Lancashire athlete Josh Landmann on the accident that changed his life, Paralympic dreams, World Records, and a surprise appearance on The Ellen Show
It's summer. Twenty-year-old Josh Landmann has a place at university waiting for him and is on holiday in Ibiza with a group of friends.
"People assume I was drunk," says Josh. "But I wasn't, I've never been a massive drinker. It was just a normal day; we we're out on the beach and came back to the villa and I ended up cooking for everybody on the barbecue. What with the heat, I was getting pretty hot."
He went down to the pool and dove in.
"It didn't look shallow, but I just remember hitting my head at the bottom," says Josh, from Lancaster. "It hurt a little, but I didn't realise what had happened until I swam to the ladder. I couldn't move my legs at all. That's when I told my mates in quite strong language to get me out of the pool."
Josh had split his head open but was convinced the loss of feeling in his legs was down to shock. The notion of a spinal injury never even entered his mind. But, after a doctor on the scene noticed Josh's irregular pupils, they immediately braced his neck.
"My mates might have tried to pick me up and take me back to the villa, which could have caused so much more damage," explains Josh, now 27. "I was coming in and out of all kinds of moods: thinking 'what do I do with my life now' one minute and laughing the next."
Airlifted to Mallorca, Josh spent two weeks in hospital in Spain "I did an awful lot of staring at the same ceiling, not really knowing what was going on," he says. "But I was fortunate to have that positivity from friends - I can't stress enough how important support networks are when it comes to trauma and mental health. That helped me get over my accident pretty fast."
Returning to the UK via air ambulance for further treatment at Preston Royal and Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport, doctors told Josh he may never walk again.
"I was like 'it is what it is, time to make the most of what I've got'."
An intense recovery program of physiotherapy coupled with strength and mobility training followed, with Josh slowly regaining some use of his legs, now using crutches and a wheelchair to get about. Despite him having now reached a physiological glass ceiling - doctors say won't be able to improve his mobility further - he has still confounded many by getting this far.
But he still wants to go further.
Having grown up as a keen skier, Josh was understandably anxious about how being paralysed from the waist down would impact him in terms of his lifestyle. "The first thing I wanted to do was ski," he says. "I wanted that independence back. I lay there watching videos of Paralympic skiers thinking 'that's so cool'."
'That's so cool' soon became Josh's own reality. In 2016, he travelled to Poland with Active Therapy to try his hand at Paralympic alpine skiing and it was a life-changing experience. "It all came back to me," says Josh. "After that, I went on a lads' skiing holiday and that did a hell of a lot of good for me mentally. It showed me things could still be normal.
"You've got to throw yourself into the deep end, which I suppose is a bit of a dodgy pun!" he adds. "But that's how I live my life: seeing where things take me."
Returning to the UK with renewed optimism, Josh started training at Chill Factore in Manchester where he was spotted by a Team GB Para snow sport coach who invited him to a few camps, which gave him another boost. Within nine months, he won the giant slalom at the British National Championships in Tignes, France.
"That was fantastic," Josh says. "The sense of achievement... it was the first thing I'd properly done since my accident. I'll never forget that."
But Josh's future lay away from the slopes. Based in Preston, skiing was hardly the most accessible of sports, and so he started exploring other possibilities.
"I did a few wheelchair 10ks and half-marathons for charity and loved it," Josh explains. "I got in touch with British Triathlon and they invited me down to a talent ID weekend at Loughborough University. It was all a new experience but they wanted to take me on.
"I've had to learn how to use my upper body more," he adds, having by now earned a place on the British ParaTriathlon Talent Squad Programme. "And the fact it's three disciplines means there are more events I can take part in and training is a lot more interesting. I love the grind."
Josh's rise in the world of para-triathlon has been meteoric. He placed third in his first ever international event, holds the world record for fastest marathon completed in an everyday wheelchair (3hrs, 18mins, 59secs), and - thanks to the games being postponed due to the pandemic - even harboured hopes of qualifying for this summer's Paralympics in Tokyo.
