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Surviving – and Thriving

Army veteran Tom Folwell, tells us how wheelchair rugby has given him a purpose in life again, after he lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan.

The Leicester Tigers captain was blown up in June 2012 while on foot patrol in Helmand Province. It all happened in an instant. One minute he was walking, the next he was lying on the ground with horrific, life changing injuries.

Recovery has been a long process for Tom, who grew up in Melton Mowbray. Not only has he had to to deal with the
physical impact of his injuries, but he’s also had to deal with the psychological ones – coming to terms with trauma, loss and a whole new way of life.

“After I left the army, I didn’t have a clue what to do with my life. I was sat at home not really doing very much. I was in and out of rehab for three years, and also drinking quite a bit,” said Tom, who served with the Royal Engineers for 12 years.

“I also developed PTSD and sleep apnoea, which had a serious impact on my wellbeing. However, wheelchair rugby has given me a sense of purpose again,” he added. “I gave it a go and realised I had strong skills good speed and power. It was the start of me rebuilding my life -and regaining the confidence that I lost.”

At first, Tom admits that taking part in the sport and being part of a team was difficult. In the midst of the aftermath and his struggles with mental health, all he wanted was to be alone. However, when his health started to decline, it was clear that he needed to make some changes to his lifestyle. With the help of his wife Tania, he began to take part in games and learned to be more social.

Today he thrives in the sport, and the company of like-minded individuals.
“Wheelchair rugby can be very tactical, and I enjoy that part of the game,” he said. “Although it’ll never replace being in the army, there’s also that sense of camaraderie which I love – a lot of banter and dark humour amongst the team. I really enjoy being around other veterans as we have the same mindset. It’s been a big part of my recovery.”

Tom is proud to play wheelchair rugby for the ‘Help for Heroes’ team, which was undefeated in its first competitive season and promoted to the Championship of the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby league.

He also competes for the Leicester Tigers and captained both Team UK’s Wheelchair Rugby and Wheelchair Basketball teams at the Invictus Games, which took place in The Hague in 2020.

Recently, Tom featured in Netflix’s ‘Heart of Invictus’ documentary series, where he discusses the impact that sport has had on his life and his wellbeing. Although his main love is rugby, the 38-year-old also plays other sports, including wheelchair volleyball and basketball. He is encouraging people to take up a new sport for 2024, regardless of their age, fitness and ability.

“Try anything – any sport will do, but wheelchair rugby is definitely the best!” he said. “It can be very tactical and I enjoy that part of the game.

“Some are put off because they think the knocks are too hard, but the chairs take most of them!” He added. “It’s all part of the fun!”

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