“I’m a firm believer that the little things in life change us just as much as the big things do.” – Captain Anthony Harris (ret.)
Cambridge, ON – November 18, 2013
Photos courtesy of Race2Recovery Public Relations
Author’s Note: Race2Recovery hold a very special place in my heart, as their story unfolded during a turbulent time in my own life. This team of 28 wounded soldiers and Rally-Raid experts set out on a mission to prove that injury and/or disability has no bearing on what a person can achieve. They completed that mission by finishing the 2013 Dakar Rally-Raid under circumstances that almost defy description. Because it isn’t possible to interview all 28 members of the Team, this article is based upon background information and an interview Captain Anthony Harris, who is one of the co-founders of Race2Recovery. It is my belief that as co-founder of the team that Tony’s values, beliefs, and standards are representative of the team. The story of Race2Recovery provides an incredible commentary on the strength of the human spirit under extreme adversity, not only in perseverance but also in determination.
The stereotypical view of a solider is a romantic one, with the handsome and gallant man in a uniform prepared to take on the enemy. That traditional image provides a strong sense of duty, honour, determination, courage, and strength. While we rely on the men who choose the profession of soldier to defend us and our way of life, we rarely think of the cost to those men in terms of their physical health or their souls. Certainly, we don’t think that once damaged, these soldiers still have a lot of fight left in them.
Captain Anthony Harris (retired) of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers is cut from the cloth that many soldiers are. He’s determined, courageous, bound by duty, and upholds the values of integrity and honesty. His expectations for himself far exceed those of the people around him, and as he once put it, “I know my limitations, and I’m far beyond those already.” If he sounds a bit larger than life, Tony Harris definitely isn’t. Beneath all of those characteristics that make him so appealing is a core value that is incredible to witness and humbling to experience. Tony is a man that suffers from an incredibly strong fear of failure. Knowing this is a base motivator for Tony, it does beg the question of why he and his mates would decide to compete in the most difficult and extreme motorsport event in the world. After all, if one is afraid of failure, why would one go out and expose oneself to the possibility of failure? After hours of research and a lengthy interview with Tony, I can’t answer that question. I’m bothered by that lack of an answer, as it’s that answer that defines what makes Race2Recovery such an inspiring group.
It was a random poster in a rehabilitation ward that planted the seed for what would become Race2Recovery. The poster simply read “Have you thought about rallying?” That poster prompted Tony to suggest to his friend, Corporal Tom Neathway, that they should found a race team and compete in the 2013 Dakar. At first blush, anyone listening to the two friends would have thought they were mental. After all, Tony and Tom are both amputees. Both had been ‘blown up’ in Afghanistan while serving their country. The Dakar is a 15 day, 5,600 mile race across the wilds of Peru, Argentina, and Chile in which only two out of every five starters will finish. It is the ultimate test of man and machine versus nature. Choosing to compete in the Dakar meant the team would face not only the challenge of selling their participation to sponsors but also the rigors of developing the necessary skills, advocating for rule changes to allow them to compete, the logistics of managing 5 race vehicles and 5 support vehicles, racing across terrain they’d never even seen before, and attempting to fulfill a mission of being the first disability team in the history of the Dakar to not just start but also finish the Rally-Raid.
Reality is stranger than fiction, at least for Race2Recovery’s Dakar Rally. Almost immediately, the team began to experience mechanical problems with two of the T1 QT Wildcats. By the fifth stage of the Dakar, both Tony’s and Tom’s cars had retired due to mechanical problems, leaving the team with three vehicles. The team pushed on with their T4 Class Support Truck and the two remaining Wildcats of Gott/Zambon and O’Hare/Gillespie. Already heartbroken that they would not get all four Wildcats across the finish line, the team was involved in a tragic accident on a transit during Stage Five when one of the team support vehicles was involved in a road traffic accident with a local taxi. The accident sent three members of the team to hospital and killed two locals, including the taxi driver. That same day, the T4 Support Truck suffered a mechanical failure and was out of the Rally-Raid. The team was now down to two Wildcats, with no chase support and three crew members in hospital. That moment was one of the defining moments for the team, and their decision to continue the Dakar with their two remaining vehicles was a mark of their determination to succeed.
"There was never a moment where we were going to...not keep going. The only way we were not going to finish would have been if all four cars had massive failure and the vehicles couldn't go on. The human story of it is that at no point were we ever going to give up."
The day after the fatal transit accident, the Wildcat of Ben Gott and Staff Sergeant Mark Zambon – named ‘Rat-Cat’ - hit a ditch on stage at approximately 70 miles per hour. That impact tore the front suspension out of ‘Rat-Cat’ and sent Ben Gott to hospital. With one car left in the Rally-Raid at the halfway point and four crew in hospital, Race2Recovery was now faced with the possibility that they might not be able to achieve their mission. Their remaining car, “Joy”, had been the car that was most troublesome prior to the Rally-Raid and now all their hopes rested on her and her drivers – Matt O’Hare and Barney Gillespie.
