By James Barnes-Miller, Para Snowboard Athlete

For as long as I can remember I have skateboarded with my brothers and was always told I would enjoy snowboarding. Eventually I went on a trip with some friends and fell in love with the mountains and the sport and wanted go back every year.

A few years later I was on another trip and got chatting with Owen Pick and Ben Moore who had just been competing at an IPC (International Paralympic Committee) banked slalom event. The team was just starting to be set up and they invited me on a training camp, where are coach at the time said he thought he could get me to the Paralympics if I was willing to put in the hard work. Sure enough, I ended up competing at the Winter Paralympic Games, PyeongChang 2018.

There are two events in Paralympic snowboarding, we have Boardercross and Banked Slalom. I love both, but boardercross is my favourite because I get a bigger adrenaline rush as there are three other people on the race course with you and you’re trying to go as fast as you can over different obstacles and some big jumps.

For snowboarding you need to be mentally strong and be able to overcome fearing the course and rationalise with yourself to go for it. For me, I get nervous on the first day of practice, so whilst we are inspecting the course I try to break down each obstacle and compare it to something I have done before.

The morning of the race I’ll get up and stretch and foam roll. Whilst I’m doing this I’ll run through the course in my head. After that I try not to think about it until I’m at the top of the course as it’s tiring to constantly thinking about and I don’t want to over think it.

Once I’m at the top of the course I’ll warm up and have a couple of minutes of quiet time to think over the course again. Normally after my first run I realise I was worrying about nothing.

I really try to avoid trying to find out who I’m racing as I want to focus on myself instead of worrying about other people. It doesn’t matter who I’m racing I’m going to try and race my own race. Normally after my first run I realise I was worrying about nothing.

On the physical side you need to be super strong as well as fast to be able to move your legs over obstacles to generate speed.

In terms of my inspirations, I need to mention Amy Purdy because her and her husband Dan Gale are doing great things for the sport. They run a programme called Adaptive Action Sports which gets athletes up to the level to compete at World Cup level and join the American team. They also organise the adaptive race at Dew Tour which is massive for the sport.

My favourite moments on snow have to be riding pow with my friends, obviously the Paralympics was very special, but nothing beats having an epic pow day!

If you’re looking to get more involved Para Snowboarding I’d say do it, it’s great – you get to travel to some awesome places to race. The Paralympic snowboard community is a family, everyone looks out for each other and helps each other.

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As this week is focused on thinking about mental health and the struggles people have gone through – and are still going through – I am delighted to take this opportunity to tell my story, share the challenges I had to overcome and what I have to deal with on a daily basis.

My story begins in a previous life serving for the British Army. During my service I toured Afghanistan between 2009-2010 and three 3 months into my tour I stood on an IED (improvised explosive device). Which meant the end of my time in Afghanistan and a long, windy and uncertain road ahead of me.

I arrived back to England a day after the initial injury, but I was so high on the pain killers I did not really know what was going on – it was a nice place to be in really because nothing felt real. However, as they started lowering my medication things started to become much more real for me, I had shattered my leg from mid shin down, including ankle and foot.

Then started the hardest part of my life as I spent 18 months in and out of hospital having operation after operation to try and fix my leg and foot and to try and take some pain away. 

During this period my mental health was super low and I think the biggest contribution to that was the fact that I was always in pain and I found that really hard to deal with on a day to day.

My mental state saw me lose friendships, push my family away and resulted with me drinking alcohol because I thought it would help take the pain away.

I got to a point in my head where I could see that I needed to do something, I could not wait any longer for doctors to try an operation they thought might work. I had to act, and I decided to take things into my own hands. This was difficult for me because the stress of the injury had made me impatient and I needed to remain calm.

I managed to get an appointment with a specialist on feet and ankles, after going to this appointment he suggested that I should think about having my leg amputated, this was the first time that this had been mentioned and it came as very scary news but at the same time I felt a sense of relief that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

So, at the age of 19 it seemed the only prospect of a better life would be to have my leg amputated. This injury had taken everything and almost overnight I had lost friends, I had pushed my family away and I was just not in a good place.

I became negative to be around and generally lost my sense of being, I hated that about myself. After about two months of thinking over what the last doctor had told me and growing tired of who I was becoming I decided to go ahead with the amputation. I was terrified because I knew that this decision was final. But I was confident it was the only way forward.

The moment I woke up from there operation I felt like a totally new person the pain was gone, that relief was like nothing I had ever felt, within 3 months I was up and walking on my new prosthetic leg and I was rock climbing in Spain a few weeks after that.

I of course still have my challenges with mental health from the injury, from being at war, from losing friends and the rest, but I just refocused my mind on being as strong and positive as I could be and not let the fact that I now only had one leg stop me from doing anything I wanted to. 

I found that I was very good at redirecting any negative thoughts I would have into a positive outcome and I then found that I was also very good at passing this information to others who had similar struggles and that became an ongoing passion of mine. If I can help people out through my experiences, then that makes me feel really good, I want to help people know it is ok to not be ok.

I now have been on the GB Snowsport Para-Snowboard Team for 6 years I have just this season achieved goals that I did not think possible, I won the Dew Tour and also ended up Overall Banked Slalom World Champion.

They were achievements I could have only dreamed of, but I think the crucial element to my success is talking about my mental health issues and redirecting the negatives into positives. I still have down days as many people do and it is important the stigma around this is lifted – negative days are part of human nature. The key is to remember how we get over the down days and how we move forward. The way I look at it was every time I looked at the positives something good happened in my life.

I am going leave you with this thought – I get asked all the time in life and interviews: “Owen do you regret anything or would you go back and change anything?” My reply is always the same. No – getting blown up sucked but the way it has changed my life, the things I have done, the people I have met, and the things I have learnt about myself I would not change for the world.

Remember it’s not what happens in life, it is how you deal with it.