I wasn’t worried whether I was shot or not

Michelle with Prince Harry

GB Invictus athlete, Michelle Partington, had a lifelong aversion to sport until, suicidal with post-traumatic stress disorder from two tours in Afghanistan as a paramedic, she thought she had nothing to lose. She made herself attend a Help For Heroes training camp back in January. Nine months later she is part of the GB Invictus team competing in the rowing and powerlifting at the games in Toronto. Her life has been transformed. Chats with Prince Harry, laughter with team-mates, training with the country’s best coaches and honouring the memory of one special man in particular

Of course it’s the tattoo on her arm. Not the one down the left-hand side, an artist’s impression of her impassive face in army uniform and beret, a permanent reminder of her time serving as a paramedic on the front line in Afghanistan. The other one, engraved more privately on the inside of her lower left arm. You wouldn’t notice it at first. Just writing. Beautiful, neat, old-fashioned writing, curiously framed by a irregular line that, if it were made of paper, would look just like the rips and creases of endless unfolding.

And that’s exactly what it is. A faithful reproduction of the note her grandfather gave her before she flew away on her first tour to Afghanistan. She kept it close, in the top pocket of her Army uniform. It went into the battlefield with her as she and her comrades dealt with the dead, the dying, the wounded, among the British troops and the Afghan civilians, and never did a day go by when she didn’t unfold the little piece of paper to remind her of home.

“Wherever you are I’ll always be by your side. All my love always, Grandad.”

It is the note, and the man, that saved Invictus athlete Michelle Partington’s life.

“He was the main character in my life. Always there when things didn’t go right. He supported me and we were really, really close. Even in Afghanistan, I phoned him in the middle of mountains. I never missed ringing on his birthday. He’s gone now. He passed away last June.” She falters. “I would never do anything now, in his memory …”

The “anything” she refers to obliquely is take her own life.

Michelle returned from her second tour of “Afghan” with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I knew halfway through the second tour I wasn’t right. I was working on auto-pilot. But I had no idea what was wrong. I was a paramedic on the front line going out to the guys at the ‘point of wounding’. We basically picked them up and had to deal with them in the helicopter, giving blood and padding what limbs they had left. It started to play with my mind – the things I saw out there. Because it wasn’t just big burley guys who were injured. It was children. It messed with my head. I really fell apart. Crashed and burned.

“After a nine-day break on coming home I turned up for work in the office and my boss said, ‘There’s an urgent email. You’ve got ten minutes to deal with it’. I was so, so angry. After everything I’d dealt with on the battlefield, someone was telling me an email was important. I just fell on the floor in tears. Broke down.”

She went home and stayed there. “I basically sat in my flat. Overtime. I felt my front door was having panic attacks. I was frightened to go out. Sometimes I couldn’t make it to where I need to go because of the noise, the busy-ness. I felt so isolated. At least I had to walk the dog and see grandad – put the face on, you know. But I was just living day to day. I got so low, I thought, ‘I haven’t got a life’. I planned to take my own life. And planned it in such a way – for my grandad – to make it look like an accident. But the only thing that stopped me – I didn’t want to do it for him.”

She is crying, this extraordinarily strong, powerful, uplifting athlete, as she recounts the story. John Partington, a factory foreman all his working life in Wigan, her own home town, never far from her thoughts.

The Help For Heroes-Band of Brothers network, for those who suffer illness or injury serving alongside the Armed Forces, had many times tried to get in touch with Michelle. To no avail. Emails. She deleted them. One about the Invictus Games slipped through, she ignored it.

“Sport. Me. No! I was the last person. For 44 years, my whole life, I thought sport wasn’t for me. Then last December, the same email came through again, including a little passage that said you don’t have to be good at sport to apply. It’s all about team work and camaraderie. I thought what have I got to lose? I decided to choose rowing – sitting down, I thought – it’s going to be easy. So I turned up for the Camp in January. And it was actually fantastic.

Michelle with coach Ben Richens

“So now I’ve chosen to compete at these Invictus Games in rowing and powerlifting. And I’ve never competed in any sport in my life. I love it. The fact I’m with people again. The banter’s there. Amazing. I’ve got to eat properly now, so it’s made me healthier. And it’s not just about competing for me. It’s having the outlet for my anger or – I still suffer a lot with anxiety. I just smash it out in training and then I’m knackered, so not that bothered by bad stuff anymore.

“I’m not the strongest competitor but for me – I know this sounds cheesy – but I’ve already won. I’m competing in sport and getting a personal best every time. It means I’m getting better and better. If I get pbs in Toronto – oh, I’ll be massively delighted. If I get a medal, I think I’ll just fall apart on the podium. Waaaaaugh! For me, just to be there is my winning goal. I can’t believe I’m part of it and sharing the experience with some really special guys.

“I think the fact that Prince Harry initially set it up adds credibility. He’s toured, he’s admitted he’s struggled himself out there. The whole Invictus thing is to bring people together to inspire and motivated them. Yes, it would be fantastic if our team gets medals – and they will because we have some fantastic athletes trained by brilliant GB coaches. But it’s more about people coming together and the fact that through adversity – whether physical or hidden injuries – people can still have the fire in their bellies and believe in themselves. If you still believe you have something to offer you can go out at smash it. And do it on a world platform.

“I look back at my old self. Halfway through my last tour I was coming off the back of the ambulance under fire, not worried whether I was shot or not. I was living a nightmare. Now I have my life back, the camaraderie too, with Invictus. I’m not lonely anymore. I don’t think about it. I’m here for the sport, the laughs, the team-mates. No matter how far you get down into the bottom of the pit you can climb out again. The support and the love is huge.”

That reminds her of her grandad. Unconsciously she touches the inked memorial to him on her arm.
“Everything I do now is for me – but for him, too.”

See Michelle Partington in conversation with Paralympic Athlete and 7/7 bombing survivor, Martine Wright in the Women’s Sport Trust & Virgin Money Giving #OneChallenge film series – exclusive to The Mixed Zone – click here


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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