June 21, 2021

Jaco Van Gass

Paralympic hopeful Jaco Van Gass has trekked to the North Pole with Prince Harry, attempted to summit Mount Everest and cycled across America. But life wasn’t always about extreme adventure. After a modest upbringing in a hardworking family in South Africa Jaco headed to the UK to join the British Army. While serving on his second tour of Afghanistan with the Parachute Regiment he was hit by an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade. He suffered life changing injuries and endured months of operations and rehab. He talks openly about his mental health journey, how his love of cycling saved him and how we don't all have to climb a mountain to find our strength within. This Summer he’s competing in every cycling event at the postponed Tokyo Paralympics and proving that What Doesn't Kill Us really does make us stronger. 
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What Doesn’t Kill Us: The Podcast. An Interview with former paratrooper and Paralympic hopeful Jaco Van Gass


Kaija Larke, Jaco Van Gass

Kaija Larke  00:00

My first guest on the podcast has trekked to the North Pole with Prince Harry, attempted to summit Everest and cycled across America. But life wasn't always about extreme adventure. Jaco van Gass had a modest upbringing with his sister and parents in South Africa, before heading to the UK to join the British Army. While serving on his second tour of Afghanistan, he was hit by an RPG, a rocket propelled grenade. He suffered life changing injuries, and enjoyed months of operations and rehab. This summer, he's competing in every cycling event at the postponed Tokyo Paralympic Games. And I am delighted to be talking to him. Well, Jaco, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast and in finding the time in what must be an absolutely crazy schedule for you, right now. How is all the training going for Tokyo?

Jaco Van Gass  01:22

Yeah, training's going really well, thank you. Yeah, it's as you say, it's very, very busy at the moment. And there's a lot of things to do, especially in my schedule. I'm quite in a unique situation where I'll be riding every single event at the Paralympics, you know, from all the track events, which is three of them, and then two road events. So I've got five events I'm kind of needing to prepare for. So I'm very mindful of not falling into the jack of all trades, master of none, basically. So I'm focusing only on two events, which is the pursuit, the individual pursuit and the road race for the road. And the other events in the middle, funnily enough, that is my very first event and my very last event. So everything in the middle is a bit of - let's go and see what we can do, basically. So yeah, but like I say, we still have to tick boxes, in terms of training for all of them. So yeah, it's very busy.


Kaija Larke  02:25

They're quite different disciplines as well, aren't they?


Jaco Van Gass  02:28

They are very different disciplines. So yeah, like you say, your view, the kind of the power and aerobic output you need for the trap is quite different than, like you say, than what you need for the for the road where it's more stamina, endurance. So yeah, so it's a fine balance I'm having to try and get right, really.


Kaija Larke  02:48

Yeah, I can imagine. And now just stepping back your story to kind of being a young lad growing up in South Africa. Did you ever - could you ever - have imagined that one day, you'd be representing Team GB at the Paralympics?


Jaco Van Gass  03:02

Absolutely no, is the answer. I have always had a passion for cycling. Yes, that I can answer. I've always, always loved being on my bike, you know, from a young kid, my mum would come as well, like, I'll have a horrible day, horrible day at school, and not wanting to do my homework, not wanting to study and my mum would just know, she was like, right, get on your bike for half an hour and be back here. And that would just clear my mind and burn the energy off. And I'll come in, and I'm continuing to do, do what you need to do. But yeah, I've always found the bike as a form of escapism, and love being on it. But to actually be in this position now to, like you say, to go and represent Great Britain in the Paralympic Games was was yeah, this is beyond my dreams.


Kaija Larke  03:51

So sort of back when you were kind of late teens, 20-ish you came over to the UK, didn't you? And that's sort of where your journey started, in a sense, wasn't it? You came over actually to join the British Army. Why did you leave South Africa to come and join the army?


Jaco Van Gass  04:06

It's, again, I grew up outdoors, you know. I had a very privileged, amazing upbringing of being outside all the time. My grandparents had a farm so I spent most of my holidays there. And, you know, shooting, running, rugby, football, cricket, you know, very sporty, very active. But I kind of started realising - you know what? Opportunities like this, it's different, it's rare. And I've always had a passion for the army - actually more the police force. And and I craved this independence and my dad was quite strict. You know, your traditional kind of white male in terms of discipline and starting from the bottom and again, like I say, I worked for him and I had very tiny salary. I remember my first day I walked into his office. He's like - here's a - he handed me a paintbrush. And he's like, this office needs painting. And I'm like, what?! And it's just like, yeah, you're starting with a paintbrush. And you - unless you're working...


