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Army veteran paralysed without warning aims for third world record at London Marathon

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Stephen Salmon, a senior marketing executive and disability inclusion specialist, developed a neurological infection causing spastic paraplegia – a rare genetic disorder that causes paralysis in the legs – in 2008, years into his Army career.

The 40-year-old, who lives in Billericay, with his wife of 16 years, Sarah, 40, and their 10-year-old daughter Isabella, had to leave the Army in 2009 and spent years relearning how to do basic tasks and feeling like he had lost his purpose and identity.

However, after volunteering for children’s wheelchair charity Whizz Kidz he felt more like himself and decided to compete in the 2020 London Marathon to raise money for them – but, due to the pandemic, he had to complete it remotely.

Echo: Competing - Stephen set the world record at the 2021 and 2022 London MarathonsCompeting – Stephen set the world record at the 2021 and 2022 London Marathons (Image: TCS London Marathon/PA Real Life)

Stephen went on to set the world record for the fastest marathon in a non-sports wheelchair in the 2021 and 2022 London Marathons, finishing in three hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds and in two hours, 56 minutes and seven seconds respectively.

But, in December 2022, he contracted sepsis and had to withdraw from the 2023 marathon, while in April 2023 he developed a bladder and kidney infection, and his vocal cords became paralysed due to a complication.

Now, Stephen is training to take part in this year’s marathon and is hoping to beat his previous record and to raise even more money – to date, he has raised £15,000 for Whizz Kidz.

Echo: Fundraiser - Stephen Salmon volunteers for Whizz KidsFundraiser – Stephen Salmon volunteers for Whizz Kids (Image: Collect / PA Real Life)

Stephen told PA Real Life: “It made me realise that becoming a wheelchair user is not a positive experience but it doesn’t always have to be negative – supporting other wheelchair users has been a way of redefining what it means to be a wheelchair user taking my experience to help others.

“Before, I probably took things for granted but it has really put everything into perspective.”

In 2003, Stephen joined the Army serving as a royal engineer, but after serving for six-and-a-half years, his career was sadly cut short.

Echo: Support - Stephen Salmon with daughter IsabellaSupport – Stephen Salmon with daughter Isabella (Image: Collect/PA Real Life)

With no warning Stephen suddenly developed a neurological infection causing spastic paraplegia, making him paralysed from the waist down, and had to leave the Army.

 said: “The first signs were sensory and movement changes and then my condition deteriorated quickly.

“During treatment I was told I would not walk again and made aware of the associated complications – this was my rock-bottom moment.

“The life I had planned was over and at that moment I didn’t believe that life as a wheelchair user was one I wanted to live.

It takes time to build your confidence again

“There’s no-one to blame for it and there weren’t any particular signs really – one of the things you learn from going through something like this is how tough we are as a species, yet so fragile at the same time.

“I was just unlucky.

“You go from having an identity and a sense of purpose, like I did as a soldier, to that being gone and I found that hard.

“It takes time to build your confidence again, as a disabled person finding your place.”

Echo: Stephen Salmon is aiming for a third world record at this year's marathonStephen Salmon is aiming for a third world record at this year’s marathon (Image: Collect/PA Real Life)

Stephen had to relearn how to do tasks such as washing himself and preparing food.

He said: “It was so frustrating in the beginning and I never thought I’d be being taught how to do basic things.

“My wife and family were so supportive though and really helped.

“It took a lot of adjusting to civilisation and rehabilitation.”

After recovery, Stephen spent some time as a stay-at-home dad to his daughter, Isabella.

But, when she started school, he began to “find a new identity” through volunteering for Whizz Kidz and became an ambassador for Help for Heroes.

Echo: Determined - Stephen Salmon takes part in the marathon in his everyday wheelchairDetermined – Stephen Salmon takes part in the marathon in his everyday wheelchair (Image: TCS London Marathon/PA Real Life)

In 2019, he decided to take part in the 2020 London Marathon in his everyday wheelchair to raise money for Whizz Kidz.

Amazingly, Stephen broke a Guinness World Record in 2021 – he completed the 42.195 km race in three hours, 18 minutes and 15 seconds.

But he did not stop there – in 2022, he finished in two hours, 56 minutes and seven seconds, breaking the record again.

He beamed: “It was amazing – my daughter saw me in the Guinness World Record book!

“It’s all for Whizz Kids – they’re the reason I’m doing it.”

Stephen hoped to compete in the marathon the following year but, in December 2022, he contracted sepsis so had to withdraw.

In April 2023, he had a bladder and kidney infection, and his vocal cords became paralysed due to a complication – Stephen lost his speech completely and had to have speech therapy for six months to slowly learn how to talk again.

“Again, it was frustrating and I had to practise how to talk, I felt like I was taking a step backwards really,” he said.

At the time, he and his daughter had recently taken a course in British Sign Language, so he managed to communicate using that in public, with his daughter acting as a translator to “fill in the blanks”.

Stephen explained: “It can be very difficult – I notice that when I am talking, people lose interest quite quickly or they just hit a barrier.

“When I talk, it’s very quiet, so it means I can’t go shopping or in busy places – no-one can hear or understand me.”

Over time, his speech has improved, and he is now training for this year’s London Marathon, taking place on April 21 2024.

“I go to the gym about three times a week and I go swimming on the weekend, then a long ‘wheel’ for about 20 miles,” he said.

“I think a big part of my training is mental and it took me a while to realise that I could do it.”

On how he feels about his return to the London Marathon, he said: “I’m very excited but it will be hard this year because I won’t be able to cheer and engage with the rest of the crowd, but I’m sure everyone else will be cheering, and my family will encourage me.

“I’m just so pleased that I’ll be able to take part and fingers crossed for another record, but this is all for Whizz Kidz.”

To donate to Stephen’s fundraiser, visit: justgiving.com/fundraising/stephen-salmon-london-marathon-2023-own-place.

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