Steve Judge used a life-changing accident to reinvent himself as a triathlete, and now he’s a two time world champion
I don’t do taking drugs, i use internal visualisation. it’s mental strength, I suppose. I have pain all the time, so it’s just how I deal with it
Crossing the finish line at the World Paratriathlon Champs in Auckland, Steve Judge raises the finish tape above his head, closes his eyes and lets out a scream of pure joy. Following what he called his “toughest year in tri”, he’s become world champion for the second time; all the anger, frustration, adrenaline and stress of a packed season have just been released. It’s been a decade-long journey to get here, but standing on a blue carpet on the other side of the world, Judge can say that he’s achieved his ultimate goal: not just to be as good as he was before his accident, but to be better.
Ten years ago, Judge was lying in a hospital bed listening to doctors tell him that although he was alive, he might lose his right leg. Driving home one Sunday afternoon, he remembered that he needed to buy some milk, so changed course and headed towards the shops. It was a decision that changed his life. Going along a road on the outskirts of Sheffield, his car skidded on a tramline and slammed sideways into a pole at 40mph. The car bent in half and crushed both his legs in the wreckage. The fire service took an hour to cut him out before he was rushed to Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital.
His left knee had been torn apart, with three of the four ligaments severed. But his right leg suffered even more damage – both his tibia and fibula had been shattered. Doctors prepared him for the possibility of amputation, but thankfully this wasn’t necessary. Instead they saved the leg after removing 100mm of bone and installing a Ilizarov apparatus – a metal cage with rods that bore into the bone to hold it in place.
As with any serious accident, a huge part of the recovery process is the response, and Judge’s reaction was remarkable. “Some people just roll over and go back to sleep,” he says, talking about sitting in hospital, looking at his legs and being told he may never walk again. “But I was ready to set new challenges right then and try to prove them [the doctors] wrong.
“My initial goal, lying in the hospital bed, was to eat and get better and eventually get out of there and get home. Then learn to stand again and how to walk on crutches.”
The rehab was a slow and painstaking process; it was 16 months before Judge had all apparatus removed and could just about stand, let alone begin to think about walking. But he continued to set goals, and by the end of 2003, with incredible determination, suffering and an extreme amount of pain, he could walk without crutches again.
Running was still out of the question, but swimming and cycling kept Judge active and helped him to set more goals.
“I wanted to set challenges and goals every year,” he explains. “I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just normal, but better than I was before the accident, because by doing that I could prove that the accident had no impact on my life, that I’d moved on, that I hadn’t lost three years. I was very conscious to never say that my life had been ruined, just that it had been changed – I think that’s important, positive thinking.
“And when I say I wanted to be back to normal, I mean normality for me. When you say normal in the disabled world, there’s a lot of people that say ‘well, what is normal?’ because everybody’s different. But yeah, to say my life had been changed meant that I could get back on track and still achieve,
and that was very important to me.”
In 2009, Judge set himself the goal of completing a triathlon. He figured that although he still couldn’t run, he could always walk the last part, so the local Rother Valley Triathlon would be the event he’d aim for. On registering he discovered that there was a paratriathlon category, “and I thought, ‘Oh, I wonder if I can register to do this as disabled’”. So he enquired, was accepted, and was placed into the TRI-3 category, for athletes with paralysis in multiple limbs, double leg amputees or those who suffer from conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
As with any competitive person, and especially for someone who used to be a runner, it wasn’t long before Judge started to get back into the racer’s mindset. “I looked through the results of the year before and saw that I might have a chance of doing
quite well in it,” he says with a chuckle. “So I increased my training, and when it came to the event I won! All of sudden I was crowned British Paratriathlon Champion!”
Judge followed up Rother Valley with a win at London and second at the Bedford Classic, before ending the year representing Great Britain at the paratriathlon race in Hyde Park, where he came seventh. The following year saw him start his training earlier and get even more serious about the sport. He won another British title before, in 2011, Judge became World Paratriathlon Champion in Beijing. “And to think, all I had wanted to do was one triathlon and then quit!” he laughs.
Even though he’s come a long way since the accident, Judge still has challenges to face every week in training. The lasting effects of his accident make certain activities very painful. “I still experience a lot of pain in my right foot, that’s the main issue,” he explains. “It hurts when I’m walking anyway; every time I walk it hurts. But if I go for a run then it hurts even more. I love running. It was taken away from me, and anything that gets taken away from you, you treasure it if you get it back.
“I went for a run last night,” he adds, “and I was just smiling and thinking, ‘This is nice’. But because of that, I woke up this morning and my ankle was in absolute agony. But I really enjoyed it, so because of that I’ll go for another run tomorrow.
“When I’m not enjoying the running and I still have pain, or the pain is too much for
me to bear… I’m gonna have to face that when I come to it. That might mean retirement, it might mean choosing a different sport. I don’t know.”
And what about ongoing treatment? “I don’t have treatment, I just deal with the pain,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t do taking drugs. I use internal visualisation; it’s mental strength, I suppose. I have pain all the time, so it’s just how I deal with it.”
Finding the Balance
But triathlon has brought challenges in other ways, too. Even though he’s an elite-level triathlete, triathlon is not his full-time job. Five days a week, Steve works in construction, performing health and safety audits on work sites or “going round with a clipboard, hard hat and high-vis vest”, as he jokingly describes it. It’s a full nine-til-five job so fitting training in around his life – he and his wife, Ruth, have two young children, Suzanna, four, and Robert, seven – and work can be tricky. So how does he manage it? “With difficulty!” he laughs. “I’m sure all athletes say that, but it’s a case of being clever with your training and working out where you can fit it in.
“I struggle with going to bed early, but I have to ’cause I’m up at half five every morning. If I’m not going swimming then I’m up doing yoga, stretches or core exercises. Sometimes I cycle to work, but it’s more exercise than a training session because of all the stopping and starting.”
And what about at work? Does he get any support towards training and racing?
“I don’t really get support at all; they won’t give me time off or anything so I have to squeeze it in, so that might mean going for a run at lunch time. But there are no showers, so I have a little bucket with a sponge and I’ll go into a cubicle, sponge myself down, towel off and go and sit at my desk. It’s just one of those things.
“My philosophy is fact or excuses,” he continues, “and of lot of things we come up with are excuses. If you can see it’s an excuse then you’ve gotta turn it into a challenge and work out how you’re gonna get round it.”
That’s the attitude of a man who knows more than a little about facing challenges, but even he admits that getting the balance right between all three elements – training, family and work – can sometimes be difficult. “If I do get the balance wrong my wife does let me know, with the greatest respect!” he explains. “She keeps me on track. And also work, they monitor my performance there and have appraisals. I don’t think my training gets in the way of work, but sometimes maybe where my head is at is questionable. I’d like to say the training comes third, but it doesn’t come third, it’s almost at a level with the other two. It’s a case of balancing it out.
“This year has been very tough for me. I don’t know why, just commitments, things at work have been really busy and the kids are growing up and need more attention. And it’s been a long, hard season, I think that’s been the main thing. We did the European Championships in April, so I had to be at my peak for then and come back and keep that tempo up all the way through to October and the World Champs.”