Kaija Larke  05:12

You are gonna start right at the bottom, son! Before you work your way up.


Jaco Van Gass  05:16

Yeah, to be honest, I look back at it now, I wouldn't have had it any other way. I'm glad he did it that way. But, what it has made me realise is that I craved independence tremendously after two years, working for him. And, yeah, like I said, I've always had this passion for the outdoors and for the Army or just some, you know, just activity. And then because we're part of the Commonwealth, that enables - well, every Commonwealth country, or country under the Commonwealth to be able to join the British Army. And I looked into that, and I thought, that's something I really want to do. And I kind of pursued that. And then yeah, got a Schengen visa, came over. I landed on a Saturday morning. Gosh, I think it was like June 2006, or something. And literally, the Monday morning I was in a careers office trying to find out what I want to do and where I wanted to go. I knew I wanted to join the infantry, I didn't know which Regiment, whatever it might be. I managed, through that, I found the Parachute Regiment, I managed to pursue that career into the Paras.


Kaija Larke  06:21

And if we sort of fast forward, then a couple of years and take you on to 2009, you're on your second tour in Afghanistan, by that point with the Paras. And that was when you were injured, you were hit by a rocket propelled grenade. What do you remember about that?


Jaco Van Gass  06:35

Yeah, that's right. So it was probably it was the back end of our second tour. So I had a mere two weeks left in theatre, before returning back to the UK. So you know, you can say that's probably one of our, you know, kind of 'cool down', one of our last missions, we were potentially going to go on, and a very successful operation. And it's on the way back, where the helicopters were going to pick us up to fly us back to the camp that we came across a Taliban stronghold that was unknown to us within the area. As you mentioned, within about 45 minutes, intensive firefight, I got hit by the RPG by the rocket propelled grenade. And I remember quite a bit. I remember the blast. And then there's a bit of a gap in between. And then I remember coming back to kind of hearing the guys firing, thinking I need to get back into the firefight. And it's by trying to sit back up and also return fire that I didn't realise the extent of my injuries and the loss of my arm. So I actually remember, you know, my arm being blown off, basically, I tried to apply self help by putting on a tourniquet. I couldn't do that sufficiently. And luckily, one of my teammates, a guy called Rhys crawled over. He saw, after the blast, I wasn't where I was supposed to be, because the blast actually blew me away from my original position. He came crawling over, helped me with the tourniquet. And then he radioed in for the medic, and then I received life-saving medical treatments, you know, amazing job, what these guys do. And again, it's the training we go through, you know, from Rhys actually coming over, and then applying that tourniquet in the correct manner. You know, to then think on his feet - let's get the medic in - and then starting applying some medical treatment. And then I was a bit in and out of consciousness. I can remember actually the helicopters coming in, getting into the helicopter, still in quite a severe firefight. I remember clearly as well, the helicopter having to - the door - and having to  actually neutralise quite a lot of the enemy. So yeah, so a bit like an action movie, to be honest. And it's once on the helicopter that I kind of had a bit of a ease in myself as well going - I'm going home. And it was almost like whether that's dead or alive. You know, I'm safe to a degree, we're going back. And that's when I kind of relaxed and I lost consciousness. And then before I knew it, I think it's six days later, I woke up in hospital out of an induced coma. So yes, a big gap there. On the night, I remember quite a bit.


Kaija Larke  09:19

Yeah, it's amazing sort of vivid memories, isn't it? I didn't expect that you actually remembered quite quite that much. And it's obviously - you've talked about your arm, but actually you suffered a huge number of other injuries as well, didn't you?


