Words: Tim Heming
Joe Townsend lost his legs - and almost his life - to an Improvised Explosive Device in Afghanistan in 2008. You’ll read that in every interview about the burly former Royal Marine Commando because journalists love a good backstory when it comes to Paralympic sport...
“... and if one more journo asks me to take them through what happened that day, I might revert to some specialist skills from my previous employer,” Townsend quips (I hope). “Unfortunately, everyone loves a sob story and parasport is rife. One day people might look at me as an athlete first but I’m not holding my breath.”
That day might come sooner than the 30-year-old from Eastbourne thinks. Because at some point the sport becomes too good to ignore, as was evidenced in dramatic fashion on Australia’s Gold Coast in April, where Townsend became paratriathlon’s first Commonwealth champion.
Tattooed, chiselled and retaining a military-issue buzz cut, Townsend cuts an imposing presence off course. On it he is a predator as he improves through the disciplines of swim, handcycle and then racing chair to hunt down the opposition - the whooping of his spinning disc wheels being an ominous indicator of his approach.
Gold Coast was special for a number of reasons. It was Townsend’s first major title, he shared the glory with England team-mate and women’s champion Jade Jones-Hall, and he finally got the better of home hope and five-time world champion Bill Chaffey - aided by the Aussie overcooking a corner and smashing into a barrier, leaving his quest for glory like his handcycle. In tatters.
“It was the first time I had gone into a race expecting to win,” Townsend explains. “I was taking around 20 seconds per lap out of Bill on the bike, and when he saw the gap closing he probably panicked a little and tried pushing the corner too hard which resulted in his crash. That’s when I knew the race was mine.”
Paratriathlon was also embedded in the main Commonwealth programme alongside the able-bodied individual and mixed relay events, and showcased to a wider audience on mainstream television (the Rio Paralympics, regrettably, was not).
“It all helped with people viewing us as athletes rather than disabled people who play sport,” Townsend adds. “Maybe I am biased, but Gold Coast you were amazing!”
It also represented a welcome improvement for Townsend from Rio in 2016, where paratri made its Paralympic debut. While there were four medals for Team GB, including gold for Andy Lewis in the PT2 category, Townsend finished sixth in the men’s wheelchair class (PT1).
“I went into the event in podium form but had a shocker, although I gave it everything I had and getting a ride on the stretcher to the medical tent was testament to my head and heart not singing from the same song sheet as my body.”
On top of the podium - and over 5mins up the road that day - was Jetze Plat, and if Townsend can get anywhere near the flying Dutchman by the time we reach Tokyo 2020, it’ll be some feat.
“The man is an absolute beast. It’s great sitting on the podium with him and looking like it’s take your child to work day. Best paratriathlete in the world? Easily. The question should be whether he’s simply the best athlete in parasport.”
Saluting the calibre of the opposition underscores how far paratri has come. It’s only been a decade since Britain held its first national championship and it wasn’t funded fully by UK Sport until 2013. Six classes were accepted for Rio, and two more will be added for Tokyo. Although the divisions have not been stipulated yet, it would be a major shock if the men’s wheelchair class was omitted.
While sprint distance racing takes full focus until then - all major short course paratriathlon is competed over a 750m swim, 20km bike and 5km run - it is not the only distance Townsend has tackled. Ironman, what else, was his first-ever triathlon. Race destination: Bolton, 2011.
“I took it on to see what I was made of,” he recalls. “From that point on I knew if I wanted something, and was willing to work for it, I would achieve it. Crossing that finishing line is still one of the best feelings of my life, so I owe a lot to that event, but more importantly to the amazing rehabilitation staff that planted the idea and got me there. I am eternally grateful.
“I initially used triathlon as a powerful rehabilitation tool. The training and competition has kept me focused physically and mentally, and given me goals and a purpose. It’s addictive. I relish every opportunity I get to put on my GB tri-suit and fly the flag for my country.”
Townsend has also taken part in Race Across America (RAAM) and won four titles on the athletics track at 2014’s inaugural Invictus Games in London, the sporting competition for wounded military personnel.
“It was great to pick up some medals, but it wasn’t about the racing for me. Watching lads that I’d seen during their worst days in rehabilitation crossing the finish line with the same feelings of accomplishment as I had in Bolton was extremely special.
“It’s the reason I haven’t competed in the Invictus Games since. As a professional athlete I could win races, but I’d rather another individual get on that podium and potentially fall in love with the sport and it change their life.”
It does, inevitably, lead us back to what brought Townsend here in the first place, treading on that mine in Helmand Province a decade ago.
“What I experienced and had to pull through after essentially scattering my body over a large area has given me the mental and physical robustness to push myself to breaking point. Part of it is the military attitude, but also always knowing that I have been in worse pain.
As for the future? “It’s full steam ahead to Tokyo and planning to be on the podium this time. After that we’ll see. I’m looking to dabble in some other sports if I get time, but triathlon will always be my priority. It’s a sport I love and all the time I can fly the flag for Great Britain, I will.”