Grabbing a set of 25kg weights, Freightliner’s Steve Cokayne talks me through his warm up routine. We meet at the gym he trains at in Leicestershire on a Friday morning. It’s been a long week for Steve, who has been working in the North West as a site driver for the upgrade works between Preston and Blackpool.
Steve enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1985. Three years into his service, while on a training exercise on the Isle of Man, he seriously injured both his legs after he fell around 40 metres during a climb. “Unfortunately my legs took all the impact,” said Steve, who was only 20 at the time. “I had fractures to my left leg which healed normally but my right leg was totally mashed.”
The extent of Steve’s injuries meant he had to be discharged from the army and in 2009, following countless operations, the decision was made to amputate his right leg below the knee. It was an easy decision, said Steve, and one that has opened up opportunities he would never have dreamed of.
In 2002, Steve joined Southern as a train driver. He was back at work just four months after his amputation and said he found little difficulty adjusting – in part because of the advance of prosthetics in recent years. One of Steve’s five prosthetic legs has even been designed with extra ankle movement to make it easier for him to walk on ballast.
In 2012, he and his wife, Barbara, moved to the Midlands. Steve, who was nominated in the Train Driver of the Year category at the RailStaff Awards 2017, now works for Freightliner, based out of the company’s Rugby depot.
Last year, Steve received an e-mail through from Help for Heroes asking if he’d be interested in taking part in the Invictus Games – a multi- sport competition for injured military veterans fronted by Prince Harry. “I knew about Help for Heroes. I never knew there was a component within that called Band of Brothers and Sisters and that part was just basically set up for people that were wounded on active service or doing their military service,” said Steve.
In September, Steve was part of the British team that travelled to Toronto to compete at the Invictus Games. Although Steve took part in powerlifting, shot put and the 100 metres, it is the former where his passion lies. He comfortably bench presses 90kg as we chat and, thanks to the help of his trainers at Simply Gym in Hinckley, he managed a personal best in the competition with a lift of 126kg.
Steve, who turned 50 in October, is targeting a medal in the middle weight category at next year’s competition and recently improved on that personal best with a weight of 140kg, which would have been enough to win a medal in that category this year.
The standard of the field is clear. The powerlifting competition, which was held in an ice hockey stadium, was won by UK competitor Martin Tye with a lift of 188kg – almost 30 stone. What’s more, unlike the traditional bench press technique where the lifter’s legs are planted to the floor, the rules require all competitors to lie flat on their back with their legs up.
Steve said he was staggered by the reception all the competitors received while they were out there. “It’s amazing,” said Steve. “I got to meet President Obama. Harry’s all over the place… He’s just like a good mate now.”
Swiping through his phone, Steve has countless photos and videos from his time in Canada, including footage of him getting a VIP police escort through Toronto. He starts playing another video he took of the UK team’s bus arriving for the opening ceremony. “We were told there might be a few people outside the Air Canada Centre,” said Steve. There were actually thousands of people there to greet them. “The goosebumps that I had when I got there.”
Steve hopes to continue to be part of the UK’s Invictus Games team in the coming years. He and several of his fellow competitors have been invited to attend the BBC Sports Personality of the Year ceremony in Liverpool in December.
The first powerlifting training camp for the 2018 games in Sydney will be held at the start of next year but, with fewer spaces available, competition will be fierce. As well as powerlifting, Steve is planning to try out for athletics, cycling, archery and indoor rowing. He’s also set his sights on becoming team captain.
Steve said he is now becoming more involved with other aspects of the work undertaken by Britain’s military charities. In January, he will be working with actors at a London theatre to learn how to tell his story through a course organised by Blesma – a charity for limbless veterans.
“People think the Invictus Games [is just about] people that have been shot/blown up in Afghanistan, where 40 per cent of the people that went out this year were injured not through Afghanistan, like myself, but have had genuine accidents on exercise.”
MASTER OF MY FATE
Like many of his teammates, Steve has had Invictus Games tattoos done as a reminder of his involvement. He has the Invictus Games logo on one bicep and two lines from William Ernest Henley’s Invictus poem on the other, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”.
Steve will discover his fate in May when the 2018 team is announced. Until then he plans to continue to train hard so he can return in 11 months’ time with more stories to tell.