Jaco Van Gass  09:31

Well, I think that was the shock really, to be honest, waking up in hospital because it was that fact that - I could - I'd seen it that night. There was already like a click in the brain going, you've been injured and it's been your arms. And then I kind of came out of this induced coma. Again, very confused about where I am my last clear memory was being in that firefight. Now, I wake up in a hospital bed and there is my friends, family, my family's faces, you know, familiar faces that shouldn't be in Afghanistan because at that moment I, in my mind, I was still in Afghanistan. And it took a lot of convincing from from them to go, you're safe. You're back in the UK. And yeah, so suddenly waking up and then going, Okay, I realised about the arm. That's fine, box tick. But what is, you know, what's going on with my leg? Was my leg in a splint? Why have I got a colostomy? I didn't even know what a colostoomy is. I just had this bag on the side of my tummy. Why have I got bandages and, you know, plasters and stuff everywhere else? And that's when the realisation settled in going - OK, well, I've lost a third of muscle tissue on my left upper thigh, I fractured my knee, I fractured my ankles, you know, collapsed left lung and shrapnel wounds to my left side, which ripped my internal organs apart. So here's the reason for the colostomy. I woke up with this horrific scar down, you know, from just underneath my ribs all the way down to my belly button, where they had to like, take all my internal organs out, place them on the table, go through them one by one, picking out the shrapnel, sewing it back up and then putting it back in. So, you know, you think about this. You're like, Okay, well, yeah, recovery is gonna take a lot longer than what I thought in my mind, because in my mind, I was like, I know prosthetics is quite advanced. I'm gonna get something with an arm that can hold a rifle. And you know, within a month, I'll build up a bit of fitness.


Kaija Larke  11:35

I'll be back out there!


Jaco Van Gass  11:36

And I'll be back out there. And literally, that was the process in my mind. I mean, you wake up and you then look down on yourself and you go, it's gonna be Yeah, a lot longer than than expected.


Kaija Larke  11:47

Yeah, so such complex physical injuries. But what were the mental injuries that came with that as well?


Jaco Van Gass  11:56

Yeah, the mental injuries as well, I can say, it's weird how it kind of creeps up on you. Because at that moment in time, you know, I can't say that I suffered. I've had extremely vivid and kind of, vital dreams, violent dreams. But I think that was a combination of obviously the brain sorting out what's going on, combined with the drugs, especially the morphine and stuff, you know, everything's hyper inflated. And waking up going, you know - so convinced that I, again, just being within the fighting scene, and having to ask my family and friends questions to kind of get a better perspective of what I've just dream and what's the truth? What is the difference between a dream and not? But at that moment, you're so surrounded by support, you're just in this unbelievable bubble of love, and, you know, your family's there, your mum is there, my sister's there, and you know - you've got the nurses looking after you, your friends and family constantly coming in and looking after you. I would look at a cup of water and someone would say, Ah! Are you thirsty? And, you know, bring the water over, you know, and the nurses were - amazing treatment. But as the weeks and the days go past, people have to return to their normal lives and the visiting stops, or there's less of them or it's less frequent. And again, you know, a new patient comes in and then all the attention is on them to just survive, and you know, and start healing up. And it's once everyone - like I said - there comes a point where my family had to fly back to South Africa. And you know, my sister had to go back to London for a job and stuff like that. So suddenly you find yourself quite alone. And a lot of time to think. And that's when the mental trauma really settles in. And there was times when I did wonder, you know, why did I survive? Asking questions - why it happened to me? Would I have been better off dead? You know? And you work through them, and I think it's healthy to. I've asked myself questions, I was in a very dark place. But again, there was support around it. And I found the support, mostly from my family. Yes, there was support from the system and from the army, but I just needed to talk to people like, who were much closer to me to figure this out. And with myself as well, I had to kind of - I gave myself two options basically, and one was to give up and one is to crack on with life and not be afraid to ask for help. And I kind of chose the latter and it really did, kind of - it was a stepping stone to everything else that came. And during that recovery pathway, at that point in 2009, 2010 there were a lot of soldiers that were going through that recovery pathway, being injured particularly in Afghanistan. But during your recovery, you then rediscovered sport, if you like. How much did that help you with that mindset change? And that - do you know what? I'm not going to sit here and kind of feel sorry for myself about what's happened, I'm actually going to crack on like you say? Yeah, you're right, sport really, really - I think across the board - sport, it's just that - you know, you can speak to any soldier, anyone that's a veteran that's been injured in some form or way, be that mental or physical, I think would find some resound, kind of therapy through sport and a new life really. And that's exactly what happened to me. It's driven me to, kind of, set myself new goals and new challenges. And basically, this, I think, the biggest thing for me, the switching point for me, was acceptance. And I think that is really, really important. Because for a long while, as I just said, you know, as I explained, you know, I had this vision in my head of, Okay, I'll just put a prosthetic on and I'll be back on the ground. Okay. That's not going to be happening. But I just, the goal was always getting back to Afghanistan, the goal was always been back to being a soldier. And, that was a missing link between my body and my mind, because my body just knew that's not going to happen. But my mind was like, Yeah, but no, but, you know, this is this is this! I can, you know - I'm sure I can have someone else change my magazine for me, and I can...  it was all about what I wanted, really. And then suddenly, I realised, but because it's all - am I, having been in a firefight, having been in a scenario, a second or two seconds is a lifetime in those scenarios. Because if it's going to take me, let's say four more seconds longer to change a magazine, that means the guy next to me on my left or my right, needs to be four more seconds exposed to the enemy, to then cover me. And that's them putting their lives at risk, just because Jaco wanted to come back and play soldiers with one arm. And I realised that is not the right thing to do. So once I accepted what happened to me, it's like someone who's, you know, pushed a fast forward button, because then suddenly that link between my brain and my body was there going, Okay. Your career potentially in the army is done. But you - let's go and see what we can and can't do. It's almost like a new challenge. It's like, can I still do...?


