A professional swimmer whose hopes of competing in the Olympics were shattered by a “Baywatch moment" that left him paralysed from the waist down, has found a new calling—creating YouTube workouts for wheelchair users.
A super-fit freestyle champion, Ben Clark, 28, was on top form, swimming 65km (40 miles) a week—aiming to represent his country at the London 2012 Olympics—when, on July 3, 2010, he broke his neck diving into the shallows along the Dorset coast.
Despite 10 hours of emergency surgery on his spine and six gruelling months in rehab, Ben, whose girlfriend Alice Heaton, 26, is a businesswoman, was left paralysed from the waist down.
Recalling the split second that changed his life, Ben, of Poole, Dorset, said:
“I ran into the water, dived into a wave—a real Baywatch moment—but it was shallower than I'd thought and I felt my whole neck compress and break."
“I was face down in the sand, unable to move and, remembering my lifeguard training, I held my breath and waited for someone to rescue me."
The terrifying accident came at the height of Ben's swimming prowess, which saw him moving to Queensland in eastern Australia in September 2009, to train at the Gold Coast Aquatic Centre—honing his skills, ready for the Olympics.
Alice and Ben (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I loved it from the get go. It was awesome being self-sufficient and making a life for myself."
Swimming 10 times a week, for two and a half hours a time, Ben fine-tuned his performance, to compete in 50m, 100m and 200m freestyle races—also training for five hours a week in the gym.
“I didn't have time for girls. It was eat, swim, sleep repeat."
Ben surfing in Australia (PA Real Life/Collect)
“But I was 19, in a very hot sunny country, living the dream life."
Flying back home 10 months later for his niece's christening, Ben made the disastrous decision to dive into the ocean—hitting the sea bed and breaking his neck in the process.
“When it happened there were lifeguards there and they must've dragged me from the water and called the ambulance."
I was focusing on staying alive and wasn't really aware of the weight of the situation - I guess I thought I'd be fine in a month or so.
Blue-lighted to nearby Poole Hospital, in and out of consciousness, an X-ray revealed a break to his C5-C7 neck bones.
Ben, whose mum, Pauline, 59, a former council worker, did not leave his side, said:
“I was focusing on staying alive and wasn't really aware of the weight of the situation—I guess I thought I'd be fine in a month or so."
Transferred to Hampshire's Southampton General Hospital a week later, Ben, who was told the full extent of the damage would only become clear after surgery, was blue-lighted once more at 20mph all the way, to avoid further damage to his spine.
Ben competing in a race (PA Real Life/Collect)
Then, during a 10-hour operation, surgeons took part of his right hip bone and fixed it to his spine with titanium rods, after which he was told the nature of the break meant he might not be able to use his body from the neck down.
Rather than crumbling, Ben saw the prognosis as “the beginning of his recovery."
“My personality is laid back and I don't really let much bother me," he said, explaining that he stayed calm, rather than panicking.
Ben in hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
“Swimming has taught me to be disciplined and my focus was on getting better."
Returning to Poole Hospital after surgery to convalesce, Ben's family were by his side every day.
“My mum took time off work and came every day to see me."
My mum took time off work and came every day to see me.
“My sister, Kayleigh Corbin, 33, a stay-at-home mum, would come too with my niece."
“I was watching her learn to walk next to my hospital bed. It was really quite something."
Transferred to Wiltshire's Salisbury District Hospital—which has a specialist spinal treatment unit—in mid-August, with feeling to his arms, shoulders and mid-back muscles returning following surgery, Ben began seven months of intensive physiotherapy.
Ben at physio (PA Real Life/Collect)
After spending the best part of two months on his back, for the first eight weeks, he concentrated on learning to sit up again.
Using a wheelchair for the first time in December 2010, he said:
“Sitting up again was the most exhausting thing I'd ever had to learn to do."
“Still, once I could move around and talk to other patients, I started making friends and enjoyed a real sense of camaraderie."
Ben and his mum, Pauline (PA Real Life/Collect)
Told patients were not usually granted access to the hospital pool until four months in, Ben then “pestered" staff, until they relented and allowed him to swim two months early.
After swimming “nearly every day" of his life, he had found the three months after the accident, away from the pool, interminable.
But he said his first dip after the accident on December 25 was surreal, adding:
“I'd only ever really jumped and dived straight in before, so it was a very different experience being lowered in."
