on 2 wheels (bicycle) for one on 4 wheels (his chair). Knowing Ben, I knew it wasn’t going to be long until he would be going full speed in that and tackling life’s problems head on. And that’s exactly what he has done!”
And Ben’s mother Kathy remembers, “It was so unexpected. I always thought that he would rest, recuperate and, with rehabilitation, ultimately gain some mobility. When the consultant came to deliver the prognosis, I remember trying to be so brave in front of Ben, but I could feel the tears silently falling down my cheeks. I was scared, unsure, and as a mum, it was hard to accept that all I could do to help was to be there for him as and when he needed me.”
Now faced with the challenge of losing half the function of his body and having to relearn everything from scratch, the competitor in Ben became increasingly frustrated. That was until he found rowing. First, as a part of his rehabilitation journey, rowing on the indoor machine was incredibly boring, just watching the numbers tick down with no real purpose. But in true Pritchard fashion, he found out that the physical therapists kept a secret log and leaderboard of all patients’ times. Now it was on.
“I now had a reason to try, to push myself and to learn to enjoy the pain,” says Ben. “While I didn’t quite make it to the top of the leaderboard, it gave me the bug for rowing and rowing competitions.”
But before the rowing competitions could take center stage, a ski trip to Breckenridge planned for just months after the accident, had to be rescheduled. But, according to Sam, “Ben true to form” never wanted to cancel the trip in the first place, so it was rescheduled for just over a year later. Ben’s father, Andy, did his research and, to his amazement, he found the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC) operating in Breckenridge where they had planned to ski. So just a little over a year after his injury, Ben was ready to tackle the slopes of Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“One of the most impactful things weighing on me was I remember telling Ben, whilst he was in the hospital, that I was canceling the family skiing holiday to Breckenridge,” remembers Kathy. “He said, ‘please don’t, I’ll be able to go.’ He got quite upset about it and that broke my heart. I agreed then and there that we would postpone it to the following year, but if I am truly honest, I never thought for one minute that he would be able to ski again and that we, as a family, would be able to overcome the challenges that a spinal cord injury, travel and winter sports would bring. How wrong was I?!”
The Pritchards rescheduled the trip for January of 2018 and Ben returning to the mountains and slopes of Breckenridge became a reality with the help of the BOEC.
“I was so apprehensive. I loved skiing and I was worried that mono-skiing wouldn’t be as fun, or quite frankly, that I may not have been good at it,” Ben reflects. “I remember my first day rolling into the (BOEC) office and the energy was amazing. There was such a buzz and I knew that this was going to be a great 10 days.”
But, it barely even took two of the 10 days until Ben had mastered the bi-ski and was on to conquering the mono-ski, an exceptional feat in such a short time, but not necessarily surprising given his determination and athleticism.
“His constant grin after the lessons was all we needed to see,” says Sam. “My brother Dan, myself and Ben now had our own ‘Snow Squad,” a mono-skier, two snowboarders and the BOEC instructors and volunteers. The Pritchard brothers were back on the hill again! By the time day 10 had come, Ben and I had already booked a trip to come back in March!”
The adaptive ski experience – and the BOEC – now seemed to be an itch that couldn’t be scratched for the Pritchard family. During their second trip to Breckenridge just a few months later, Sam volunteered with the BOEC so that he could better learn how to support his brother’s on-hill acumen. This “incredible experience” then led to a Winter Internship with the BOEC the following winter and, in a true family affair, it led to mom and pop Pritchard volunteering their time to the program as well. The Pritchards were now creating a home away from home 4,500 miles away from their residence in the UK.
“BOEC is just special, you cannot explain it to anyone, and if you’ve been just once you will know what I mean,” says Sam. “From my first experience volunteering I knew I wanted to intern there. You get to meet fantastic individuals and families who are grateful for the experience you enable them to have, but despite their thank you’s, you are thankful to them instead. It was a privilege to give back to the organization that gave my family so much. The BOEC is amazing and that’s the bottom line. It gives individuals that have had so many barriers in life an opportunity to be free, to go out and explore the fantastic open slopes with no barriers or judgment. It’s something I am honored to have been able to play a part in.”