Kaija Larke  17:46

What now?


Jaco Van Gass  17:46

Yeah, can I do some of the activities I used to do, I used to love? Yes or no? And then obviously, by filtering that out, it led to putting on other challenges and other activities. Oh, I've never skied in my life. There's going to learn to ski. I've never done this - climbing, whatever it might be - and then like, to say that learning - that kind of followed on to everything else.


Kaija Larke  18:09

I mean, when you say challenges, Jaco what you actually mean is becoming a first class skier. What you mean is in 2011, two years after you've been injured, being one of the team members for the Walking with the Wounded, first, you know, injured guys, unaided, trekking to the North Pole with Prince Harry! You mean the following year attempting to summit Mount Everest? I mean, you know, these are not the level of challenges that most of us might think to take on under the circumstances.


Jaco Van Gass  18:40

Yeah. I have taken some of this stuff to some very extreme degrees, to be very honest. But the opportunity was there for it, so - and I think it's just my nature as well. I do kind of tend to go, right, I need to, yeah, I need to really push myself. This is a really new challenge. And especially like - and all those things you mentioned, it's stuff I've never done in my life. So I do really throw myself into them. And try to be the best I possibly can in those scenarios. So yeah, but I think it's also important that people need to know that they don't need to go to those extremes, you know, that even if the challenge is by, you know, leaving your sofa and going to the corner shop to buy a pint of milk, if you're finding that a struggle, that is perfectly fine. And overcoming that challenge is as significant as attempting Everest and you know, walking to the North Pole and stuff like that. It's just, we all have different levels of where we see ourselves in the space.


Kaija Larke  19:45

So then you were involved in the first Invictus Games organised by Prince Harry. Was that when cycling came back on the agenda for you?


Jaco Van Gass  19:54

Yeah, exactly that, pretty much so really. Obviously having served in the Army the role we played within the Parachute Regiment at that time as well didn't really involve us to or allow us to do any kind of sport or outdoor activities apart from your normal basic army fitness training kind of stuff, your runs, your tabs and everything else apart from that. And I've always had that passion for cycling so then obviously, yes, the Invictus Games came in. And it was an event I really wanted to partake in. I was highly inspired by the Games in London. And cycling was always, like I said, a passion for me. So then having that motivation to train for that was phenomenal. And it was that kind of - what I think, brought me back into that cycling, back that love for cycling, and then having  then received really good results in both London and then further on in Orlando as well. And that kind of set quite a good foundation for me to kind of go from there, to almost like where we are now.


Kaija Larke  21:04

And you had to almost learn to cycle again in that sort of competitive way, didn't you? Because you don't wear a prosthetic arm in day-to-day, but you were learning to try and balance on your bike initially without one, weren't you?


Jaco Van Gass  21:18

Correct? Yes, I started off using no prosthetics whatsoever. And it's during some training rides - and at this stage, I was still based in Wales. So on little small country lanes, you know, rough roads, cars whizzing past me, all cycling with one arm, having to brake as well. And it's usually raining as well. And so I just then figured out that actually, if I could use and spread the weight between both my shoulders, it will most likely be better, and I'll be more stable on the bike. And then that's when the use of prosthetics on sporting equipment became more relevant for me to be using. But on a day-to-day basis, I still don't use a prosthetic mostly actually, just for cycling and in general.


