Type Blade Runner into your computer’s search engine and a 1982 science fiction movie starring Harrison Ford will pop up first.
Scroll down and you’ll find Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee runner who made athletic history by competing in the 400 metre relay final in the London Olympics last week. But move over Messrs Ford and Pistorius because Simon Baker is making his mark. He lives and trains in Limerick - and he’s Irelands first and only Blade Runner.
By his own admission, Simon Baker was an entirely different person eight years ago. He had moved from his native London to work as a plasterer. Work was plentiful and the living was easy. He started up a successful sub contractors business in Limerick and built his own beautiful home.
He rarely exercised, smoked 30 cigarettes a day and drank socially at the weekend. Early in 2004 his entire existence was turned on its head. A relatively innocuous fall from a scaffold resulted in a very serious multiple and compound fracture of his right leg with 32 individual bone fragments visible on X-ray.
Simon underwent eight separate operations in eight months, none of which were successful in achieving a return to normal function. When offered another treatment option which would necessitate repeated hospital stays and general anaesthetics for the next 18 months, Simon asked the surgeon to amputate the leg instead.
“I was asked to think about it,” he recalls. “I replied that I’d had over eight months to think about it. I wanted control of my life back and once I made that decision I felt better about my situation.”
However the transition period that followed proved hard and dark days followed.
“I basically hit rock bottom. Drank too much. I wasn’t coping well at all and became very depressed. I couldn’t work. My finances were not good. Lots of crazy thoughts were going through my head.”
It was around this difficult time that Simon met his partner Gillian. “Gillian was my saviour. So supportive, so understanding. But I was still a real mess. I didn’t have cancer or another terrible disease but I couldn’t handle the fact that I had lost my leg.”
But suddenly one positive development proved a turning point. A long drawn out High Court case relating to the accident was settled. He decided to commit permanently to Limerick, where he had started a new job in community employment scheme. He joined a gym, and explored options such as wheelchair basketball and soccer. And he decided to enter the Dublin City Marathon.
“I had received a Guinness Book of Records for my birthday. I set myself the goal of getting myself into it by completing the whole 26 miles on crutches.” He raised funds for the Bubble Gum Club, a charity which helps grant wishes to children with serious illness. “I was invited to a birthday party for a 16-year-old girl with terminal leukaemia. She was a beautiful young girl and was so happy to be just having a big party. Her parents hadn’t told her she was dying. I got a serious wake-up call. It put my last four years into perspective. It dawned on me how selfish I had been and that I had never realised the possibilities that life in general and now my life could offer.”
When he crossed the line his time was 6 hours and 42 minutes, a record for an amputee which stood until 2010.
Simon decided to set himself a new challenge every year in aid of charity. He got lucky with his next choice, because it led to him to Jason Kenny, a well known strength and conditioning coach, and the co-founder with Blue Shinnors of Forever Fit Promotions, the organisers of Limerick White Collar Charity Boxing.
“They hadn’t had an amputee box before but said I was welcome. No one treated me with kid gloves during the eight weeks of boot camp. I loved the training, and I was in awe of Michael Carruth when he visited St Francis to train us. I felt normal again. I came to the realisation that exercise is the best medicine. It can help with lots of problems. You don’t have to run a marathon either.Hop on a bike. Go for a walk. You are going to feel better about yourself afterwards.
“Fight night came and I remember Jason saying to me, ‘Well done.’ We talked and he a crucial mistake because he offered to help me out with my next challenge!”
That was a journey from Dublin to Limerick on crutches. Jason designed a tailor made conditioning programme for Simon. Paddy Power came on board with a five-strong support team. A circuitous 257 km route was successfully completed in aid of the ISPCC but already Simon was planning his next project, one that was going to raise the bar considerably .
“You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have. You are able by the ability you have.” - Oscar Pistorius, 2008
For those who haven’t been paying attention over the past few weeks, Oscar Pistorius is a South African 400 metre runner making athletics history by being the first disabled runner to compete at the Summer Olympics using two carbon fibre artificial limbs or blades. At first he was prevented from competing against able-bodied athletes, but a Court of Arbitration for Sports in Lausanne reversed this decision in 2008. And now the South African is a genuine superstar with a string of blue chip sponsors.
Jason Kenny takes up the story. “Simon had definitely been influenced by the Pistorius story. He had immersed himself reading and learning about the carbon fibre blades, the technology available and the possibilities it created.
“We discussed the project at length and came up with the idea of running the Dublin City Marathon using a blade. It hadn’t been done here before. As well as that, no Irish amputee athlete had ever competed in a track event in the Paralympics and no centre of excellence exists in this country for amputee athletes or disability sports in general.”
Jason and Simon got to work quickly, contacting Alan Ward and Dave Mahedy of the University of Limerick, to set the ball rolling in autumn of 2011. “They were very enthusiastic, supportive and excited about the whole idea from the outset. We were immediately offered full use of the universities facilities.”
Simon approached Ottobock, a Dublin company that manufactures the specialised blades.They too promised their full support, as well as sponsorship. Meanwhile an inter-departmental team was assembled in UL to co ordinate the project. Jason became the overall project manager as well as personal trainer to Simon.
“What was vital from the outset was that that we straight away achieved credibility. Our short term goal is to get Simon to run the Dublin Marathon in under three and a half hours. But our long-term goal is to set up a template for a future centre of excellence in this country so that Irish track and field amputee athletes can compete in future Paralympics with the best possible support system.”
Quickly the assembled team got down to business. Extensive baseline data for Simon was recorded, measurements for his new blade were taken and retaken as his leg and entire body shape began to change. The long hours and days of training commenced and still are not without constant challenge.
Jason admits there is a steep daily learning curve: “Simon had never walked properly, let alone run properly! We had to teach him to do just that. Change his posture. Alter his stride pattern. Retrain his brain’s muscle memory. His right leg had turned almost outwards since the accident. His left side of his body dominated his right side. So we had to break him down to start again and build him back up, block by block.” Simon and Jason’s rapport and friendship is obvious and Simon says he couldn’t have arrived at this point without Jason’s huge input and also that of his sports injury therapist, Orla Smyth.
Through intensive training involving specific running and posture exercises and brutal core work, Simon and Jason had succeeded in turning his right leg back to its proper alignment.
Jason says it was a pivotal moment in the project, which is now called Out on a Limb: “I never doubted the man’s determination. I had walked alongside him from Dublin to Limerick in hailstones. I had seen him get into a boxing ring time and time again. I had seen the sores on his leg. I’d never heard him complain - almost! But now all these scientists and experts could see that determination and the subsequent results for themselves.”
“We all keep on telling each other that if we can learn and achieve this much in nine months, imagine what we can do in four years, in time for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. The sky really is the limit.”
Simon cut in as the interview draws to a close. “Just make sure to put this down,” he says. “I really don’t think I’m an inspiration. A lot of people have been dealt a lot worse hand in life than I have been and dealt a lot better with it than I have.
“Sometimes you cannot see other people’s disabilities.You can see mine. I’m very conscious of this amazing opportunity - and I feel very lucky.”