If there’s anyone qualified to talk about how to smash the glass ceiling in achieving your own personal goals, it has to be James Cracknell.
The Olympic rower knows what it takes to be the best having won gold at the Sydney and Athens games following disappointment at Barcelona and Atlanta when he couldn’t compete due to injury and illness.
For ‘fun’, he also signed up for the epic Marathon des Sables desert challenge (he came 12th, the highest place ever achieved by a Brit) as well as a 3,000 mile rowing race across the Atlantic and a trek to the South Pole with his best friend, TV presenter Ben Fogle.
But by far his biggest challenge happened outside the competitive sports arena when a cycling accident in Arizona left him with a devastating brain injury. Five years on, it’s hard to believe the 43-year-old father of three was close to death as he talks eloquently and passionately about that fateful day.
‘I was cycling through Death Valley, a couple of days up Route 66, and was enjoying being out there when I got smacked on the back of the head at 70mph by a big fuel truck at 4am,’ he recalls. ‘It threw me up in the air and snapped my bike. My helmet was covered in blood and my shirt was cut off me before I was helicoptered to hospital.
‘I couldn’t remember anything for a month. They put me in a coma for 10 days and called my wife Beverley and told her to get to America now. While I was in a coma she found out she was pregnant. Luckily it was just my head that got injured, there was no other trauma to deal with.’
To hear James speak now, you could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t that bad. In fact, both sides of his skull were smashed including the frontal lobes, which control anger, mood, motivation, facial recognition and the ability to plan.
‘After a brain injury, you react differently,’ explains James, who is currently starring in ITV’s sports reality series Eternal Glory. ‘My kids had one dad for six years and have had a different one since. You get angry, you are not as articulate. I’ve been left with epilepsy and I’ve had a number of seizures after which you can’t drive for a year. You lose a lot of empathy and motivation.
‘But it’s something that happened to me rather than something that is going to define the rest of my life. If you respond to setbacks by setting a goal and working towards it, you can achieve more than you thought you could.’
That’s pretty much the ethos behind James’s latest project Fitter, Stronger, a weekend health and fitness retreat at Chewton Glen in the New Forest where anyone from exercise fanatics, people coming back from illness or injury and first timers can learn more about nutrition and the benefits of an active lifestyle.
Established by journalist turned personal trainer Paula Kerr, who used exercise to battle back from a breast cancer diagnosis in 2013, clients can chat to James over dinner, pick up easy to implement dietary tips from leading nutritionist Fred Wadhurst and enjoy a bespoke fitness regime and specially
formulated light and healthy menu featuring fruits and vegetables sourced from Chewton Glen’s organic 130 acre gardens.
With plans to get elected as an MP in the future, James’s passion now is fighting against obesity. ‘That is more important to me than being a sportsman,’ he adds, citing a truly shocking set of statistics. ‘In 1975, we ate 1900 calories a day. Today, that has risen to 2,100 calories daily but we move 25% less. There are so many energy saving devices like ride on lawn mowers. Only 20% of people in the UK walk more than 15 minutes in one go once a year and 80% of journeys under a mile are done by car.
‘Richmond is the most active borough in the UK as well as one of the most affluent, and Newham is the least active yet it has many of the Olympic facilities, so it’s not about facilities, it’s about education and demographics. Around 60% of kids aren’t eating breakfast before school which leads to behaviour problems and lack of concentration.
‘What being fit and healthy means to me is being happier and making more of my life. If you look after yourself from the age of 20 - 50, it’s amazing what your body is capable of at 70.’
Image credit: Jonathan Buckmaster