Kaija Larke  22:06

And then you kept up with the cycling and took on various challenges Didn't you know in 2017 - that's when we first met when you were one of the team of wounded injured and sick personnel doing the Race Across America, the world's toughest cycling endurance race, you know, not taking things easy, again, Jaco! Going coast to coast, less than a week, as part of a team. That was really tough for so many reasons. It was such an epic challenge. What did you learn from that, in terms of your training, your cycling, your abilities, that you're taking into this summer's games?


Jaco Van Gass  22:45

Yeah, like you say, it was really a very tough race. And I'm very glad, very happy to have been part of that team. And again, just phenomenal effort from all the teammates, you know, for what we've done and what we've achieved on that event. And, you know, the Race Across America really opened my eyes, again, in terms of both the - how far we as individuals and athletes can actually push ourselves mentally and physically. And, you know, going through a whole rotation of sleep deprivation, you know, from riding in something like 37-38 degrees plus, and then as you go further across, into more headwinds, into more torrential rain areas and everything, but literally getting yourself out on the bike, pushing forward, knowing why you're doing it. And it really opened my eyes again, that - if you had that goal, and the end goal was to get to the other side of America in a certain amount of time - that you are willing to do whatever it takes to do that. So that's the reason why I've always done that as well actually within my - mostly actually since getting injured - is having a purpose for why I'm doing something, so, having that end goal, whether that was to - the end goal to get out of my wheelchair was to walk again so everything I needed to do to get out of the wheelchair to walk again, from then it was like, right, I've achieved that. Look back on it, actually give yourself a pat on the back for having done that. So what's the next goal? Okay, I can walk again. So let's get back to running. Today I set myself a target for a half marathon. And then that's how it constantly went, and I think the Race Across America just really kind of exposed that again and really, kind of, lightened that up, that it's so important if you have that goal you will go through - ride through - you know 30 degree heat, plus! And whatever situation there is.


Kaija Larke  24:39

There was every extreme, wasn't there? Because you were crossing mountain ranges, you had the long, straight flats of Kansas, you had Arizona, you had, you know, really high temperatures and dry weather, really cold, damp weather. I mean it was everything that could have been thrown at you in that week, wasn't it?


Jaco Van Gass  24:56

I think the only thing we missed that week literally, probably, was snow. Everything else in between...


Kaija Larke  25:02

Yeah, we saw snow, saw snow on some of the mountain tops. But yeah, didn't actually ride through it!


Jaco Van Gass  25:07

Yeah we saw snow, but like I say, I think, apart from that, that was the only thing that was actually missing. But yeah, like you say, so having that end goal to try your absolute best to achieve that goal, to go in, break that record or set a new faster time or whatever it might be. And it's very similar to my training now, you know, there's days that I really don't want to get on the bike, there's days where my body is so tired. And I do look out the window and it is raining and it's coming in sideways. But I have to think about the end goal of winning gold in Tokyo. That's the only reason and that kind of drags me out of the house and onto my bike. And it's those times in those situations where that will pay off. You know, like one day later on in August. Yeah.


Kaija Larke  25:55

Yeah. And was it really then, post the Race Across America, I mean, you'd already been involved with Team GB prior to that, in the run-up to the Rio Games, but was it really post the Race Across America where you then went, right, sights set on Team GB next Olympics, next Paralympic Games, I'm going for it?


