Nathan MacQueen wins mental battle in bid for paralympic powerlifting spot
IN THE summer of 2009, a promising 17-year-old rugby player from Dumfries, Nathan MacQueen, crashed his motorbike head-on into a car, breaking three of his vertebrae and ending up in a wheelchair for life.
He has since gone on to represent Scotland at wheelchair basketball and now aims for next year’s Commonwealth Games as a paralympic power-lifter.
“I always say rugby saved my life,” said MacQueen, who turned out for Dumfries Colts and Saints and Murrayfield Wanderers. “I broke T9, 10 & 11 (vertebrae), both my femurs, all my ribs, internal bleeding and two punctured lungs – 29 bones in one sitting. The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it, but because I was so young they didn’t want to give up on me. They were going to put me on a steel lung, a kind of incubator thing, but my left lung re-inflated itself and they said it was because I was so fit from all the rugby.”
There is an unnerving calmness to MacQueen as he recounts the shocking details of the accident that changed his life forever nearly four years ago. Now, still only 21, he spends the majority of his time training and taking part in disabled powerlifting competitions in a bid to win a medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
It has, however, been a long and difficult rehabilitation since that fateful August morning in 2009. “I was in high dependency for about three months and then I went through to rehab where I had to wear a brace for eight weeks,” he said. “It was horrible. Then they chuck you on the floor and tell you to get back in your chair. They make you wheelie downstairs and stuff like that. It helps you. I’m not scared to go out by myself now because I know I can get down stairs or get back in my chair if I fall out”
The mental battle was also a real test of his spirit, especially after returning home. “I was properly down at that time because I couldn’t get outside to meet people and hang about with my friends. I thought that everyone had abandoned me. I didn’t think I would have friends anymore. The whole social thing of ‘Oh, he’s in a wheelchair’ but it was stupid for me to think like that because it wasn’t the fact.”
Ironically, he was deemed “not disabled enough” to play wheelchair rugby (you need to be tetraplegic) so he turned to wheelchair basketball at his local club, Lothian Phoenix in Bathgate, going on to gain three caps for Scotland before an email from Goals for Gold alerted him to the possibility of disabled powerlifting.
Eighteen months later and his enthusiasm for the sport shines bright in his eyes. He is currently ranked second in the UK in his weight class and has made remarkable progress.
“Able-bodied powerlifting has three disciplines – bench, clean and squat – but disabled powerlifting, because we can’t stand up, it’s just bench,” he explained. “They’ve made the bench super-hard though – so, so hard. They’ve made it so technical; it’s harder than able-bodied benching.
“I did 120kg at the UK Open but I need to get 140kg to qualify (for Glasgow 2014). I should make it because it’s only 20kg and I’ve got until April 2014 to get that so I’ve got plenty of time. I should get 140kg but I want to get more than that so that I’m not just qualifying. I want to go and be able to compete; I don’t just want to go there for the sake of being there.”
There is a deeper, more personal reason driving MacQueen to do well in Glasgow though. Last year he tragically lost his mother at the age of 46 to complications arising from her rehabilitation from an eating disorder. “She wanted to get better to see me at the Commonwealth Games. It inspires me though. If I’m struggling with a lift, I close my eyes and think of my mum. I do it with every lift. It’s just my thing”.
There is an obvious sadness in his voice when he recalls his mother, but there is also a steely resolve that truly belies his young age. When prompted about his plans for after 2014 he is absolutely resolute. “It’ll be Rio (2016 Olympics) after 2014. That’s my next goal.”
Fortunately he has already caught the eye of Team GB. “We go to a lot of in-house camps with them. They’re really helpful towards us; it’s them that are taking us over to Dubai on 20 February for the FASA Open. After that I have Kuala Lumpar in November for another competition.”
As you would expect, he thoroughly enjoyed the Olympics and Paralympics last summer and speaks with obvious enthusiasm about them. “It was really good, inspiring. I was a wee bit gutted I didn’t get to go to that one, but I’ll get to go all the way over to Rio. Before that, though, the Commonwealth Games being in Scotland will be like a home Olympics anyway.”
For the next few years, MacQueen has set some clear goals for himself, but he’s already thinking beyond that. “I don’t know how long my body will hold out and I don’t want to knacker myself. I want to go on to work with disabled children, in sports rehab. When I was in hospital you had able-bodied people teaching you how to do stuff and you’re thinking ‘But you can walk’.
This pragmatic, long-term view of the world would normally be disconcerting coming from someone so young, but few people have faced so many challenges at such a young age. “I’m a better person since the accident,” he states in a matter-of-fact way. “Being in a wheelchair has made me a better person. I believe everything in life happens for a reason. I was put on this path for a definite reason.”
Given the obstacles that he has overcome so far and his utter determination and spirit, you wouldn’t want to bet against MacQueen going on to achieve all his goals and more.
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