I expected to feel the water on my toes when I was hoisted in, but it didn't happen until I was submerged halfway - as I had no feeling - it was very bizarre.
“I expected to feel the water on my toes when I was hoisted in, but it didn't happen until I was submerged halfway—as I had no feeling—it was very bizarre."
“But I still felt right at home in the pool and within 10 minutes I was swimming on my own—albeit with floats around my neck and waist."
Describing his seven-month recovery as “humbling," Ben said he then left hospital on February 1, 2011, “a very different person."
Alice and his mum, Pauline (PA Real Life/Collect)
“Before my accident, I felt invincible – like the world was my oyster."
“Afterwards, I felt a lot more humble and promised myself I'd only ever do anything if my heart was fully in it."
And whilst his Olympic hopes had been shattered, rather than giving up, he tried for the 2012 Paralympics but, sadly, he did not make it.
Ben and Alice (PA Real Life/Collect)
Deciding to “hang up his trunks," after two years in mourning—wasting days staying in bed late and playing on his PlayStation—Ben found his mojo again and decided to try coaching.
And, seeing a gap in the market for “disabled-friendly" workout tutorials, launched his YouTube channel, Adapt to Perform.
“I looked online for some fitness advice and the only guidance I could find was from Arnold Schwarzenegger-level ripped wheelchair users or aerobics tutorials for OAPs—there was nothing in between."
It got to the point where Mum said enough was enough and I needed to find some meaning in my life.
“So, I uploaded a few videos, and Adapt to Perform was born."
And, with his mum's backing, he applied for a job at his old swimming club, Poole Swimming Club, in early 2015.
“It got to the point where Mum said enough was enough and I needed to find some meaning in my life."
“I completely agreed with her, but I didn't know where to start. My whole life had been 'swim, swim, swim,' and that's when she suggested I look into coaching."
Soo,n Ben was leading four coaching sessions a week, training swimmers—some of whom were a similar standard to him before the accident.
Describing the experience as healing, he said:
“Before, swimming had always been about me and my career and I didn't realise you could get such satisfaction out of it."
“The lads would come back from competitions and show me their medals and I'd be so proud."
Then, in early 2018, Ben decided to build his own strength and was at his local gym, when he noticed a “gap in the market" for disabled work outs.
Borrowing a friend's camera, he filmed himself working out and performing exercise routines specifically adapted for disabled gym goers.
I decided to make a few videos and put them online on the off chance someone else found themselves in my position.
“I decided to make a few videos and put them online on the off chance someone else found themselves in my position."
After his third upload, Ben's videos started getting attention and he splashed out on a professional camera—shooting more regularly until his fifth video got an impressive 52,000 views on YouTube.
Explaining his inspiration, Ben said:
“I would look at fitness guru Joe Wicks' videos and think, 'How can I make this work for someone in a wheelchair?'"
“It's started off with strength and body conditioning, but I talk about all sorts now—from yoga to aerobics."
Soon after launching his videos, Ben was introduced to Alice, and believes “fate" brought them together.
“I was focusing on happiness and helping other people and she came into my life at that exact time."
“My old swimming buddy had been singing my praises to Alice and she asked to meet me."
“We went for a drink and that was that, we hit it off. She's absolutely fantastic."
Meanwhile, with Ben's video—lasting from five to 30 minutes—taking off, in January he launched a free 30-day workout, where he uploaded a video every day for his followers.
Fitness First have been amazing and the positive feedback from my videos is wonderful.
“You normally have to pay a heavy fee for these things and disabled people often don't have money to burn, especially if they're out of work."
Showcasing a mixture of routines performed at home and at his local DW Fitness First gym, he praised the centre for encouraging his work and even bringing in equipment to improve his routines.
“Fitness First have been amazing and the positive feedback from my videos is wonderful."
“People tell me they've felt too low to leave the house before watching my videos and knowing that I've helped them take back control of their fitness is amazing."
Now a qualified personal trainer, Ben hopes to work with DW Fitness First to improve facilities for the disabled across the fitness industry.
“I promised myself after my accident I'd be true to my heart and I feel like I've found my calling with Adapt to Perform."
“I want to make fitness accessible to everybody and to open a fully accessible gym that is used by people in and out of wheelchairs."
Ben and Alice (PA Real Life/Collect)
" I can't wait to use my knowledge and personal experience to build on that in the future."
To find out more about Adapt to Perform, follow @adapttoperform