Jaco Van Gass  26:15

You know what? No, actually. The Race Across America was actually one of those where I wanted to do more, but I wanted to go and do other extreme challenges like that. And I've actually gone off to do that. I've then gone off to ride through Patagonia, you know, 1000 kilometres bikepacking. I've gone and done a six-day stage race in South Africa, a mountain bike race with another good friend of mine, Steve Croxford. So almost the Race Across America kind of lightened that area that I want to do more of up quite a bit. But what it has done, and all these other challenges, is - usually they're either quite early in the year, or pretty late in the year. So nothing really in between, which is perfect, because I go on a challenge and I come back extremely fit, and then I go into the race season. And then I get really good results. And then I go off and I represent Great Britain as an independent rider, I get good results, I actually make the qualifying criteria to then go to something like the World Championships, which I then went off to, and then I come back from there getting good results. But again, winning medals. So either, you know, becoming a world champion, or you know, winning either a first, second or third. And it's then when the realisation of Tokyo - potentially going to Tokyo - kind of came in, but I was still kind of quite focused on just doing my own thing and racing, doing what I love. And then going off racing at the highest level, and then coming back and do my own thing. And I love that pattern. And I followed that pattern for probably about three years. But it's not until actually really late. Yeah, late 2019 when again, I came back from another expedition, actually the Cape Epic Mountain Bike Race, when I then went off to win - to get second - in the Road World Championships. So that was a really good platform for me to do start in, because we're only - we were about a year out then from Tokyo, and then the cog started turning. I then kept training and then I went on to the track, on to the velodrome, and again I made all the qualifications to then go and represent Great Britain as an independent rider in Canada.


Kaija Larke  28:42

You're still independent at this point? You haven't got the backing, all of that nutritional support, physio support, training support of Team GB? You're still doing it independently at this point?


Jaco Van Gass  28:51

All independently, all my own nutrition, my own funding, having to buy my own tickets and, you know, my own bikes and equipment everything so totally independent. And then we went off to, in January - because usually the Track World Championships is usually held in March but because of a Paralympic year, they moved it closer to January in 2020 and then I went off and I came back from Canada a three-time world champion having won three races, and gosh, I came back with a tonne of medals! Three-time world champion and two silver, yeah, two silver medals as well. So in the individual pursuit and in the team sprint, so that was really like the only point where we went, okay Tokyo really looks like it could be on the cards. British Cycling then talked to me and say listen to this performance, you will be highly likely to go and would you want to come back onto the programme? And that's when I came, stepped back onto the programme to relieve some of the pressure. As I said, as an independent, I've got to find funding, I've got to look out for myself constantly, you know, it's all sort of stuff off the bike. So, you know, your massages, your physiotherapy, you know, trying to stay injury-free, stuff like that. So by taking that pressure off myself, to then jump onto the team, where I would get that support just made sense. So yeah, so since basically, kind of January 2020, I was back on the GB Team. And the way you talk about it, I mean, it sounds like you'd just really fallen back in love with cycling? I definitely have exactly that. And what I love about it is the fact that I'm riding multiple disciplines. I'm getting on any bike that I like, and the most important thing is: I'm enjoying it. And I think that was the most - that is still, for me - the most important thing is the enjoyment I really get out of cycling, and as long as I can keep that fire burning, then I think the results will come from that. And it's when I lose that, or that flame dampens down a little bit, that's when it gets hard. And suddenly you start asking yourself various questions. So yeah, so keeping that flame alive and the enjoyability - with it comes results.


Kaija Larke  31:08

So you've got your place within the Team GB squad. You're doing all the training, you're, you know, mind focused, ready for Tokyo 2020. Then there's a global pandemic! And everything kind of pauses. And obviously, there was, you know, it wasn't a surprise when the games were postponed. You know, they'd been a lot of talk about it in the run-up. What was that like? You've got your mind really focused, your training's on point. And then suddenly, the games are postponed. And that's it, it's kind of been snatched from you again.


Jaco Van Gass  31:42

Yeah, really hard, as you say. From this point on, I think it was nearly eight years of kind of having that dream to go to Rio, and then all my focus, all my attention towards that, then not making it, then making that decision to relieve the programme, to then do my own thing for another couple of years. And then yes, to then get to a point where I'm like, wow, I stand - you know, I'm in such a better place than the previous cycle. And yes, so excited to potentially go. And then the pandemic came in, it's another year on and you're like, God, how much do I need to do to - you know, what do I need to do, just to get on a plane and become a Paralympian? So yeah, so it was quite a bitter pill to swallow. I was in really good shape, I was very, very, very focused on what I needed to do, to go and perform to the best of my ability. And I think it was about probably a week or even 10 days after the announcement was made. And it was definitely that the games was not going to happen in 2020, that I was still - it didn't sink in. I was still training very hard. I was still following my training plan to the tee. And I was breaking myself. And it's about, like I say, Day 10 where it's like, why am I doing this? I didn't, and suddenly, the penny dropped, going - I still - from that moment on, we still have 18 months to the next games. So it was a very long time. So yeah, it was then just a matter of reset, and kind of look at where we are. Actually take a little bit of time off and then we're back from that date all the way back to go, Okay, well, how do we again, perform on, you know, August 28th?


