Most of us have heard about the power of a positive attitude over and over, but can a positive attitude really help someone with a new disability deal with loss and hardship? Absolutely. In particular, choosing to be positive (which is basically focusing more on the good things in life than the bad and being thankful for what you do have, even if it is slight) will help you to gain control over your thoughts, emotions, and life.
Conversely, a positive attitude says, “You are disabled. Your life didn’t go quite how you planned. This doesn’t feel good. But you can still have the things you want. It might take some re-calculating to get to your dreams, but you can get there. It might take longer and be a little more difficult, but it’s possible.”
Dave Walsh, Britain's Strongest Disabled Man tells us a little about what happened to him.
“In 2010, my job was to take people up and down mountains. Now, I can’t even make it up the stairs! I led a typical, active childhood, always playing sports, so for me, joining the Army at 16 was a pretty obvious choice! I signed up and left for training, and within the first year, I was based all over the place, from Germany to Cyprus and back in the UK.
As you can imagine, being in the Army, you have to be pretty active. I thrived on competing in military competitions and taking part in any sport I could. After a tour of Iraq, I decided to leave the Army so my wife could settle down herself. She had dreams of going to university and becoming a mental health practitioner. I spent more of my final year in the forces on an adventure training team, so I was helping people climb mountains and hikes.
When I left the Army, I struggled. I felt I had no ambition and not much of a life. It was hard adjusting to civilian life! I tried joining different sports teams and clubs but didn’t find I fit in anywhere. I gained a lot of weight pretty quickly, so I decided to join a gym. I have always been into weight training but never ventured down to the dusty side of the dumbbell rack, as being physically fit was more important than being stupidly strong. I think I was boasting to my wife I was getting really strong, and I might compete in Strongman one day. I didn’t realize an old friend of hers actually competed in Strongman! My wife spoke to this guy and somehow, I found myself in a Strongman gym and signed up for my first strongman contest. My first contest was Swindon’s Strongest Novice, and I think I came in the bottom fifth, but I didn’t care. I was HOOKED!
I competed in any contest that had space and eventually moved up in weight classes and found myself mixing with the big guys in the open’s class! My home life was great, I have three kids, two of which were born pre-diagnosis. I was always throwing around, wrestling, or just playing out with them. This was the best I felt since leaving the Army—there was always something to work toward and look forward to!
While training for Wales Strongest Man 2014, I’m not sure how I noticed but my right arm went numb. Now, at this point, I was training 5 to 6 days a week and working a solid 90 hours a week while my wife was in university, so I kind of put it down to being overworked or possibly trapping a nerve in my neck, and thought it would eventually sort itself out. I was basically doing ‘dude stuff’ and thought it was funny after about a month it had spread to basically my whole body.
It was time to get it checked out! I went to my doctor, who sent me to Bath Hospital. I was subject to many different tests, from an MRI to a lumbar puncture (which is a story on its own!), and after about 3 weeks, I had the answer; my numbness/tingling was multiple sclerosis! I guess I’m pretty lucky I only had to wait a matter of weeks, when some people are left hanging on for many years—but to say you’re lucky to have MS, no matter how long the wait is, pretty ridiculous!
At this point, I didn’t really know much about MS, which I’m deeply ashamed of, as my uncle has MS and my nan had MS, but it was never in the front of my mind. I didn’t know what to think. I just cried, not knowing what I was crying for! Most of my numbness left (but I still have some) and I was able to train and still compete at a decent level of Strongman for a short time after this. I even qualified in Britain’s Strongest Natural Man after coming runner up in the south of England’s Strongest Natural Man!
I had a bad relapse not too long after this competition and was struggling on my feet and falling over all the time. It felt like I spent more time on the floor than anywhere else. But I was determined to compete, as I had qualified, so why not! At the finals, I struggled big-time. I was failing weights I should be able to do with ease and I was falling over a lot! I pretty much didn’t lift anything that day. I decided to walk away from Strongman at this point… Well, more like shuffle away, because I could barely lift my feet off the floor!
It wasn’t long after this I started to deteriorate in symptoms—my legs were in so much pain I asked a pain clinician if I could have them amputated. He said no. I even had elusive thought about how I could take them off myself—I knew I couldn’t because I can barely hang a picture on a wall, so I had no chance of pulling off a plan like this.
On top of the pain, I had symptoms such as word confusion, which is basically when you can’t pull a sentence together, leg weakness, which saw me needing aids all the time, and spasms! My MS was ‘upgraded’ to secondary progressive, meaning all of my symptoms were here to stay. I was already on a lot of medication, but I slowly crept my doses up to double and triple the doses already on the maximum doses! I had felt like I lost my sense of everything. I couldn’t work the same, I couldn’t train the same, and I wasn’t ‘big Dave’ anymore! I couldn’t even be the same dad to my kids anymore. All of my friends were Strongmen, so I couldn’t even get a clean break from the sport. My mood was low, and I wasn’t fun to be around. After living like this for a while, my wife had a stern talking to me.
She knew I was depressed, and I eventually gave in and went back to my doctor, who prescribed me antidepressants. Though at this point I felt like a failure, I also knew I would probably lose a lot more than my ability to walk. I don’t know how, but the magic pills were working and I started to feel better. I still wasn’t comfortable with my MS, but my mood was in a much better place and I felt I was on the up!
By 2017, I really needed something to pull me out of my boredom—and that’s when I met another ex-soldier who introduced me to Disabled Strongman. At this point, the shame came back because I didn’t know anything about Disabled Strongman. I instantly felt the same familiar rush and I was hooked. Returning to sports had a huge impact; it changed my outlook on life. It made me feel safe I’m still the same person.
In my first year, I became the South of England’s Strongest Disabled Man, I placed third at Britain’s Strongest Man, and I even set a world record at the seated deadlift, being the first person to lift 960 pounds! All in all, it took until 2019 to fully overcome my self-doubts. The acceptance I felt being a Strongman also played a part in this. I competed in Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man again in 2019 and placed third. In 2020, I wanted to do more for the sport and started getting out there with Disabled Strongman things, and the world has been fantastic and encouraging! In 2020, I competed at the World’s Strongest Disabled Man. It was late in the day when I received a text message saying, ‘Well done!’ I had come in second in the world!
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, all the strongman competitors were spread out in different pockets around the world, such as the US, Australia, and Germany. I already knew that afternoon I’d beaten the other UK competitors to become the British Champion—and I was really happy with this achievement. In my latest achievement, I have pulled two 10-ton lorries (20-ton total) in my wheelchair, which has been the most ever pulled in a wheelchair!
In 2021 I became Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man officially and I wear that title with such pride! My journey to get here hasn’t been easy or fun, but I am finally comfortable with the new disimproved me! For me the gym and disabled strongman has probably saved my life in many ways! I know I wouldn’t be the guy that sits before you now! I do worry that one day my MS will make me too disabled to compete or train at strongman but in the process I have made some massive connections with others so I know I can at least be around the sport helping or encouraging others!
I’m hugely passionate about raising awareness for disabled sports to get more numbers. I have a podcast show where I interview disabled athletes to talk about these sports, a few sports I’ve covered are sled ice hockey, amputee football, and wheelchair baseball!
What’s my learning from this experience? Now, if I must stop what I’m doing, I’ll know I reached a real high and I won’t regret any of it. If I must take some downtime, I’ll be aware there’s a way out of it and you will always find something to bring you back to a positive place. So, you can catch me somewhere in my wheelchair lifting atlas stones, pulling trucks, or still down the dusty side of the dumbbell rack! I used to be a standing Strongman. I am now a sitting Strongman. Still a Strongman!”