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Alumni, AJ Jackson, graduated in 1996 with a degree in Biology and PE/Sports Science. Since then, their life has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows – from having to retire from playing and coaching hockey, to representing Great Britain at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney. Not bad for someone who was told in school that they would never achieve anything by doing sport!

“I was born in North Wales and growing up, my Mum was a PE Teacher and a keen sportswoman, so for me sport has always been a part of my life. I grew up playing any sport possible, but my first love was Hockey. I played for my schools then went on to play for senior women’s teams, even though I was still only in my teens!


“In secondary school, my main aim was to get in the Royal Air Force (RAF) – everything I was doing in school was heading towards that goal and it seemed possible. I was fit and healthy, played lots of sports, and I was doing ok academically. I sat my GCSEs in 1988 and successfully bagged 10 Grade A-C, and passed my entrance exams for the RAF.

“Then out of the blue, after a routine medical check, I received a telephone call from the RAF telling me that they had spotted I had a problem with my knee and that they were classing me as ‘permanently medically unfit’. This meant I would not be allowed to pursue my dream of joining up. I was devastated – I had been having little niggling problems with my knee since starting secondary school but it was put down to growing pains, so I did not take much notice of it and carried on playing sport. Being told my dream was over came as a real shock.

“I carried on in school and unsuccessfully did A Levels, but more importantly I spent time helping in the PE Department – this is where I really learned lessons and developed the skills that are part of my life now. At this point one of my teachers told me I would never achieve anything by doing sport and I should spend more time in the library! I will let you decide if she was right…!

“I carried on playing hockey and moved to Chester for University. By this point however I was struggling and had already had many knee operations – it was getting harder and harder to play the sport I loved, so I moved across to coaching more than playing. But even that started to become a real problem! In 1995, with severe cartilage and nerve damage in my left knee, I packed away my hockey kit for good and stopped being a sportperson. As I am sure you can imagine this was a tough thing to do and life became very bleak and dark – I fell quite quickly into a pit of depression.

Sydney website“However, by chance I discovered wheelchair basketball and off I went to try a sport I did not think I could play as I did not use a wheelchair. I was welcomed, thinking it would be all very gentle and full of people who used wheelchairs all the time – little did I know that from that point onwards my life would change completely and that the sport is fast and furious, and can be played not just by people with a whole range of disabilities, but by people without a disability too. I remember getting in a sports chair for the first time and suddenly I did not have to worry about my legs – I could just play. It was a real life changing moment for me and I have not looked back since.

“Fast forward 20 years and I am a Paralympian – with over 70 GB Caps, having played at two World Championships, three European Championships, three Paralympic World Cups, numerous friendly tournaments and most exciting of all, the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney.

“I am currently the Head Coach at Cheshire Phoenix Wheelchair Basketball Club and Angels of the North Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Club, and I was the Head Coach for the Wales U19 Team again this year at National Junior Championships and School Games. I am currently working closely with the Students Union at the University Chester and fingers crossed we will be creating a University Wheelchair Basketball Team in the next couple of months with the aim of competing at the British Wheelchair Basketball University Championships in 2018.

“For me the loss of hockey and a career in the RAF still hurts but finding Wheelchair Basketball saved my life and has given me the life I have today.

“I left paid employment in October 2016 when the condition with my legs flared up and my mental health was declining – this was a tough time but thanks to support from my mental health team and a business advisor through the Job Centre, I have recently set up my own business called Believe It Coaching. The name came to me after Dame Kelly Holmes signed a book for me when I worked for her Legacy Trust.

“As well as offering wheelchair basketball coaching and motivational speaking, I am now a qualified tutor with British Wheelchair Basketball and am branching out into life coaching. I also work for Sport for Schools and Sport Works. I love the fact that my story is helping to inspire the next generation of players, coaches and athletes, as well as inspiring everyday people in their everyday lives.

“I find Coaching as cathartic as playing sport, especially in keeping depression at bay. There is a lot of research being carried out now around mental health and physical activity. I am a true believer that activity can have a positive effect on your mental health. Coaching has improved my self-belief, my self-esteem, and given me a focus for those days when I don’t feel at my best, either physically or mentally. I did not used to like to talk about my mental health problems, but I have realised now that there is nothing to be ashamed of and that it has taught me some amazing lessons that I can use to help myself and other people be the best they can be.

“Sometimes life can deal you bad cards and I am a firm believer that many of those bad times can teach you more than you can ever realise. So if you asked me to go back in time to before I had knee problems, would I do it? To be honest, I would probably say no as the experiences I have had have been amazing and I am looking forward to my future.”

AJ has also recently been awarded Disability Coach of the Year at the UK Coaching Awards 2017.

If you have a story to tell or would like to share your experiences since leaving University, please get in touch. You can email or drop us a message on social media.

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