Kaija Larke  33:28

That must be so hard to - you've suddenly - you've got weeks or months, to when you think you need to be at peak fitness and then you've suddenly got 18 months. Just to sidetrack for a moment, and I just want to ask you a little bit about the classifications, because a lot of people don't understand the classifications for the Paralympics, do they? Can you just explain that really briefly for me?


Jaco Van Gass  33:46

It is a difficult one to explain sometimes for people to understand. And you know, we totally understand that it's, it's not always all that clear. And so it's like anything, so there's different categories. So there's handbikes, there's trikes, and then there's tandems, and then there's uprights, and they all have different levels within their category. So the handbikes are H-1 or H-2. Blind - B is for blind - so that's the tandem classifications. So I'm in a C classification. So I'm a C-3 rider. So again, we have five levels, so a C-1 to a C-5, and a C-1 being the most impaired, the most injured. And that will be your severely cerebral palsy, kind of athletes and multiple injuries as well. And C-2 class is probably just a little bit lighter cerebral palsy. And then from your C-3 classes,  which I'm in, there's a lot of more, kind of, again - the number of injuries. It's usually the guys who have multiple injuries, like myself, with an arm and a leg and various other smaller injuries on top of that, and then there might be someone with a different impairment and limb missing. And then you go to your, kind of, high standard classifications, where it's a C-4 and a C-5. So C-4 categories are usually lower limbs, it's if you've lost a leg below the knee, or you've got a, you know, something wrong with your ankle or whatever it might be. And then your C-5's is usually, the majority of them is your upper body classifications. So only one arm missing or something with a tricep or something like that. But these are your higher you know, these guys are pretty much able-bodied to a degree - very, very close to a very high standard of cycling. So sometimes you will actually see a rider and you, you can't physically see an impairment on him. So yeah, because, like you say, it's something actually so minor, but it's still classifiable, to be able to ride within the Paralympic or within a Paracycling environment.


Kaija Larke  36:04

It's quite quite complex to understand, isn't it? And normally in the run-up to a games, you would be all over the world. You'd be racing, competing all the time as part of your training. But obviously, because of the pandemic, you know, lots of events haven't been happening, have they? So that must have been really difficult?


Jaco Van Gass  36:21

It's very frustrating. Because again, you you look at the calendar, we should have really been racing a great deal more. And racing is important because it - you build certain skills when you're racing, sitting in a big bunch next to each other. And those skills fade away the less you do it. So it's good to do that. But yes, still having had really good results, it does show that the form is still there. The training I've been doing is you know, it's working. It's coming in. But I'm very mindful for me, all my focus is for that one day that individual pursuit. I think it's 28th of August, you know, that I'm focused on, so yes, I'm still getting results now. But even if I didn't, I won't be too bothered about it, because it's, it's a slow bowl to make sure that we peak at that very, that one day - or during that week of the Paralympic Games. So it's making sure that you're, you're happy with, you know where you are.


Kaija Larke  37:25

I mean, it's sort of crazy for the rest of us to think about how you - how do you manage that? How do you focus it so, like you say, you're at your absolute peak? Your fitness is there, your mindset is there, everything is absolutely at its best on that one day, that's still a few months in advance. How do you stay focused? Do you have any kind of rituals? What do you have to do? How do you keep your mind where it needs to be?


Jaco Van Gass  37:48

Yeah, it's, it's a lot harder than what people probably think it potentially is. And it's like to say it's staying motivated, staying, you know, passionate about it all. And I think for me, I think I mentioned it earlier, is enjoyment, I need to enjoy what I'm doing. And I know there's days where I'm going to have to get on that bike. And I'm probably going to hate every second of it, of the whole three, four hours of it. Because it's such a certain exercise or effort that I need to do. And, but it's also knowing that I know why I'm doing that. And then, like I say and then to have other days to then really go and enjoy my writing, whether it's on a specific bike or a specific event or whatever it might be. But I think for me, it's as long as I have that, that joy, the enjoyment of it and the passion for it, then actually doing it over and over and over again, isn't such a big chore for me. So yeah, I think that's the most important thing. The last time I went through this process, I really didn't enjoy it, I thought - I was so focused actually on cycling, that everything else in my life gave way. Where this time, I'm very aware of that, that, you know, I can still go and do something with my fiancee. I don't just have to ride my bike and then sit on a couch to recover. And that's all, you know. There's a life outside of cycling. I think that's really important, that I need to have a balance between the preparations and normal life as well. And I think that's really the key that I have now, that I've got a good balance with.


