Ed Jackson (OE) was our recent guest speaker at Prizegiving. Afterwards he kindly agreed to sit down with Charlie McGuire in Year 12 to talk about his experiences. Charlie's resulting article can be read below.
Having fractured both his C6 and C7 seven vertebrae, shattered a disc and partially crushed his spinal cord following a diving accident in 2017, former professional rugby player Ed Jackson has since achieved a wealth of feats that he admits “I never would have considered doing when I was able-bodied”. Whether it’s through his presenting for Channel 4, tireless work on his charity ‘Millimetres To Mountains’, mentoring others or sharing his story as a published author and keynote speaker, Ed hasn’t squandered a moment of the past four years. However, he never glosses over the hardships that the initial stages of his journey presented him with and it is in the opening chapters of his recently published book, ‘Lucky’, that he portrays the events preceding and following the accident with visceral realism.
“I can remember the day very vividly,” Ed says, sat across from me with a glass of sparkling water, “I can remember diving into the pool very vividly. Some things are stuck in your memory.” Having been recovering from an injury sustained playing for Welsh rugby club ‘Dragons’ on that fateful April Saturday in 2017, Ed was deeply aware of the dark irony of his situation. “As a rugby player, my identity was in my physicality and that was the one thing that had been completely taken away. So, coming to terms with that over time was really difficult.”
Reflecting on his initial night at Bristol’s Southmead Hospital, he recalls: “It wasn’t until I woke up in intensive care and I had my first night alone, awake, thinking about it, trying to move things and my body not reacting that it truly sunk in.” As he tells me about his time spent in intensive care, it becomes clear that internal burdens began to plague him each night. “During the day I’d distract myself by chatting to my friends, putting a show on for my family, being positive, but when they all go at night and you’re left by yourself with your thoughts, that’s the hardest time. All I wanted to do was fall asleep because all I wanted to do was wake up and have my family there again.”
However, as with many aspects of Ed’s story, he overcame this adversity and this resulted in him unearthing a life-changing new outlet. “It was me just getting thoughts out of my head so that I could get to sleep,” he says of the voice notes that eventually formed the basis of his best-selling autobiography. “When I woke up one afternoon and my friend was going through all my voice transcribed notes on my Ipad, I was a bit shocked and, to be honest, I was a bit annoyed with him but they managed to persuade me to make them public over time.” Sharing his experience and raw emotions, even in the form of a blog, was initially a taboo concept to Ed. “I think the demographic of being a young guy, especially someone who has been brought up in a sport like rugby, you are taught to show no weakness ever; if you’re injured don’t let the opposition know it. The danger with that is it goes over into the mental side of things, people who are struggling aren’t willing to admit it and it’s why there’s a big issue with mental health in young men and men in general and I was certainly in that bracket.” Nevertheless, once Ed did begin to share his story, he reminisces that “After a while I was getting these messages from people saying how much my journey was helping them but also people who had been through it before and were giving me advice. I had this peer support and it became a group that I could be completely honest with. Showing vulnerability became the biggest strength I had. “
“I think laughter is such a powerful tool,” he later adds, furthering the arsenal with which he combats hardships, “I think you can really steal the seriousness of a situation away just by laughing at it, no matter how bad it is.” Speaking on how his friends and family supported him, he continues with a telling smile, “Half of my mates were acting like Robin Williams, to be fair, which was actually really useful. One of my friends chucked three juggling balls on my chest which, because it was day two, was quite a rash thing to do but it was the first time I felt normal after the accident. Once you get out and about on the spinal ward, you start to meet those other characters and we started setting lap times around the garden and everything.”
“I remember saying to myself,” he recounts, “‘If enough good can come from this situation for other people, then it’s no longer a bad situation. By definition.’” This is the attitude that has seen the success of ‘Millimetres To Mountains’ in helping its beneficiaries overcome personal issues regarding both their mental and physical health, with Ed sharing his passion for adventure as a means of rehabilitation. But, when Ed himself was at the start of his journey, who did he look to for inspiration and motivation to persevere? “You’re often asked, especially when I was a rugby player, “Who’s your hero?” and they want you to say Jonny Wilkinson or someone like that,” he confides with a laugh. For Ed, however, his inspirations have always been a lot more personal. Having lost his close friend Tom Maynard in 2012, Ed cites the loss as a deeply formative moment. “Losing him felt immediately way harder than waking up with a spinal cord injury, which is testament to how much he meant to me. It also showed me that I could get through it, not get over it, but get through it.” Ed dealt with both blows similarly as, even before his accident, he displayed his adventuring and fundraising tendencies in 2012 by planning a 100 mile trek through the Borneo rainforest to raise money for the Tom Maynard Trust. He proceeds to mention former Paralympic rower David Smith and ex-England under-21 prop Matt Hampson, who has the highest level of spinal cord injury. “He’s created this amazing charity and lives this unbelievable life,” he says of the latter, “I go to dinners with him and he’s getting his mates to sneak him gin and tonics when his carers aren’t looking. He is just living this life of getting on with it. I remember thinking ‘I’m already in a better situation than him, so what excuse have I got?’”
