Taking it in his stride

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Championing the cause

Freemason Sean Gaffney has competed at the Invictus Games, runs in obstacle courses for fun and is a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy. Emilee Tombs finds out how he hasn’t let a life-changing injury break his stride

‘I was hoping for three golds on the first day,’ deadpans Sean Gaffney, when asked if he was happy with the two golds, one silver and a bronze that he won in this year’s Invictus Games. Watched by thousands all over the world in the international Paralympic-style event held in America, Sean adds, ‘I’m not exactly disappointed in myself, but if I can qualify for next year’s games I’ll put a bit more training in.’

Since suffering a life-changing injury in 1999, in which he lost the lower part of his left leg, Sean has pushed his body to the limits of physical endurance, the mere thought of which would make most of us shudder. Yet the 45-year-old is modest about his achievements and matter-of-fact about his injury. 

It happened while he was serving in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, during the then-annual Field Gun competition in the Royal Tournament. The Field Gun was a superior test of strength, agility and endurance in which sailors would race to get a 1,500lb field gun and limber over a series of obstacles. It was during a practice run for the tournament that there was, in Sean’s words, ‘a bit of an accident’, during which the gun ended up on top of his foot, crushing it. 

Sean spent three months in hospital undergoing about 26 surgeries before contracting life-threatening septicaemia and having his leg amputated below the knee. ‘Because we’d spent so long trying to save the foot, I knew that there was less and less chance of saving the leg. Doctors were cutting into scar tissue and my body was wearing out, so I knew that with every subsequent operation there was less chance of success.’

When Sean ended up with septicaemia, it was a simple choice: ‘The options were that they either cut my leg off or I’d be dead within two hours. So that was decision made, really.’ This no-nonsense approach was to see Sean fitted with a prosthetic and walking out of hospital without crutches within a month. He even drove himself home.

Where there’s a will...

Sean thinks that his naval training may have had something to do with his attitude. ‘Everything is supposed to run as a well-oiled military machine, but unfortunately it never does. As they say, “no plan survives contact”, which means that you should never rely on plan A because it’s never going to work – you’ve always got to have a few backups.’

Back at the gym within a month, Sean began rebuilding his strength and preparing for his Royal Navy fitness tests, but the real turning point was when his sister Kerry challenged him to a 10km run – after which the pair went ‘a bit daft’ with their challenges. Support from Kerry and his wife Fiona spurred Sean on, and he added swimming, cycling and rowing to his arsenal, started entering more events such as triathlons and began raising money for charities such as Help for Heroes, which led him to being asked to take part in the Invictus Games. 

‘The Invictus Games uses the power of sport to help people to recover. It’s getting people off their behinds to show that they’ve still got the will to compete. Hopefully through participating you’ll get the comradeship that comes with it – being part of such an inspirational crowd of people can uplift you and further your recovery,’ says Sean. 

‘The options were that they cut my leg off or I’d be dead within two hours.’ Sean Gaffney

It was through his charity work that Sean came to be interested in Freemasonry, after a friend and former naval colleague recommended he get involved. ‘Charity was definitely one of the best things about Freemasonry for me’, he says. ‘Since 2006 I’ve done one or two physically challenging charity events a year, so when that side of Freemasonry was explained to me I thought that was possibly the best thing about it.’

With the charitable focus combined with the camaraderie and a strong emphasis on good moral standards of conduct, Sean thought Freemasonry might be a good fit for him and applied to join. He was initiated into the Royal Naval Lodge, No. 2761, in Yeovil in 2013, quickly moving up to take on the role of Dining Steward, though most of his first couple of years have been about training for the games. ‘Make sure you thank Ed Cole,’ he pleads, citing a fellow mason who took over his duties while he was training, ‘I owe him big time.’ 

Common bond

Scott Gibbons, Secretary of the Royal Naval Unit at which Sean is a member, speaks fondly of his colleague and friend. ‘Sean has a quiet, steely determination,’ says Scott with a chuckle. ‘I’m laughing because I don’t know anyone who would describe him as quiet. In fact, Sean is never lost for words. He’s a larger-than-life character, but in his initiation he showed a humble side, which is important in Freemasonry.’

With the fraternity creating a common bond and understanding between members, Scott notes the importance of the support network it offers to masons’ families: ‘I could tell just how much it meant to Sean to be a part of it all.’

Freemasonry fits well into Sean’s life. ‘I can go off to a lodge meeting or a charity meal or say that I’ll help out a fellow brother at the weekend lifting and shifting,’ he says. ‘It’s opened up a network of friends that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I know that five times a year we’ll all get together, have a chat and put the world to rights.’

Sean has already started his training for next year’s Invictus Games, to be held in Toronto in April. But he’s also looking forward to having more time for his masonic duties, and the celebratory dinner being held in his honour by his lodge. ‘Being a mason is not just about being a good man today,’ he says, ‘but having the desire to be a better man tomorrow.’ 

‘The Invictus Games uses the power of sport to help people to recover.’ Sean Gaffney

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