The amputee Army hero racing for an Olympic cycling gold
By Gary Anderson
RAF engineer Jon-Allan Butterworth froze as he heard the chilling tell-tale sizzling sound above his head.
He was on his air base in the Iraqi city of Basra in a dangerous area known to British forces as “Rocket Alley”. And he knew only too well what was coming.
“I thought, ‘that’s me done for’,” says Jon-Allan. And then came the almighty blast…
But four years on, against the odds, this astonishing hero is very much alive and aiming for glory at Britain’s 2012 Paralympic Games.
He’s one of two ex-Forces amputees expected to make the British team for London 2012 after overcoming horrific injuries.
Paracyclist Jon-Allan, 25, who lost his left arm in Iraq, is tipped for gold in the cycling 1km time trial.
He’s looking forward to once again representing his country, this time in the field of sport rather than the field of battle.“I was proud to serve my country in Iraq. To win gold for Britain would be the achievement of a lifetime,” says Jon-Allan.
But as he trains alongside gold medallists such as Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton, the memories of his last moments in action are still all too clear.
The weapons technician was being driven to start his 7am shift at Basra air base on August 4, 2007, when an alarm went off signalling an attack.
He says: “The sound of a rocket going over your head is like a jet, so I knew I was in trouble when I heard a sort of sizzling sound much closer.
“It detonated but I didn’t feel any pain at first. It was only when I got up and patted myself down as the dust cloud cleared I realised my left arm was hanging and there was blood everywhere.”
Jon-Allan managed to apply his own tourniquet before he was found and rushed to a field hospital.Doctors amputated part of his lower left arm because shrapnel from the blast had ripped through his shoulder, severing an artery.
“You expect modern medicine to fix anything so I half-expected the doctor to tell me everything was OK when I woke up,” says Jon-Allan. “To find out the arm was gone was a shock. After I was flown back home I just felt glad to be alive and be able to see my wife and family.”
But surgeons at Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital had to perform a further above-the-elbow amputation before he was transferred to Headley Court in Surrey for rehab.
While there, as he started his gruelling fight back to fitness, that coaches from the MoD’s Battle Back scheme first spotted Jon-Allan’s Paralympic potential at a talent day just 10 weeks after he was wounded. “They said my results in terms of power were better than their top paracyclist at the time,” says Jon-Allan.
When he was fully fit again, another successful trial led to a contract with British Cycling in January 2009, prompting Jon-Allan to agree to take a medical discharge from his RAF desk job.
He moved with his wife Chantel, 25, and daughter Rae-Alexis, six, from Birmingham to Manchester so he could train with Team GB’s finest.
The gamble paid off. Jon-Allan has established himself as a world-class paracyclist, winning the world title in the 1km time trial at his first attempt and smashing the world record in the process. He hopes to win 1km gold again this summer, and follow that up with a medal in the 4km pursuit.
He says: “When I met Chris Hoy he told me how glad he was that someone from the Forces had got involved with cycling… it meant a lot coming from him.”
And Jon-Allan believes his journey to become an elite athlete has been even tougher than life in a war zone.
He says: “I joke that I get more nervous at the start gate than I was when we were under attack in Iraq. My little girl knows about my life before and after the injury. She is proud of her daddy for serving in Iraq and she is proud of the cycling.”
Our other ex-military hopeful is rower Captain Nick Beighton, who lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2009. He has hit the qualifying targets for the Games with his mixed-double scull partner Sam Scowen. Nick, 30, spent 18 months recovering and learning to walk with prosthetic legs.
Nick, from Shrewsbury, Shrops, said last year: “It is almost beyond belief to come back from the depths of despair and thinking life is over to having an opportunity to represent Great Britain.”
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