2 December 2022

From Spinal Injury to MBE- Gavin Walker MBE tells his story

Gavin Walker MBE, 39, ‘could never imagine’ where his life might lead when he was injured in 2010.

After slipping on wet decking at a family barbecue, Gavin suffered a broken neck which led to him spending six months in the Princess Royal Spinal Cord Injuries Centre at the Northern General Hospital.
Since his injury, the dad of two has become a gold medallist Paralympian in wheelchair rugby and has recently received an MBE for his outstanding service in the sport and for inspiring others facing adversity through life-changing events.

Gavin said: “My injury was challenging for many reasons- I was young, really active and I was a firefighter in Sheffield. My daughter was only four months old, and this was the most challenging aspect- how was I going to be the dad I wanted to be?

“Initially, I didn’t know what the future might hold or how my life was going to change. The staff at the Spinal Unit spent a lot of time reassuring me that life does go on and there’s still so much I could do.
One of my physiotherapists, Sarah Leighton, volunteered at the time in wheelchair rugby as a classifier. She was travelling the world and supporting the sport with her skills and she recognised that I could be a great candidate.

“It was encouraging to hear about, but it was so difficult to believe it was something I could do. When you suffer a spinal injury, you’re in such a weakened state and you’ve been on bedrest for so long. But I had lots of support and that was fantastic. At that point it was a case of having to just go for it and do it yourself, once you have the advice.”

Gavin’s first experience of being in a chair was in 2011. In 2012 he started playing in the Development Team and by 2013 he was asked to join the Elite Team who would be playing for GB in the Paralympics.
He said: “I never went into the sport to compete, I planned on continuing my work at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue, but then once I retired it became full-time.”

Now Co-Captain, Gavin has led the team to scoring three European Championship titles and at last year’s Tokyo Paralympics, the team was awarded a gold medal.

He continued: “It's the pinnacle of the sport and what everyone's aiming for. No British team has ever medalled at the Paralympics, so not only were the first team to medal, but the first British and European team to achieve a gold medal.”

In January this year it was announced that Gavin was to receive an MBE for his achievements. On 8 November he was awarded the MBE at Windsor Castle by Prince William.

Gavin said: “It's a strange one, a gold medal once felt so out of reach, yet it's always on your radar as you're working towards it. But the MBE- I'd never even considered it! It was a really nice surprise to be awarded something like that on the back of all your hard work. When we got the gold medal in Tokyo, there weren't spectators, so to have my girlfriend and daughters with me for my MBE was amazing.”

Gavin now also works for the Spinal Injuries Association, helping others through recovery after spinal injuries.

“I work on the unit weekly. I regularly talk to people about my achievements, but I always try to encourage them to try new things. It might not always be possible to continue with the same job or hobbies they once found interesting, but it’s good to try something new- it doesn’t have to be sport, it can be anything.

“It’s not always easy, you have to put yourself in a really uncomfortable position and step outside of your comfort zone, but you never know where it might lead. If you’re struggling, there are so many networks that provide support- reach out to charities and community groups who can help.”

Clinical Services Manager in Neurology, Sarah Leighton, who treated Gavin following his injury said: “After first meeting Gavin, it soon became obvious that he would make a great wheelchair rugby athlete with his level of function as well as his determination. He recognised the benefits of being involved in sport not only for his health but also for the opportunities it would bring him.

“What was fantastic to see was the transition of Gavin from patient to athlete to gold medal winning Paralympian. The staff and patients of the Princess Royal Spinal Injuries Centre are extremely lucky that he continues to come to the Centre regularly with his work through the Spinal Injuries Association, his MBE is very much deserved.”

Consultant in Spinal Injuries, Mr Pradeep Thumbikat, said: “Having known Gavin since the time he had the spinal cord injury, what has been striking is how well he has returned to all the normal responsibilities and activities that all of us deal with, being a father and being a responsible member of the community while adapting to the consequences of the spinal cord injury and getting to exceptional levels in elite sports.

“With his unassuming manner and approachable nature, he is an exemplar for what can be achieved after a spinal cord injury. He has been an inspiration and a role model for many others in a similar situation. His regular and ongoing engagement with the Sheffield Spinal Injuries Centre has been very helpful and I hope that it will continue. The award is a well-deserved recognition for an exceptional man.”

Gavin has also recently been made Honorary Freeman of the Borough- the highest civic honour the council can award. He was presented with the honour by Councillor Tajamal Khan at Rotherham Town Hall.


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