England

Ben Clark hopes for Paralympic gold after accident

Ben Clark has always dreamt of Olympic gold.

A talented swimmer, he has trained with some of the top names in the sport, hoping one day to represent his country.

But in a split-second in July the 20-year-old's life changed forever.

Ben, who had just returned from Australia where he was being coached and preparing for Commonwealth trials, was enjoying a day out at Sandbanks Beach, Poole.

Having swum there many times before, he dived into a wave, hit his head on a rock and broke his neck.

As an experienced swimmer and trained lifeguard, Ben instantly knew what to do and told those with him to get him out of the water and to keep him still.

Image caption Ben receives physiotherapy inside the pool once a week

"I think with all the training that I had it definitely helped me. I could be dead, I could be on a ventilator," he said.

Having broken his C5 vertebra and fractured two others, he was taken to hospital before being transferred for emergency surgery in Southampton to rebuild his spine using bone from his hip.

Doctors said he may never regain movement from below his neck, but after intense rehabilitation he is sitting up in a wheelchair and has started to gain strength in his upper body.

Five months on he is back in the water with his eyes set Paralympic glory in 2012.

He undergoes specialist physiotherapy at the Duke of Cornwall's Spinal Unit, Salisbury, and receives constant encouragement from his family and friends.

Ben admits that getting back into the pool at first was a daunting experience, but he remains determined about the future.

"I wasn't really sure to begin with whether I was going to like it, but as soon as I got back in I knew this was where I was meant to be, it was my home," he said.

"The only difference to me is that I feel I'm sitting all the time. I don't want this to affect me in the slightest and I don't think it ever will.

"I've always been determined throughout the whole of my life, I have to be with the sport I'm in.

"If you're not determined then you are never going to get anywhere."

As a boost during his stay in hospital, the swimmer received a visit from F1 driver Mark Webber, and has received messages of support from a number of swimming stars including Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington, Cassie Patton, Keri-Anne Payne and Paralympian Darren Kenny.

His mother, Pauline, said she was amazed at her son's improvement and determination.

"The first day I saw him in the pool it did make me cry," she said.

"It's what he's always done, it's always been his dream since he was five-years-old when he first said to me, 'Mum, I'm going to win an Olympic gold medal'.

Image caption Before his accident, Ben had been training in Australia where he was also a lifeguard

"It looked like it had gone forever - but it looks like it's coming back."

Ben hopes he will be discharged from hospital in January, when he plans to move into his own flat and live an independent life.

He also hopes to inspire others in sport with disabilities with his charity, Chairs for Champions.

"I'm just going to train as hard as I can," he said.

"I remember racing against Liam Tancock when I was about 14, now he's world champion and I should be there too, there's no reason why I can't.

"2012 is two years away. Some people thing it's short but I'm just going to do the best I can to make sure if I don't get there, then I get to the next one.

"It's been my goal forever, I want to be there and I want to be the best in the world at what I do."

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