The Alan White you meet today isn’t the same man you would have met before October 2010. Back then, White was serving in the Royal Marines, and had just begun his promotion course to become a sergeant. It was on that promotion course that he suffered the injury that would change the course of his life forever.
I knew there was something wrong when there was more drink in my fridge than food
“I was running along and all of a sudden I couldn’t move my leg anymore. I had a short pain in my back and shooting pains down my leg,” says White. “I walked back to camp and then it just got worse over the next few days. I ended up being hospital bound.”
Although doctors weren’t sure of the extent of White’s injuries at the time, he was left with spine complications that paralysed his right leg and consigned him to a wheelchair.
It was a culture shock for a man who served 22 years in the Royal Marines. A man who by his own admission was “very fit” and “very active”. “I did a lot of cycling, did a lot of running and just generally keeping myself fit, but once I damaged my back it all came to a stop,” says White.
Daily life for White completely changed. Whereas before he had been a self-sufficient Marine, now he was reliant on his wife – who took up the role of White’s main carer. Even little things like going up stairs or going to the toilet became gargantuan tasks.
Worse than the damage to White’s body, however, was the damage to his mind. The former Marine spent three years at Hasler Company – the Royal Marines rehabilitation unit – working on fixing his body, but no one thought anything was wrong with his mental state.
But his personality had completely changed from what it was before his accident. White had gone from a man who instructed and led others to someone who couldn’t walk into a room if it had more than a couple of people in it. He also was quick to anger and had begun drinking heavily.
“Things just started to escalate,” says White. “I knew there was something wrong when there was more drink in my fridge than food. I was drinking every night, and I was on my medication. Things were getting bad.”
White ended up being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after he had a heated argument with one of his bosses at work, but it wasn’t until his wife gave him an ultimatum that he was able to kick his drinking habit for good.
“I spoke to my wife and we decided it was either sort myself out or lose my family. My family’s so important to me so I knew I had to do something about it.”
With the support of his family, White stopped drinking and continued with both his mental and physical rehabilitation.
When the first Invictus Games were held in 2014, he was offered a place to compete, but he didn’t feel he was physically or mentally ready, so he turned it down. He then spent the next four years trying to get back into it.
“It was definitely the right thing for me to do at the time,” says White. “I think it gave me the drive to push myself forward to get back in, to reach this level, a far higher level of fitness than I would have been back then anyway.”
Having unsuccessfully tried to compete at both the 2016 and 2017 Invictus Games, White was selected for the 2017 Warrior Games, which is the US’ version of the Invictus Games. He came away with a gold medal in the shot put, but it was still a place at the Invictus Games that he really wanted.
So, to improve his chances of being picked for the 2018 Games, White decided to enter into five disciplines – discus, shot put, hand cycling, sitting volleyball and swimming – in the hope that he would make it into at least one. You can probably guess what happened next – White was selected in all five events.
Because they’re all mainly upper-body and core-based disciplines, White believes he’ll have the strength to be competitive in each of his events, and he’s currently working hard in both the gym and in training camps up and down the country to make sure that’s the case.
As for his mental health, the former Royal Marine now takes medication to deal with his anxiety issues. He has also begun to give presentations about his experiences and he says talking to others has helped him. “It’s just getting myself out there and forcing myself to be back in that position again,” says White.
Whether White has fully recovered from his injury is a matter of interpretation. Is he the same man that he was before his accident? No. Will he ever be? Probably not. But there is now a new version of Alan White, and don’t be surprised if this version becomes an Invictus Games gold medallist.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be back to where I was. I’m a new person, I’m a new me. This is something that’s been forced upon me because, obviously, through the injury and the PTSD, you’ll never get back to where you were. At one stage it was my goal to get back to where I was, but it’s an unrealistic goal, so I’ve set new goals and new targets. And I’m on track to hit them.”
Superdry is the official sportswear partner for Team UK at the 2018 Invictus Games
If you’ve been inspired by Team UK and the Invictus Games, visit the Help for Heroes website to find out more