Paralympian and Freemason Jon Amos has handcycled across Australia and conquered Kilimanjaro. He talks to Luke Turton about why he rarely takes no for an answer
As chairman of the International Powerlifting Committee, Jon Amos has come to the end of a gruelling two weeks at the London 2012 Paralympic Games where he has worked fourteen-hour days to make sure the powerlifting events run smoothly. ‘I could have sat back but I preferred to get involved,’ Jon says, a statement that reflects not just his commitment to the Paralympic Games but to all the challenges he has faced in his life.
In 1976, driving along the M5 towards Birmingham, Jon was in an accident that injured his spine and paralysed the lower half of his body. Despite being in and out of hospital, Jon refused to give in to his injuries, and was an international swimming champion by the end of 1977 before deciding in 1984 that powerlifting sounded more interesting. By 1985 he was representing Great Britain in the sport and competed at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. In 1993 he was coaching the first international team at the European Championships in Hungary and was head coach and team manager of the ParalympicsGB powerlifting team that competed at Athens in 2004, a role he reprised at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. With a world altitude record for wheelchair mountaineering, thanks to a five thousand, six hundred and eighty-five metre charity ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and also the record for crossing Australia by handcycle, it is something of an understatement to say that Jon likes to ‘get involved’.
Never say never
Jon’s story is one of determination and self-belief. For the first nine days after his accident, he was in a critical state and recalls how devastated his parents were. ‘I thought how dare I let what’s happened to me affect them. In those days, there wasn’t a lot of support around in rehabilitation for spinal injuries and I thought, I’m going to move forward rather than see myself as being limited. I was told all the things I couldn’t do. The doctors were advising me based on their experiences of previous patients, but I felt that didn’t have to spell out my future. I was having a twitch in my leg and they said it was just a spasm but I knew I was moving it. After a few weeks I could control it.’
Always good at sport, Jon decided to focus on swimming after his accident. His charity work began when he heard about a lady with a degenerative eye disease who needed financial assistance. ‘I used to do a mile in the swimming pool, but I had to start doing it faster in order to raise money for this lady. That started off my charitable side. We set up a link scheme for people with spinal injuries because lots of them were leaving hospital with questions and could feel very despondent. We’d talk to them and give our personal experiences.’ With Jon climbing his way up the sporting ladder, his charity work saw him making a different kind of ascent. Working with Derek Groves, a Freemason and fellow coach from the British Weightlifting Association for the Disabled, Jon reached the summit of Great Gable Mountain in the Lake District in 1996, raising £4,000 in the process. ‘We needed funds to send some female powerlifters to a world championship in 1997 and made a version of a wheelchair with skids rather than wheels. It was totally wrecked by the end of the climb but we got the ladies to Colorado. Derek then suggested something higher and I said Everest, then we thought about Fuji and then Kilimanjaro. There were certainly trials and tribulations on the way. It showed me what my limits were and took me back to my time in hospital, but we challenged the world.’
Feeling of togetherness
After completing the Kilimanjaro climb in 1998, Jon was presented with a magnificent ceremonial sword by the Wilkinson Sword company. Feeling it far too grand an object to be sat on his wall at home, Jon, with the assistance of Glyn Hibbert, another fellow coach and Freemason, arranged for the sword to be given to Castle Lodge, No. 1436, in Sandgate, Kent, which in return made a charitable donation to the British Wheelchair Foundation.
That same year, Jon was asked to deliver a talk about the Kilimanjaro ascent at a Middlesex masonic sports lodge. With the lodge also giving a donation to the foundation, and continuing to support the charity long after the speech, Jon found that he liked the community aspects of Freemasonry and in 2006 joined the Saltford Lodge, No. 8633. ‘It’s very relaxed so I can fit it around my schedule – you can give up every night or treat it as a hobby. I like the fact that you can do good things in a discreet way and I’m happy to be a part of it.’
Reflecting on a glorious summer of sport in the UK, Jon believes there was something special about the 2012 Paralympics. ‘We have a better perspective on disability in the UK. I haven’t seen anything in previous Games that matches the way we work with people with disabilities. This was the first Games where the crowds filled the stands and paid for it. In Seoul and Beijing, the stands were filled but that was government driven. The US didn’t run a great Games in 1996, and maybe even moved it back a few steps. Sydney raised the bar again but London pushed it even higher. Rio 2016 has big shoes to fill.’
Asked how he feels about helping to organise the Paralympics, breaking world records and competing for Great Britain, Jon downplays his achievements. ‘My awards are in the loft, I never put them in the cabinet,’ he says, clearly far more interested in challenging people to challenge themselves. ‘You could call it bloody-mindedness, but you should always believe in yourself. There were so many things I was told I couldn’t do and my approach has been to say, “Well maybe I can’t, but I’ve got to try.”’
Jon Amos cycled into the record books when he powered across Australia on a handcycle in 1999. He rode from Darwin to Adelaide on a cycle designed with hand pedals. Using his arms for propulsion, he completed the journey in just over one hundred and forty-one hours, covering one hundred miles a day and reaching top speeds of twenty-five miles per hour. Filmed by the BBC during the ride, Jon said: ‘This has superseded all that I’ve done before. I’m finding out new things about myself. [The trip] was to create awareness from an able-bodied point of view of what people with disabilities can achieve. But it was also to show disabled people what they can achieve if they want to.’