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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

Paralysed Abu Dhabi rugby player prepares for Paralympic bid

Mike Ballard, 34, has spent years fighting back after breaking back in a tackle

Mike Ballard, who was paralysed from the waist down after a rugby accident in 2014, prepares for his trials for Team USA at the Paralympic Games next year. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Mike Ballard, who was paralysed from the waist down after a rugby accident in 2014, prepares for his trials for Team USA at the Paralympic Games next year. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

An Abu Dhabi athlete left paralysed from the waist down after a horrific rugby accident in 2014 is now preparing to compete for Team USA in next year’s Paralympic Games.

Mike Ballard, 34, will be heading to the US in March to take part in time trials to be one of the country’s kayaking athletes, competing in the 200 metre flat water sprint.

Originally from Michigan, the special needs teacher is no stranger to the water, having grown up with the sport recreationally from a young age on the state’s lakes.

Training six mornings a week and preparing for one of the biggest sporting events in the world is a huge leap from where he was in 2014 and a brutal accident when Abu Dhabi Harlequins met Jebel Ali Dragons at Zayed Sport City.

Ballard went in for a tackle and his target fell hard on top of him, before other players piled into go for the ball. He found himself at the bottom of a pile and felt his back break under the pressure.

The prognosis from doctors was bleak, with his T12/L1 vertebrae fractured.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Mike Ballard paralyzed waist down after a rugby incident in 2014 preparing for his trails to kayak for team USA in Paralympic Games next year, January 25, 2018. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Mike Ballard paralyzed waist down after a rugby incident in 2014 preparing for his trails to kayak for team USA in Paralympic Games next year, January 25, 2018. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

“I wasn’t too interested in what the doctors said,” says Ballard.

“The damage was significant and I knew it was bad. The progress has been slow but we are getting there and making it work.”

After the accident, he says he was “just figuring out how to live”. His first goal was merely to do daily tasks alone and he returned home for two years to get treatment and live with his parents in the initial aftermath.

“I had to get to living independently first. Next would be to get back to work and back to Abu Dhabi, and then to get back to training.”

It was thanks to the support of the local community in Abu Dhabi that US$100,000 (Dh370,000) was raised to support his treatment through a foundation set up by Harlequins teammates.

Even now, he is still able to use the fund to support his treatment.

In August 2017, he decided his goal was the 2020 Olympic Games.

“I knew time was pressing on and that I would be 35 at the time of the Games so this was the time to make it happen and I was ready.”

In spite of a demanding job, a schedule of weekly therapy sessions, and daily agonising pain, he trains six days a week. He has two training supports, who also help him transport the heavy kayak into the water for him.

Last summer, he went to trials in Oklahoma City, where he began the big push to 2020.

“The feedback was really positive,” he said.

“I knew what I had to work on. There was a lot to do.”

In March, he will attend a two-week training camp in California and in April, the time trials take place in Oklahoma City, followed by the World Cup in Poland in May. In the coming academic year, Ballard will leave work to focus on the Games for one year.

The goal gives him purpose, he says.

“This give me something at the end of the line, not just working for the sake of working.”

Mike Ballard shown at Friday's Conquistadors foundation team training session. Reem Mohammed / The National / June 10, 2016
Mike Ballard pictured at a rugby training session in 2016. Reem Mohammed / The National

Blake Patterson has been at national level kayaking for Canada, and is now one of Ballard’s biggest supporters, training with him daily for around six months.

“Mike's had tremendous progress towards the Olympics and has been improving every day. His approach, his positive view of life, his hard work and dedication every day, and his athletic talent, have him on track for 2020,” he says.

Those who know him speak of Ballard as “special”, and he continues to touch the lives of those around him.

“Training with Mike has not only has given me the opportunity to meet a great friend and enjoy training on the water, but it has also affected my own life, along with my family and children.

"His resilience and commitment to going after his dreams, and helping others through his career as a teacher, are inspiring to everyone around him.”

He says it is Ballard’s positive character mixed with “grit and humour” that make him such an inspiring individual.

Glenn Folkard, the third member of the training trio, agrees.

“You never hear him whinge once,” he said.

He too, refers to Ballard as “special”, saying that he was "special before the accident” as a special needs teacher.

The Australian, with a long background of kayaking, says that to see Ballard go from novice to international level in 12 months has been testament to his strength of character.

“If Mike gets a medal, it will be tremendous,” he said.

Updated: February 8, 2019 01:49 PM

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