The amount of public support was overwhelming, the streets were lined with well-wishers. It felt weird but good. Now it’s expected, but in those early days it was a big shock.
Meet military Paralympian and injured ex-serviceman, Jon-Allan Butterworth MBE. He has represented Great Britain at two Paralympic Games with incredible results – winning three silver medals in 2012 and a gold medal in 2016. In 2017, he was awarded his MBE for services to cycling. Yet only a decade ago, Jon-Allan didn’t even own a bike and hadn’t ridden since he was a child.
After leaving secondary school, Jon-Allan joined the RAF, serving in Afghanistan in 2005 and Iraq in 2007 as a Weapons Technician. On 4 August 2007 he was caught in a rocket attack on Basra Air Station, Iraq, losing part of his left arm.
“We had breakfast, drove the Land Rover on the way to work [and then] the early warning sirens started to go off and the rockets came in. I was just unlucky; I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A bit of shrapnel tore through my left arm. Somehow, it missed all of my vital organs.”
He was operated on by doctors in a battlefield hospital who had to carry out an above the elbow amputation. He later spent time recovering at Headey Court in Surrey.
“When you’re recovering, your body goes through a lot of changes. You think that you just lose an arm but it’s not as simple as that. You can’t do the exact same exercises as before to stay fit, you have to adapt and that takes time to learn. Your body starts to pile on the weight, it reacts to the trauma, it goes into survival mode and stores fat. You have to relearn everything!
“I took up [cycling] almost by accident. I got injured in 2007 and then I was invited to go on the Big Battlefield Bike Ride. Help for Heroes was just starting up at that point. It was sold to me as a pub-crawl around France, with a bit of cycling each day. I signed up to raise funds for the swimming pool at Headley Court.
“Day one was just two miles in Portsmouth, a glitzy send off and my first experience of clipped pedals. I couldn’t unclip and I fell over within the first mile. Naively, I’d done no training as I’d been told it was a pub-crawl. If I’d known it was 350 miles I wouldn’t have signed up!
“It was five days of trying to survive: double-padded shorts, gel seat, quite an experience. And I’m pretty sure at the end of the ride I said I’d never ride a bike again; I was told at the time that I looked quite good on the bike, but I didn’t take much notice. Yet, a year later I was riding seriously.”
In August 2008, and with Help for Heroes’ support, Jon-Allan attended a Paralympic sports camp in San Diego to nurture his interest in Paralympic sport. Having already been identified as talented at a Paralympic talent ID Day in the UK, the British Cycling team then decided to put him through his paces in Newport Velodrome, on one of their more in-depth talent camps. He joined the development squad in 2009.
“At that point you don’t realise how good you could be. Natural talent sometimes doesn’t transfer to the bike, and you don’t know how you will develop. You’re just making daily progress, small goals and seeing where it takes you. It was quite weird for the first six months - getting into a new routine that promotes good habits and building the foundation stones for success.”
“Not a lot of people can go back to active service after injury, to go back out there and fight for their country. So this is like another way to do it. It’s an honour to represent my country again in the sporting arena. I can’t go back to the military, but I can do this! Sport has replaced that longing to belong to something. It replaced the military.”
Winning gold was amazing, but the journey was far more important. I am so proud of how far I’ve come - Jon-Allan Butterworth
Alongside his cycling career, Jon-Allan also starred in Channel 4's 2015 series of The Jump, where he finished sixth and became the first above-elbow amputee to do a skeleton run. He also took part in a celebrity driving challenge at the prestigious ‘Race of Champions’ 2015 event that was held at London’s Olympic stadium.
“I’ve received support from Help for Heroes throughout my whole cycling career. Without the charity being there for me, it would have been unlikely that I would have done as well to date. I might not be here today, without that support – simple as that.
“The original Band of Brothers members were trailblazers and I like to think that now the recovery journey is easier for those who have followed us. That is all down to the support from the generous public. To the loyal supporters I want to say thank you. It’s easy to get people to donate when wars are at the forefront of the news, but those whose lives have been changed forever will need help for decades. I don’t need as much support now but it’s a comfort to know it is there if I ever did.”
In December 2020, at the age of 34, Jon-Allan announced his retirement from professional cycling, having enjoyed an 11 year career in the sport. “I have enjoyed a long and successful career on the Great Britain Cycling Team. My proudest achievement is becoming the first British ex-serviceman to win a gold in Paralympic history. I have had the pleasure of working with some truly amazing people who have helped make it all possible
“On reflection at the end of this strange year, the time feels right to retire from professional cycling so that I can focus my energy on the next step of my career.
“If you have the opportunity to participate in sport, you can’t turn it down. If you don’t know how to do it, take the opportunity, and then learn how to do it later. Always take the opportunity. Don’t say no because you’re afraid – grab it. We all need to be a lot better at saying ‘yes’ rather than saying ‘no’ through fear of failure.
“It’s the same message for anything in life, just go for it: grass roots or elite sport or anything in life, it’s still the same. You may not be able to do it today, but maybe you’ll nail it tomorrow.
“A lot of people who have a life-changing injury adopt the attitude that every day is a bonus. Too many people go through life and put things off. But life can get cut short. You don’t know how long you have.
“Only a minority of people can succeed in elite sport, but since retiring I’ve realised it’s about much more than that. Being an elite athlete is not the reason to participate in sport. If you’ve tried something new you’ve succeeded; if you haven’t made it to the top you haven’t failed.
“Since retiring, it’s taken me just six months to realise I want to participate in another sport, because, without the pressure of competing, sport is hugely beneficial for mental health.
“Nothing can top the feeling of seeing your name or GBR next to number 1 on a scoreboard, but it’s fleeting. It lasts only seconds – a small snapshot of one’s life. It’s like the old adage: it is better to travel well than to arrive. Winning gold was amazing, but the journey was far more important. I am so proud of how far I’ve come.
“Sport for me is personal … for me and my family. My medals are tucked away in a box now; I’ll find somewhere to display them eventually. They are nice to look at but it’s the experience and the memories I’m most fond of.
“If you enjoy your sport and it gets you out through the front door, that is mission accomplished. Do what makes you happy – rather than for other people, do it for you. Sport has the power to change lives.”
Watch Jon-Allan’s inspiring ‘Road to Rio’ film, where we went on to win gold!