Kathy continues, “Never underestimate the positive impact that the BOEC and their staff, interns and volunteers have on their clients and their parents/guardians. In 2017, when we rocked up for our first ski holiday post Ben’s accident, I was still super anxious and had huge reservations. That was until I saw the staff engagement with Ben and his inclusion in the decision-making process. My heart melted when I saw the smile on Ben’s face.”
And Andy adds, “If someone takes the time to help us as a family – and especially one of my children – I will do everything I can to help, support and give my time to them, no questions asked. From that first lesson onwards, they (BOEC staff) were not just instructors but became, and still are, close family friends. The BOEC has without a doubt changed our life.”
The Pritchards were hooked and Ben had found a new activity to take part in. He explains mono-skiing is the closest thing to surfing he has experienced post-accident.
“You are so close to the snow, it is like you are cruising on a wave,” he exclaims. “I love that feeling, it’s pure freedom of movement and flow. Whilst I am a novice on the mono-ski, I had a false sense of confidence and really felt comfortable exploring and having adventures. It really connected me back to nature and I loved that! With rowing, it’s all about the data. How fast are you going? Are you doing the right things? But with skiing, I get to switch off and just enjoy being on a mountain in my favorite place in the world outside of The Gower and just feel.”
So, with 20 adaptive days on the hill in hand and a healthy respect for competitive rowing, Ben had now found a few things that could stir up the competitive juices post-accident. But maybe even more importantly, he had found something that gave him freedom away from the stark reminder of his disability.
“Of course, the wheelchair enables me to do so much as it’s now my ‘legs’ and without it I would be pretty stuck,” he says. “But by its very nature, it reminds you of everything you can no longer do. It’s the first thing people notice when you come into a room and, quite often, the first thing you get asked about. So, to get away from it for an amount of time during a day, to feel free, is incredibly important to me. I’m all about connecting with your inner self and mindfulness, so, to me, watching the chair disappear at times is really powerful.”
Now out of the chair to participate in his newfound passions, rowing started to take center stage. Ben had found a close second to the sport he loved so much … cycling. His job as a Time Trial Specialist in cycling competitions was to help the leader and go as hard and fast as he could for as long as he could. The same thing within rowing, something he refers to as a power endurance sport.
“Your lungs hurt, your heart hurts, everything basically hurts and I love that feeling,” he says. “I remember my first ever cycling time trial, it was a 10-miler and I did something like 23 minutes (not overly fast), and I got to the end and it was almost as if I could taste iron in my mouth. I had worked myself so hard that I could taste blood in my mouth. That is the feeling I love, pushing your body to the limits you know you couldn’t have done any more. And when I did my first rowing race, at the end of the race, I had that same exact feeling, iron in my mouth. I knew right then that I was going to enjoy racing in this sport and pushing myself beyond my limits!”
It was this competitive, athletic mindset that became the key to Ben’s rehabilitation, something that he fully believes got him to where he is today – free, independent and competitive once again. He refers to this mindset as “I am not disabled, I am abled.” Or more aptly, “I am Benjamin Pritchard and I am able.”
“When you first get told you have a spinal injury or that you will never walk again, you get told over and over about things you will no longer be able to do, or things that will likely be more challenging,” says the 29-year-old. “As you can imagine, this is pretty difficult to digest and led to me having some really dark times. It was in one of these episodes that I decided I wasn’t going to focus on the things I could no longer do, I was going to focus on HOW I could do things or look at the things I could still do. I wouldn’t let my disability define me. I said to myself, I AM ABLE to do whatever I set my mind to. It may look different than how I did it before, but trust me, I will give it my all and try to achieve it.”
