When John “Jacko” Jackson stands on the start line in Sochi tomorrow, the man who is one of the hot favourites to lift a gold medal as leader of Team GB’s four-man bobsleigh crew could be forgiven if his mind momentarily wanders back to the moment he fell over a hurdle last summer and his Achilles exploded.
Aged 36 and facing a minimum recuperation period of nine months, the impact which literally tore his tendon off the bone should have been the end of his sporting career. And, given that the Team GB pilot is widely seen as irreplaceable, it should also have been the end of three other men’s hopes of Olympic glory.
“As soon as I hit the floor I knew what had happened,” said the Royal Marine. “I did the test where you press a point in the Achilles but there was no reaction, although I already knew that I’d done the tendon. I knew it could be the end of my sporting career, of my Olympic dream, and that it would be tough for the other three guys, but I was never going to give up. It happened on a Saturday and by the time I got to the hospital I was already determined to be in the gym on the Monday even if I had to crawl there.”
He refused to give up hope, convinced there might be some miracle cure out there. Within hours he had learnt from Dr Rod Jaques at the English Institute of Sport that a pioneering surgical technique called the Internal Brace could provide an Olympic lifeline. “It was a no-brainer for me,” he laughs. “If I went for traditional surgery to repair the ruptured Achilles then I wouldn’t be able to start full training until nine to 12 months later, which was no use for me because I only had 18 and a half weeks until the first warm-up races, and less than six months until the Games themselves. For me, quite simply, that would have meant no Olympics – it wouldn’t quite have been time to get out the cardie and the slippers, but it felt like it.”
Instead, Jackson turned to the untried alternative. A doctor at the hospital in Bath had been at a conference with Professor Gordon Mackay, a world-renowned Scottish orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in sports injuries and who has developed a revolutionary new technique for treating ligament and tendon injuries. Essentially, it involves inserting a tiny bungee cord between the two bones so it stabilises the joint and so that the ligament or tendon can grow back naturally rather than being stitched back onto the bone. Crucially, it means that injuries heal far quicker – Scottish club rugby player Rory Hutton was back playing in a league game eight weeks to the day after rupturing his ACL – and there’s no need to put the joint in plaster so athletes can begin light training almost immediately.
“Within days I was lying on a table in Scotland being sliced and diced by Gordon,” said Jackson. “He said that I’d be back training full-time within 16 weeks, and he was right. By the eighth week I knew I’d be able to race, and from there on in I just pushed and pushed, hitting every marker, breaking all the predictions. I don’t think anyone else could believe it.”
“I’ve been working in this field for 23 years and have never seen improvements like this,” said Jaques. “I was astounded. The milestones he’s hit so rapidly are phenomenal, although we can’t say that this is the golden solution for Achilles treatment yet because the proof will come ten to 20 years down the line.”
For Jackson and his bobsleigh team, the rewards were far more immediate. While the Marine was out injured, the four-man team finished 15th and 17th in their Word Cup races. Yet as soon as Jackson returned, the team started competing with the best, culminating in two World Cup silver medals. From no-hopers, a team featuring three rookies in Scottish sprint champion Stuart Benson, London Olympic sprinter Joe Fearon and Bruce Tasker had firmly established themselves as one of the favourites heading into Sochi.
It has been a remarkable journey, and one that seems a lifetime away from that day when Jackson mangled his Achilles. “Jacko is irreplaceable, so when he did his Achilles we all thought ‘this might be it’,” says Benson. “When he ran for the first time it was at a training session in front of us all, and it was very emotional: it was a real breakthrough. It made us realise that if he can come back from that, then we can really give this a good go. It was the point at which we all thought, ‘maybe this is just all meant to be’.”
In many ways, just getting to Sochi was the biggest victory of all for the big-hearted Marine.