Fate, however, intervened once again.
Last month, Josh crashed during the bike section at Para World Series events in both Leeds and A Coruna, Spain which could have earned him valuable points towards Paralympic qualification. A plane ticket to Japan may not be in the offing, but Josh remains positive and - more importantly - focused on Paris 2024.
"It's just one of those things," he says. "I'm still new to the sport and still learning. I'm feeling disappointed but, originally, the goal was always Paris 2024 because I'm so new to the sport and it's hard to just pick it up and perform at the highest level. Covid and the delay made me feel like I might be able to scrape qualification, but it was always a long shot.
"Had the Paralympics gone ahead last year as planned, I'd have had an even smaller chance of qualifying because the extra year has done me the world of good in terms of being able to focus on training - my numbers are through the roof," he adds. "I had to give it a go, though. For a few days after the race, I was disappointed, but now I've got renewed motivation.
"I've got to focus on the next three years now and work towards making more of an impact at Paris than I would've had I competed at Tokyo," says Josh, who lives in Great Eccleston with his partner Sophie Carrigill, herself a Team GB wheelchair basketball player and a World and European silver medallist. "I'm very much of the mindset that things happen for a reason, so Tokyo wasn't meant to be.
"But I've definitely got my eyes set on Paris 2024 and LA 2028. I want to be pushing for medal performances then."
Tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I ask if Josh has ambitions to dust off the skis and compete in both the summer and winter Paralympics. "Maybe, down the line and if I win the EuroMillions!" he replies with a chuckle. "For now, I prefer to keep skiing as a recreational holiday thing. I've got a long career left in me, so hopefully I can keep getting better and better."
Away from the Paralympic spotlight, Josh has also had a taste of the showbiz spotlight, too.
"About four years ago, I was scrolling Facebook and saw an ad for a Tough Mudder," says Josh. "I thought 'I'd love to be able to do that.' I knew it wouldn't be wheelchair accessible, but I emailed them and they were supportive, so I signed up. Before the event, I was thinking 'what am I doing here? I could be home sat on the sofa!'
"I didn't even know how I was going to get around," he adds. But get round he did. Joined by his father, Josh completed the course for Ben Trend Get Involved, a foundation that supports athletes with disabilities. One stage of the race involved scaling an almost-vertical wall with a rope and was appropriately called Everest. A clip of Josh taking on Everest went viral.
"Everybody was so helpful and, when I got to the top, the roar was so cool," he says. "When I got into the car, I had so many notifications and saw the video, which had got like half a million views in half-an-hour. It went absolutely barmy."
The clip went global. Josh was at a training camp in the US when he got a message.
"This woman reached out saying she worked for The Ellen Show," says Josh. "Next thing you know, I was getting my travel itinerary through - drivers, flights, hotels in Beverley Hills - and they were flying my dad out to LA. My dressing room was sandwiched between Anna Kendrick's and Rebel Wilson's and was opposite Sia's. It was a surreal experience.
"They told me not to ask for photos, but Sia stopped me at one point and said 'I've seen your story and I think it's amazing'," adds Josh. "That was pretty cool. It still hasn't sunk in - a lad from Blackpool on one of the world's biggest TV shows? That just doesn't happen. I'll never forget it."
From humble beginnings to the world stage in more ways than one: there's no doubt that the Josh Landmann story still has a few more chapters yet to come. But, behind it all, is the same lad from Lancashire.
"I was actually meant to be on the Ellen Show a day before I went on and Will Smith was one of the guests," he says. "And, put it this way, the no photos rule would've been out the window. You can't meet the Fresh Prince and not ask for a pic!"
Josh is an ambassador for Freetrain’s Be Better campaign. Freetrain’s vests provide a streamlined and balanced way to take your small essentials with you whilst you exercise.