“In a way I had a clean slate,” he ponders, “I was never going to play rugby again, I knew that for a start, but that was all I really knew and that’s all I thought I was capable of.” Yet, even when stripped of what had been his livelihood and central passion for many years, Ed still counts himself as fortunate at having been able to discover new outlets for himself. “I’m a big believer that purpose is built and not found. People wait to find something that gives them purpose and they’re really lucky if they do at a young age. Then you’ve got people that get ten years down the line and think ‘You know what, I’ll do something else’ and it’s a lot harder to make that decision if nothing’s technically going wrong, but they’re the ones who will end up glad of that career change when they’re older. I was at that ten year stage and I was terrified of what the future held but then I got forced back to square one, so I feel really fortunate.” As he began to branch out into new avenues, reaffirmation of Ed’s forays into writing came from an unexpected source. “I had a really funny letter from my old English teacher, actually. I always enjoyed English, but they stupidly gave me a professionally rugby contract at 16 so my papers for sixth form went out the window,” he quips ironically, “but he wrote me this lovely letter. Mostly it was about the blogs I was writing and then he puts right at the end ‘P.S: I never knew you were listening’, which I found really funny.”
After Ed has achieved and contributed to such an extent in all of his respective fields over the past four years, personally I would find it hard to pick out a crowning achievement. Apparently, there is no such issue for him. “If I could only pick one thing, it would be the charity. A hundred percent. If there’s one thing that I would want to leave this earth with, it would be the fact that the charity is now something that is running irrespective of us.” It is clear in his unwavering, steadfast reply that establishing ‘Millimetres to Mountains’ and working with other charities such as ‘Restart Rugby’ is what he truly relishes in. He expands, “The mentoring I do with spinal injury patients, the charity and actually probably a lot of the unseen stuff is where I get real purpose from.”
Ed’s most recent charitable endeavour, the ’12 Peaks of Christmas’, saw him and a good friend climb twelve of the highest mountains in the UK over the course of six days. Of course, the adventure wouldn’t have been complete without the pair carrying a Christmas tree up each peak with them. “It’s going to be brutal,” he concedes, discussing the journey many weeks before embarking on it, “but we’ll make it fun and it’s a good fundraiser for Millimetres to Mountains.’ Despite having climbed the height of Everest itself over lockdown on his parents’ staircase, which he describes as “the most tedious thing ever”, and aiming to climb a 7,000 metre mountain in March, Ed doesn’t necessarily have his sights set on the world’s most renowned summit. “Everyone wants the title of Everest, I’m not really bothered by that anymore. Mountains mean more to me than that. They’ve been such a healing part of my life and they’ve become something that I like to share with people to heal them as well. I would like to climb an 8,000 metre mountain but probably somewhere that doesn’t reap the rewards of tourism as much and go and support that way.”
When I dare to ask what he thinks the future holds for his old team, Bath Rugby, who, at the time of writing, are currently winless in ten consecutive matches, Ed initially responds with a lightly sardonic chuckle. “As a Bath boy through and through, it’s a shame to see what’s going on in general. But it’s Bath, right? They’ll come back around eventually. Let’s just hope you’re not too old by then because I’ll be even older. “
In the days that followed my conversation with Ed, I was approached by a number of members of staff who had either been peers of his from his time at KES or knew him in some capacity through the school. To whatever extent they knew him, they all wanted to know how he was and what his next fundraising scheme was set to be. After speaking to all of them, it became clear that his passion for whatever he is turning his hand to at a given moment is something that has a lasting effect on those he meets. I urge anyone who shares even a shred of this enthusiasm to contribute to Ed’s upcoming ascent of Nepal’s Himlung Himal, or any of what will surely be many more adventures to come.
To find out more about Ed’s charity visit: M2M Foundation (millimetres2mountains.org)