The competitor’s spirit

May 31, 2018

Gosforth-born Drew Graham was a gifted 1500m runner and aspiring Olympic coach when a freak accident at an American reservoir in 2014 left him with catastrophic spinal injuries and no feeling below his shoulders. But Drew’s competitive spirit continued to burn bright and he has now set up Pop-up Gym, a much-needed facility for people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological issues. He talks to Alison Cowie

How did you first get into athletics?

We were a sporty family and it was my brother who got me into running. I joined the local club, Gosforth Harriers, when I was eight years old and running pretty much became my whole childhood and teenage years. I specialised in 800m and 1500m and did a bit of cross country too.

I got to a pretty decent level. I won North East and North of England titles and was fifth in the English Schools Championships. When I was 23, I got a scholarship to go to America.

How did this come about?

I heard about an opportunity to go to America and so I moved down to Leeds to train with athletics coach Wilf Paish. I won a scholarship to Adams State University in Colorada in 2008 and was part of a world-class team, training with Olympic coaches and Olympic athletes. I then decided I wanted to be a professional coach and got a job in Texas at Abilene Christian University in Texas. I spent a year-and-a-half coaching there and then, on September 21, 2014, I had my accident.

Can you tell us what happened that day?

I’d driven 12 hours to Denver, Colorado, to spend a few days with my then-girlfriend. The Sunday was a really sunny day so we decided to go for a hike. On the way, my phone battery ran out so we couldn’t use the GPS to find the place we wanted to go. I saw a sign for a reservoir and we decided to go there instead. I’d been training for a triathlon so decided to go for a swim. I ran from the beach into the water and did a shallow dive – like I’d done a hundred times before. It’s thought I must have hit a sandbar. I immediately heard ringing in my ears and I couldn’t lift myself out of the water. Luckily, my girlfriend, who was reading on the beach, looked up from her book. She pulled me out of the water and I was taken to a hospital. The surgeon told me that I was probably never going to walk again or be able to use my hands.

I remember thinking, ‘that can’t be right; two hours ago, I was an athlete’.

Hearing that must have been devastating. How did you process the information?

When I was lying on the beach I knew that something seriously bad had happened but I was saying to my girlfriend that I didn’t need an ambulance and I’d be fine. Then I was told the extent of my injuries. At first I was in denial and was still cracking jokes. It was when I’d been in the hospital for a few weeks that it started to sink in. Even then, it wasn’t until about two years after my accident when I realised I wasn’t going to recover.

Can you tell us about your treatment and rehab?

I spent the first three months in intensive care at hospital and then went to a rehabilitation centre called Craig Hospital in Denver. It’s in the top 10 in the US for spinal injuries and has a $70 million gym and really good physiotherapists. It costs about $80K a week to go there. Luckily, I had medical insurance. I spent three months at Craig Hospital and then moved a mile away so I could be an out-patient.

After that, I went to a smaller gym called the SCI Recovery Project. It wasn’t nearly as fancy and only had a few bits of specialist equipment; but it had really good staff.

I returned to England two years after my accident. I was thinking the facilities for spinal cord rebab would probably not be as good as in America but I soon realised there was nothing in the North East – or the whole of the North. I started suffering from depression and I was getting a lot of health issues because I didn’t have any anywhere to train and do exercise.

Is this when you came up with the idea of the Pop-Up Gym?

It was something I’d thought about before I moved back to England, but then when I saw how little there was in terms of specialist rehab, it became more realistic.

I visited people with spinal injuries around the region; a guy on the Scottish borders and a guy in Cumbria. I asked them about their rehab experiences and they all said there was nothing. I kept hearing the same stories that so I thought, I’ve got to do something.

How did your idea become a reality?

Initially, the idea was to have a mobile gym and take it to different locations – hence the Pop-Up Gym name – but then the opportunity arose to have permanent premises [on Gateshead’s South Shore Road] and decided that it would be good to have a base of operations. The landlord was a family friend and he gave us a really good rate on the rent. It was an old recording studio and it took a lot of work to get it up to scratch for the gym.

How did you raise the funds for the gym?

I do mouth paintings and I raised about £8000 by making Christmas cards and calendars. We also did crowdfunding and family, friends and friends of friends did fundraising events for us.

We’ve received some grants too, including a £10,000 award for disabled entrepreneurs from the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation and £4500 from the Co-op Community Fund. The Matt Hanson Foundation has been a really good supporter. It’s a spinal cord charity founded by Matt, a rugby player who broke his neck in 2005. The foundation has donated equipment and helped with some of our expenses.

As CEO of the Pop-Up Gym charity, how are you finding the business side of things?

I’ve always been interested in business and I did a minor in business for my degree. I’ve also received support from our board of trustees and from Yvonne Bell (a former board member of Bell Truck Sales) and my dad, who is a managing director of a company.

Setting up as a charity, though, has been a bit different and there’s a lot of boring paperwork to do which isn’t my forte. I’d say I’m more of an ideas man.

Tell me about the gym and who it’s for?

The gym is open 11am to 5pm on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays and from noon to 4pm on Saturdays.

Initially, the idea was that the Pop-Up Gym would be for people with spinal cord injuries but we’ve branched out to people who have neurological issues too. This might be someone with a brain injury, such as a stroke, or have spina bifida, motor neurone disease, MS – all sorts of stuff. We have around 30 members at the moment who pay £20 a month membership. We’ve had people come to use the gym from as far away as Whitby, the Lake District, Richmond and Carlisle.

Most of the equipment has been donated and it’s the sort of stuff I used in America – all specially designed for people with neurological injuries.

We’ve got two FES (functional electrical stimulation) bikes, which use pads to send electrical impulses to make your muscles contract and we’ve also got a hand bike. They’re good for cardio and density and circulation. We’ve got a member at the minute who’s riding the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats and another who’s doing the equivalent of the Coast-to-Coast.

We’ve also got frames that provide lateral support and allow paralysed people to stand up – really good for digestion, lung function and bone density – and then we have the weights machine. It’s pretty similar to what you’d see in a typical gym but everything’s a bit lower down and wider.

How is the gym being received?

Some people have gone as far as to say it’s been life-changing because they’ve never had anything like this before. But it’s not just physical benefits; people can get out of the house, come to the gym and have a chat.

How do you feel about what you’ve achieved?

It’s weird to have an idea and follow it through but I’ve had a lot of people pushing me. There were times when I felt it was never going to get done, so to get the gym up and running is an amazing feeling. Because I was an athlete, I realise how important exercise is and that’s helped to spur me on. I feel as though my competitive edge has gone a bit since the accident but I guess it’s still there subconsciously. Once I started the project, I wanted to finish it. I put it all over social media so I was held accountable. I’d have looked like a complete idiot if I didn’t achieve what I’d said I was going to.

What are your future plans for Pop-Up Gym?

Our aim is still to offer a mobile service and the only thing holding us back at the minute is funding.

There are about 250 people a year who sustain spinal cord injuries in the North. Over the past 10 years, that’s 2500 people. The idea is rather than people coming to us, we’ll go to them. We can fit the equipment from the gym in the back of a van and it’d just be a case of hiring out a church hall or somewhere like that.

It would be great one day to open more permanent gyms or to franchise the Pop-Up Gym but the goal at the minute is just to build on what we have.

Pop-Up Gym
The gym is located on South Shore Road in Gateshead

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