Eight months after he nearly died when he was hit by a truck while cycling across Arizona, TV&Satellite Week magazine caught up with Olympic gold medallist James Cracknell as he returns to TV with a series of documentaries for the Discovery Channel in which he pushes his body to the limits of its endurance…
I noticed you cycled here to meet us. Are you not worried about being on the roads after what happened to you?
“No. They took me out cycling again when I was still in hospital. I choose my routes carefully now. When I got hit by the truck, it came from behind. I didn’t see it coming and I have no memory of the accident, so I’m not traumatised by it. Anyway, I’ve been cycling around London since I was 18, it holds no fears for me – though I can’t say I’ll be rushing back to the roads of Arizona again.”
The three documentaries you’ve made for Discovery were filmed before, during and after your accident, weren’t they?
“Yes. The first programme was me competing in the Marathon de Sables in the Sahara. I like testing my endurance levels. When Discovery contacted me, I’d already entered for it. They liked the idea of what I was doing there and came to film it. Then we planned the American trip together. They and I saw the films as a way of proving my adventure endurance credentials. I wanted the challenges to be a way of making the sort of programmes I’d like to see myself – and a way of carving out a future career seeing the world and explaining what I saw as I went along.”
And it was during the American trip, which makes up the second documentary, that you had your accident…
“Yes, the aim was to set a new endurance record crossing America coast-to-coast in just 16 days. I was going to run 100 miles in the heat of Death Valley in California, then cycle up the backbone of America on the Route 66, row across one of the Great Lakes, then finish it by swimming up the River Hudson into New York. But I got hit by a truck during the cycling bit in America and most of the programme is about me in hospital.”
How are you now?
“I have problems with recognising people’s faces. I need more sleep than I ever have before. I’ve also got a bit of a problem with spatial awareness. I have to keep a diary now, whereas before I could remember what I should be doing. I can read books I’ve read before without noticing, too.
“When I left hospital I remember thinking that I was normal again and couldn’t understand why people were treating me weirdly. I have drugs, which I have to take once a day. I used to take them after breakfast because it was easy to remember that way. When I told the doctors that, they asked if I was feeling more tired than I used to. I told them I did and they said that was because I was taking my sleeping tablet with my breakfast. I hadn’t even remembered they’d put me on sleeping tablets.”
There’s also a third programme in which you cycle across the Arctic Circle. What made you want to push yourself again?
“The American programme was mostly about me in a hospital bed and I didn’t want that to be the last people saw of me. For me that’s not the end of things; there’s a whole bit more about getting back to being as close as possible to what I was before.
“The Arctic Circle race was a great step for me in terms of personal rehabilitation and combating the issues that a brain injury leaves behind. My confidence was reduced by what had happened to me and I wanted to get it back.”
Have your experiences exhausted that desire in you to push yourself to the limit?
“When I was a sportsman, the normality was to push your levels of endurance to the limit. I’ve always been of the view that if you prepare properly, you can go as hard as you want. The worst that can happen is that you’ll feel really tired.
“Now I don’t know if it’s going to be possible for me to keep taking on challenges. And I don’t know if doing so is going to be fair on my family. Whatever happens in the future, there has to be a real reason behind it. Every day has taken on a different value. My wife Bev would never tell me not to do anything, but she’d make her feelings known if she disapproved. I do know, though, that setting yourself targets and achieving them are what makes life feel satisfying.
“The recovery is all-consuming in everything I do. The doctors say that whatever level of recovery I’ve reached after two years is as far as I’m going to get. People are very quick to impose ceilings of where they think you can get back to in your recovery. If you listen to that, then you’ll only ever going to reach that point. How do they know? They don’t know me and they don’t know what I’m capable of.”
*James Cracknell Unstoppable? screens on Discovery from Thursday, March 24 at 9pm