Determination is a word with many meanings. One of those is the strength of character to decide the course of one’s life. In founding Race2Recovery, all the members of the team had thrown their lot in together to do something extraordinary. Not only were they going to Rally race, but they were going to do it at the most difficult Rally race in the world. They had the belief that anything worth doing is worth doing well and at the highest level. The fear of failing once the goal was set drove the team to ensure they succeeded. The passion that Race2Recovery brought to their team and the mission they chose was infectious. They used that passion to convince sponsors to support them and race officials to re-write rules and regulations in order to be able to compete. Success came in small steps as they progressed over time and built the team and the possibilities from learning to Rally-Raid to acquiring the support of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, Land Rover, and Google. The injured soldiers of the team who had found themselves adrift with an insurmountable challenge in front of them in adapting to a new life made the decision to add to that challenge by taking on the mission of achieving something most would consider nearly impossible. No matter how long it took or how hard they had to work, Race2Recovery were determined to make it to the Dakar. The support of family and volunteers carried so much momentum and personal sacrifice, helping to push the team to make it to Dakar. It is a testament to their determination and perseverance that they did make it to the start line. When the Rally didn’t turn out for them as expected and the team faced challenge after challenge that pushed them beyond what most of us would consider acceptable, the determination to succeed that is a core value of the team pushed them to continue on.
This speaks to another value, which is the drive to succeed. With the hopes of many around the world resting on the team’s shoulders and individually on Matt O’Hare and Barney Gillespie, failure was never an option that was considered. Each time that something went wrong on the Dakar, the team had the option to throw down their tools and retire from the race. They never did. In part the team felt a sense of duty to those that had supported and encouraged them. As the team’s story spread through social and traditional media, messages poured in from complete strangers from around the world encouraging the team, telling them how important what they were doing was, supporting them to get ‘Joy’ to the finish line.
“People aren’t just invisible faces on the Internet or friends on Facebook or something. Actually, people do care, and people do have an incredibly generous attitude towards things like this that push boundaries, and it doesn’t have to be doing Dakar…I’ve been staggered by the support we’ve had throughout, and probably even more now as we build up for next year’s race. It’s been a real honour for me to be a part of this and to have seen the best of humanity and the best of the world.”
During our interview, Tony talked about shifting his thinking from ‘I’m not sure I’ll ever walk again’ to being able to achieve what he and Race2Recovery have. I asked him what the pivotal moment was for him, and his answer stunned me.
“Making the decision that I’d have my leg cut off. Once I made that decision, I knew I would walk again. That was the best decision I’ve ever made, even though it meant losing a part of me physically…If by losing my left leg it has allowed me to live a life that I couldn’t have dreamed of living before, then that by far and away was the best decision I ever made.”
Think about that for just a moment. This is a man who spent months fighting to keep a leg, trying to recover from being blown-up by a roadside IED, and who is fearful of failure. Putting aside the recovery from the physical injury, Tony lost a part of his body. He may yet lose his right leg as it deteriorates over time. Although he hasn’t said it, he may also be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Through it all, who Tony is as a person continues to be most important. He has not let what happened to him define who he is or what he can or cannot achieve. He has taken what many would consider a weakness and turned into the most incredible strength through character. The same holds true for all the members of Race2Recovery. That returns us to the other value that marks the character of both Tony and Race2Recovery – a sense of duty and responsibility.
"I didn't let the injury define my future, nor would it define me and my character. By pushing ourselves to enjoy our lives to the best of our ability we hope that it means the tragic loss of life, the awful scars and the mental damage wasn't for nothing. Our friends gave their tomorrow for our today and we won't forget our duty to them... we will strive and we will succeed."
On the last day of the Dakar, ‘Joy’ came across the finish line. She was classified in last place, which by every standard definition used in motorsport meant failure. However, it was at that moment that Race2Recovery re-defined the meaning of “winning”. They had come through so much, survived everything that the Dakar had thrown at them, and done it all with a steadfast determination and what Tony calls “British Bulldog Spirit”. Race2Recovery had set out to prove that disability had no bearing on what someone could achieve. They proved their point, perhaps in the most extreme way possible.
I’ve come away from my interview with Tony and the story of Race2Recovery with very valuable lessons. No person on this planet is defined by what happens to them. They are defined by who they choose to be in the world. I’ve also learned that out of the most difficult decisions that people have to make come some of the most incredible and inspiring results.
This is the first interview I’ve ever done with someone that has changed my life and the way I look at it.