Kaija Larke  39:24

Yeah. And I have to ask, do you think you would have achieved half of the things that you have done, had you not been injured?


Jaco Van Gass  39:34

Honest answer No. If it wasn't for my injury, I would not have had the opportunities to go off to do these amazing challenges and to meet the amazing people I've done, that I've met and the friends I've made along the way. And actually some of the inspirational people that I've also you know - that I take inspiration from - came across my path due to the injury. So I really don't regret getting injured. And, like I said, I'm actually quite grateful for the path it has actually taken me on to.


Kaija Larke  40:09

And what would be your little nugget of advice for anybody who has maybe more recently experienced life-changing injuries or a life-changing event, and can't maybe quite see the path beyond where they are now?


Jaco Van Gass  40:25

It's a good question. And there's so many different ways to put it. But I think there's two things I want to say. So my mum always said, and I hated it when she did say it, and she was always right, that, you know, something happens for a reason, everything happens for a reason. And at that very moment in time when it happens - because no matter how bad, you know, even getting blown up and losing an arm, you can't think of worse scenarios. You think, why would this happen to me, but like, say, I'm sitting here now going, if that didn't happen to me, I would not be here today on the way, you know, to Tokyo. And it's because of that, and everything along the way. So that's just a little more - just advice. In terms of a nugget of - if something that - if something came over to you in your life that you're struggling to deal with is that, you know, there's always light at the end of the tunnel. And I think I would say, my biggest advice is: reach out. Reach out to the people around you, the people closest to you. Don't be afraid of asking for help. It's so important to reach out and ask for help. And don't think that you should do everything on your own. We're not here on this earth to be alone, you know, we're here to help and support each other. So there is help out there, which in whichever way it is, and the scenario you're in. But don't be afraid to ask for help and don't think you need to deal with everything on your own.


Kaija Larke  41:59

Really good advice there. And obviously, the wisdom of your mum, still riding through there. So obviously the focus very much now is on the summer, is on Tokyo, is everything that will happen in that week in August. But beyond that, what does the future hold? Do you have eyes on another prize beyond that? Or is it just - is the mindset - is the focus there very much just on Tokyo right now?


Jaco Van Gass  42:21

You know what? I usually will have something beyond that. And I think I've been advised as well by other people that have been to events like these or games where they're like, it's actually very important to have something afterwards because it's that coming down from such a high, and such a hype and stuff like that, it's good to have something to follow up on beyond whether it's another bike ride or whatever it might be. But, in terms of actual activity, I'm not sure no. Basically, there's no - there's a lot of stuff I have in my mind. I've not put something to paper or actually actioned something to actually go, I'm riding this or I'm taking on this challenge. And there is a little bit of - actually just I would enjoy some downtime. We have, we had to postpone our wedding this year as well, in April. Sorry, last year. And so that's now postponed till next year. So actually, I think that's the one thing I really look forward to, to actually have that amazing day, spend a day with friends and family and with my wife. So, that's one and obviously with current situations, it's so uncertain, and if you can just get that out of the way that will be amazing, so yeah.


Kaija Larke  43:44

Well, Jaco, the absolute very, very best of luck in Tokyo. 28th of August, did you say was your first race?


Jaco Van Gass  43:51

Yes, around there. Yeah, it's 26th or 28th. It's around that back end of August.


Kaija Larke  43:57

But plenty of opportunities to watch you on the TV to cheer you on, over your various different events.


Jaco Van Gass  44:05

Exactly, yeah, I'll be three days going straight. So three days in a row, two days off, and then another two days in a row. So yeah, very busy schedule coming up so plenty to come.


Kaija Larke  44:15

Absolutely crazy. Well, the best of luck with what's left of your training programme in the run-up to flying out to Tokyo. And yeah, we will absolutely be cheering you on. Thank you so much for talking to me today. And for your time. I really appreciate it.


Jaco Van Gass  44:31

It's a pleasure.