Ben’s father, Andy, agrees. “Sport has helped Ben move on, realize that he can do anything he wants just in a different way. It’s a way to shout at the world, I am still me, I can do this. It has given Ben the drive to achieve, to get on with it when he’s at his lowest and come back with a smile on his face.”
And smile he has as his days of rowing for rehabilitation have turned into a competitive rowing career that has seen a phenomenal rise to the international stage. Pritchard made his international debut for the Great Britain Rowing Team in 2019, claiming two bronze medals at the Gavirate International Regatta, before winning bronze at the World Cup II in Poznan in his World Cup debut. He is now a six-time world record holder, European silver medalist, Paralympian, Paralympic Record Holder and Disability Sports Wales Athlete of the Year.
“He had no option,” brother Sam says when asked about Ben continuing to compete after his accident. “I joke, but seriously, when you come from a sporting family it is your everything. Ever since we were young, sport has been such a large part of our lives where if that was to disappear, we would lose our social circles, our passion, our drive, and without that, what have you got? To find out you’re never going to walk again to competing in the Paralympics is something no one can ever take away from Ben, and that’s something that I am immensely proud of him for, because it would have been easy for him to just give up. But he hasn’t and he is continuing to become a better man every day! I am proud of him as a friend and brother.”
As you can see, no matter the sport and no matter the competition, one thing remains constant … the incredible tight-knit family bubble that the Pritchards live in. Andy and Kathy have been by Ben’s side since a young age through thick and thin. Sam and Dan are his biggest supporters and also his biggest critics. You could easily say that family is one of Ben’s core values.
“My family is incredibly important to me and I make no decision in life without having discussed it with them first,” says Ben. “I am blessed to have such caring people around me.”
Sam echoes this sentiment, “From day one of chair life, Ben has never asked for or needed support. On a family walk where there are hills, your natural instinct would be to give his chair a little nudge or push, but he would tell you off as he is so independent and would never want your pity. He is incredible! Our family is everything and we support each other. Situations like Ben’s just cement that.”
While Ben is busy training for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, his rowing contract does not allow for a yearly ski trip. With COVID-19 travel restrictions in place and J1 Visas hard to come by, Andy, Kathy, Sam and Dan have had a couple-year hiatus from the BOEC. But it’s always in the back of their minds.
“I genuinely cannot wait to come back again!” Ben exclaims. “I’m already looking forward to the winter of 2024 to get the old squad back together again on the hills of Colorado.”
In the meantime, the Pritchard family is busy preparing for Ben’s March 2022 wedding and looking forward to the whole new family that will be added to the Pritchard clan. Ben is rowing every day while honing his skills in Maritime Law. Sam’s experience with the BOEC changed his career path from working in Biology to Healthcare Management. And Dan works as a Graphic Designer. It seems there’s never a dull time to be a Pritchard, but Ben does not let all of his success go to his head. In fact, he keeps a sense of normalcy about him that might typically be reserved for able-bodied people. He even offers up some advice for those that are facing similar challenges as him.
“My biggest advice would be, no matter what you are going through, make a plan, break your challenge down into small achievable tasks, and work your way through them slowly. No matter how long they take. Once you achieve one task, tick it off and move onto the next. Always look forward!”
As far as the BOEC goes, we might as well be part of the Pritchard family too, as we hold a special place in the hearts of all.
“We will always feel indebted to BOEC for showing Ben that anything is possible with the right mindset and the right people beside you,” says Kathy. “BOEC showed Ben that the winter sports scene remains open to him despite his injury. The team as a whole are exceptional and we have truly made some friendships for life.”
Ben adds, “I would just like to say a massive thank you to the staff, volunteers, interns and donors of the BOEC. The work you do really does make a difference to people like me. Something you will never truly understand, but I am incredibly grateful to have spent 20 days in your program. So, thank you with all my heart!”
When asked what the future holds for the kid from a small town in Wales, he is quick to answer “Who knows! That’s the exciting part of life. Everything happens for a reason, right?”
Check out this video for Ben’s story in pictures
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