By Mike Rowbottom

Mike Rowbottom(1)The impending World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia will draw together the very finest of oarsmen and oarswomen. But it is hard to think that any will have as compelling a motivation as Britain's debutant in the adaptive TA mixed double scull - Captain Nick Beighton of the Royal Engineers.

On October 5, 2009, Beighton lost both legs, and very nearly his life, when he stepped on an explosive device while serving in Afghanistan's notorious Helmand Province. So now that he finds himself - in tandem with Samantha Scowen - challenging for world, and, he hopes, Paralympic honours in the course of the next 14 months, he is driven by an irresistibly vital force.

"If you use what happened as an excuse to not do things then you won't achieve anything," he says. "Whereas I use it as motivation to make me get out and do things because I still can. That's what fires me. I could be dead and I'm not - so I might as well make the most of it."

Nobody could deny that this 29-year-old from Shrewsbury has lived by his belief. Having turned to rowing for the first time just five months after his injuries were inflicted, he has already earned a World Cup bronze medal with Scowen at the Munich regatta in May, and the intention now is to build on that performance in the worlds before pushing for gold at the London 2012 Paralympics.

All highly ambitious. But then Beighton is a man who likes to push the envelope - as he has demonstrated over many years as a rock climber and mountaineer in expeditions to the Himalayas, Andes and Swiss Alps.

nick_beighton_25-07-11His memories of the incident, which offered him the biggest challenge of his life so far, are lucid.

"It was a hand-made device I trod on," he says. "They're called IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices. They're made out of diesel and fertiliser put in big plastic drums and buried under the ground with a battery and some metal strips. You stand on them, they connect, the circuit goes and - boom - you fly in the air.

"Yeah, I remember all of it. I remember the explosion, I remember going through the air, I remember landing and I remember being there about 40 minutes or so until the rescue helicopter, the Chinook, came along and picked me up and got me back to Camp Bastion, at which point they put me under just to make me more manageable I think."

Subsequent reports named Private Vakadranu, a Fijian, as having helped to save Beighton's life by applying tourniquets to his wounds and giving him morphine before passing out himself from injuries sustained in the blast.

Beighton was said to have required 36 pints of blood in his battle to survive.

"I was probably quite close to dying but it never entered my head that I was going to die," Beighton recalls. "Maybe that was just pig-headedness - but actually your attitude to it is what helps you through it. I wasn't ready to die. I know that sounds a bit melodramatic, but it never entered my consciousness. I was going to get through it. It was as simple as that."

It was Beighton's first deployment in Afghanistan, and he had only been out there five weeks, offering frontline engineering support to an infantry battle group, when he was injured.

"We'd just built a security check point which had taken us about three weeks," he explains. "I was looking to move all my equipment down to a new task site, but I had to check the route first so I did a route reconnaissance to make sure it was suitable.

"And then when I was patrolling back into the base - this was to go back to my boss to let him know what I'd found - that was when it happened.

"I was about 40 metres short of the front entrance. It was about half eight, nine at night, last light, so it had just gone dark.

"We were slowly winding down from the day because it's always quite a tense period when you are out and about and you never know what's going to happen and everyone is quite tightly wound up.

"But then the front entrance was there and we knew we were coming in and it was a bit of hot food and bed, and, you know..." he laughs in recollection. "So you should never let your guard down until you're there, should you?

"Not that that caused the incident. It was just chance. It was just me - having big feet and standing in the wrong place."

So how, you wonder, did he get from that dark place to the sunny bank of the Redgrave and Pinsent Rowing Lake as part of the GB team for the 2011 World Rowing Championships? Especially as he had been a mountaineer, rather than a rower, before his injury?

"It was a gradual sort of appreciation that that wasn't it," he responds. "That life wasn't over. Initially you can't help but think everything you were and everything you did has gone. And it's a real shock to the system. You kind of lose track of who you are, almost.

"It takes quite a lot of time and encouragement from other people and getting out and slowly doing more and more stuff to appreciate that anything was possible if you wanted to do it.

"But it actually wasn't that long in that I started thinking about it. I was injured in October - 5th of October, 09 - and I broke my pelvis so I had an external fixator on it for about four months. And that came off at the end of January. And literally two days after it came off I attended a Paralympic talent ID day at Brunel University.

