Owen Pick signed up to the Army when he was 16 years old. Two years later he would be deployed to Afghanistan and caught up in an explosion. Now, he has competed at the Winter Paralympics in South Korea as part of Great Britain’s first ever snowboard team.
“I was always Army, Army, Army. I was in the cadets from 12 and that was all I was focused on. I didn’t have any other plans.”
Pick, now 26, joined the Royal Anglian Regiment the moment he left school. “I loved it, running around playing with guns.”
Two years later, and a month after he turned 18, he was deployed as a gunner to southern Afghanistan for his first tour of duty.
“I was excited about going, but I was scared as well. There was a lot of firefighting and getting shot at. It was hot. It’s not like anything you can imagine.”
Pick was deployed with 30 other soldiers to patrol a village and make sure it was safe.
“We had quite a lot of casualties and lost a couple of guys. It really affected everyone, but you had to put it aside and do your job, otherwise people would die.”
Three months into the tour his platoon was on a day off when another platoon was targeted by the Taliban.
“They’d taken a couple of casualties, so we got tasked with going out and drawing fire away from them,” he says.
Pick’s group came under fire all day until the other platoon had cleared a compound. A helicopter took the casualties away – while Pick and three of his comrades were ordered to check it was definitely clear.
“The guys were walking in front of me and as I walked behind them, I stood on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). There was a big white flash and that was the last thing I remember.”
Pick was rescued by a helicopter and flown first to nearby Camp Bastion, then back to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham which specialises in military injuries.
“I woke up and my mum and dad were sat at the end of my bed. I was aware something bad had happened because my foot was in all sorts of funny directions. But I didn’t know what had happened, so I had nightmares all the time.”
His mind started to play tricks on him. It created terrifying scenarios as a way to explain the devastating injuries. It was three whole months later, when his platoon returned to the UK, that he finally got some insight into what had really happened from the others who were there.
“They told me it blew me 10 feet in the air and 15 feet back. And apparently I came round asking for a cigarette. Once I knew that, it filled in all the blanks, and the nightmares just stopped straight away.”
Pick next spent a month at Headley Court, a military rehabilitation centre in Surrey, and recovered alongside other armed forces personnel. He describes his time there as “kind of fun,” and adds: “You’ve got six patients with only four legs”.
He says his right leg had been “smashed to pieces” and that the X-ray looked like someone had “thrown a glass on the floor and shattered it.” At this early stage Pick was given the option of amputation or multiple operations.
He opted for the latter and returned to the Army.
But the role Pick was given when he got back to work was not the same kind of active role he had originally signed up for.
He was asked to spend time in the gym or to play at being a casualty in battlefield simulations – to help train other soldiers – but he didn’t find it very fulfilling. “Basically, I did all the rubbish jobs,” he says.
In August 2011, 19 months after the explosion, the reconstructive surgery had not given him a satisfactory recovery – so Pick decided to have his right leg amputated below the knee after all.
When he came round from the operation, he had a sudden sense of clarity. He knew it was time to leave the Army.
The problem was, he had no idea what he wanted to do.
During rehabilitation, Pick had been in touch with military charities and, in 2012, Help for Heroes gave him the opportunity to try sit-down waterskiing.
While at the lake skiing, he saw a man wakeboarding – a little like a ski-surf hybrid – and decided to give that a go too. He liked it.
The charity Blesma, which provides activities to limbless veterans to help their rehabilitation, then offered him a ski trip to Breckenridge in Colorado, US. Pick arranged to have a go at snowboarding instead of regular skiing, as it seemed similar to the wakeboarding he had enjoyed.
“I loved it,” he says.
Pick was given an instructor and learned the basics in a week. He thought it was something he could get involved in and, with his own future employment in mind, asked the Army if he could train as a snowboard instructor.
The Army offers injured service men and women a resettlement package to ensure they leave with a trade. This scheme enabled Pick to spend three months in the ski resort of Whistler, Canada, to train as an instructor.
The sport brought him the kind of passion he had been looking for. He started to teach – and he travelled to find the best snow. By March 2014 he wanted to test how good he really was, so he entered the French National Adaptive Snowboardercross Championships.
Boardercross, as it is also known, sees snowboarders race solo against the clock over “bumps and jumps and big turns”.
In his first competition, Pick came second.
Unknown to the relatively new snowboarder, the ParalympicsGB team had been at the event and seen him in action. They were impressed.
“The British team contacted me and asked if I wanted to train with them. I hadn’t heard about them before, but I said ‘OK’ and it just started from there.”
But the training offer didn’t involve any state-of-the-art facilities.
“Me and a guy called Ben Moore got shoved in a room in Austria for two months. We trained every day and travelled around on our own. We didn’t have coaches to begin with.”
By the end of the season they had a coach and a bit of funding but largely financed it themselves.
The cost didn’t matter to Pick though, he had found something to plug the gap the Army had once filled.
“It’s the lifestyle,” he says. “You get to travel the world and be independent, it’s only you that’s in control.”
Within 18 months Pick had started to ascend the world rankings in boardercross and banked slalom – which is a snowboard course with turns.
“The aim is to keep the board on the ground as much as possible. It’s about absorbing all the bumps, so you need power in your legs and get your balance and edges just right.”
Pick had never done snowboarding with two legs, so unlike many other aspects of his rehabilitation, balance was not something he had to re-learn as a new amputee – and he found he could use his regular prosthetic leg to assist.
“If I do a long day snowboarding I get a sore stump,” he says “but as long as I land properly and absorb the shock it’s usually fine.”
Although Pick had quickly taken to the sport there was one barrier he had to overcome. Fear.
“With the speeds you’re going it’s really scary. The fear is of the jumps because if you don’t get it right it can genuinely hurt. I’m just always telling myself ‘you know you can deal with it, just chill’.”
Pick says the team has “massive crashes” on a daily basis – and a couple of seasons ago he overshot a landing in France and “completely blew my good knee out”.
“You’ve just got to get up and brush off, you haven’t got a choice,” he says.
Pick had a good run up to the Paralympics. He claimed silver in the banked slalom at the 2017 Para Snowboard World Championships in Big White, Canada. But in Pyeongchang things didn’t go his way.
He competed in the classification SB-LL2, for those with lower-limb impairment but failed to make the knock-out stages of the boardercross and finished ninth in banked slalom on Friday.
He said: “I came here to medal in this event and I haven’t. I’m upset to be so far down the table.
“I know I can beat these guys but it just didn’t happen today.”