"That's my nature. I don't like sitting around. Off the back of that they had already recommended me as being a potential rower because I was 6ft 7in before I was injured, and fairly broad, fit and healthy, and the figures had obviously lit someone's eyes up and they said 'I think this guy should go along and say "I'm a potential rower".'

"Tom Dyson, our coach here, appreciated it was very early days for me. It was only five months since I was nearly dead, so he said 'Keep going as you are, improve, get stronger. Here's what we kind of expect of a potential athlete'.

"So I went away and started learning to row over that summer. I started having rowing lessons at Guildford Rowing Club. I thought it a bit presumptuous to think I might try and get into the GB squad despite never having rowed. So I thought I'd better learn at some point.

"And then they had an open trial on September 10 and I did reasonably well there and I won't say I was world class but I did well enough for them to be interested in me carrying on."

Beighton adds: "I had open bowel surgery four weeks after that so that set me back a couple of weeks. That was some more tidying up they needed to do and they re-plumbed me up.

"Then I came back in January this year to do another trial. I did much better - I knocked 12 seconds off my PB - and then I started coming down a lot more regularly. And in April is when I got agreement from the Army that I would be able to row full-time. I've got an Army quarter in Yateley which is about half an hour's drive away from here.

"So it's kind of been a rapid rise to glory. Some could call it fate, but the team had been looking for someone to fill that slot in the boat with Sam for quite a while and they had held out to get the right person. And I happened to turn up at the right time.

"Some would call it luck - some would call it something else I guess, but... it's about time my luck changed."

As he stands amidst his buzzing teammates at the Lake's edge - still 6ft 7in in his booted prosthetic legs if my straining neck is anything to go by - Beighton contemplates the forthcoming challenge in Slovenia. Making the medal podium, he believes, is the realistic ambition. "We would love to push forward and come second," he says. "Although I think even if we get bronze we will be happy because our time will be better.

Nick-Beighton_25-07-11"But we are looking ahead to next year, and the main aim is to take gold in 2012. So whatever we get this year we will be happy with."

He admits that he and Scowen had surprised themselves by the speed of their progress, given they had only seven weeks of preparation together before Munich.

"We always said we wanted to get the experience of competition and it didn't actually matter where we came but when it came down to it we had done enough in those seven weeks to be really competitive," he says.

"And we know that we have got a lot more. So the exciting thing was that if we could produce that performance after seven weeks, what are we going to be able to do after another 15 months of hard work?

"But expressly for this one, what is most important is getting to the A final, which means we guarantee an Olympic qualification, and whatever we do in the final is a bonus."

Beighton is a case study in positivity. But even he is wistful on the subject of his mountaineering.

"I won't say I was a top end mountaineer. I did it as a passion. As in anything I did I tried to do it to the best of my ability, so I would try to climb harder, go higher.

"I had trips to the Andes and the Himalayas, I was really starting to get into that.

"And, I won't say it was the hardest thing to take, but I still feel a sense of loss for the trips I would have done and the things I would have achieved.

"I had aspirations to go and climb big mountains in Nepal and anywhere else in the world.

"Not necessarily Everest - it's the biggest one out there but it's not the hardest. It's the most popular, for obvious reasons, so it's a bit of a tourist trail at times.

"But I did it for the love of being out in the wild and the wilderness so I kind of enjoyed the more adventurous side rather than the ticking of big names."

Asked if he plans to return, however, the response is emphatically affirmative.

"Absolutely. It's not something I am going to give up on. Even if I do it in a different way and a different style to what I used to do it doesn't matter. I loved being out in the mountains, in the hills, it gave me a real sense of peace and wellbeing and I don't want to give up on that. It's eminently possible that I can get back out and do a lot of what I used to do. It will be a lot harder and it will be a lot slower, but that happens to everyone when they get older, doesn't it?"

For now, however, Beighton has towering aspirations in another field.

"Exactly. It's like anything, you replace one thing in your life for something different when it suits," he said. "It was forced upon me unfortunately, but that's not to say you don't embrace it all the same."

Nick Beighton. He is not a survivor. He is a competitor.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.