Abu Dhabi athlete still living the Paralympic dream after Tokyo boost

Mike Ballard was paralysed after breaking his back in a rugby match but has refused to let the setback defeat him

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 12, 2020.  
STORY BRIEF: Abu Dhabi man is one step closer to representing US team in Paralympics. 
SUBJECT NAME: Mike Ballard 
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter: Patrick Ryan
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An Abu Dhabi athlete left paralysed from the waist down after a horror rugby accident is edging closer to living his Paralympic dream.

Mike Ballard, 35, has received official notification he has been identified as a possible competitor in the sport of kayaking at this year’s Paralympic Games, which are due to take place in Tokyo during the summer.

He has now been invited to register his application for selection for the Team USA 2020 Paralympic Games delegation.

It marks the latest milestone for the Michigan native who continues to show his determination not to let the injury he suffered define him.

Mr Ballard’s life changed when he was seriously hurt playing for Abu Dhabi Harlequins in Zayed Sports City in 2014.

But rather than admit defeat, he is determined to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way - including converting to a new sport.

“The reality is I have a significant spinal cord injury which is probably never going to change unless there are huge scientific advances and I am going to remain in a chair,” he said.

"I'm in a good place both mentally and physically"

“I am fully embracing that and getting on with my life.

“This is not a Disney happy ending and I am realistic about where I am at but the truth is I’m in a good place both mentally and physically.”

The injury occurred when he found himself at the bottom of a pile-up of players after he had made a tackle in a game against Jebel Ali Dragons.

It was during that moment he had felt his back break.

He has since rebuilt his life to the extent that he now regards himself as the “top guy in my division in the US”.

Mr Ballard is no stranger to the water, having grown up with the sport recreationally from a young age in America.

Since last speaking to The National last year, Mr Ballard has embarked on a gruelling journey to ensure he stayed in contention for the Paralympics.

That involved an appearance at the World Cup in Poland last year where he finished in 13th place.

His rigorous regime saw him having to rise at 4.30am each morning so he could start training at 5am.

However, he has recently fine-tuned his approach to ensure he had every chance of achieving his goal.

“I kind of became disillusioned and realised I was overtraining,” he said.

“I was doing a full session in the gym every morning at 5am before the sun would even come up.

“It was not sustainable and now there is a focus on technique and spending more time on the water instead of going the meathead route.”

Mr Ballard aims to use April’s forthcoming US trials to help bolster his chances of being selected for his home country at the Paralympics.

However, he said the global outbreak of coronavirus had caused uncertainty on whether April’s event would go ahead as scheduled.

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the Tokyo Olympic Games - held in advance of the Paralympics in the same city - would go ahead as planned in July, despite the spread of coronavirus causing many sporting events to be postponed.

The special needs teacher is not limiting his plans to the Tokyo games as he said his main target was the 2024 Paralympics due to take place in Paris.

“Qualifying for Tokyo in 2020 would be great but Paris 2024 is the real target,” he said.

“I know I might seem a little long in the tooth by then because I will be 39 but I was only injured when I was 29.

“They say shoulders have about a decade of competitive paddling and mine had zero wear and tear before then.”

He said his aim was to qualify for the Paralympics but he was not going there to win medals or break any world records, for him the glory would come from showing he could compete at that level.

“For me this is an underdog story,” he said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, March 12, 2020.  
STORY BRIEF: Abu Dhabi man is one step closer to representing US team in Paralympics. 
SUBJECT NAME: Mike Ballard 
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter: Patrick Ryan

“I’m not going there expecting to beat the best in the world, I’m going there because I want to show myself I belong at that level.

“I see it as racing against myself and proving a point to myself.”

Mr Ballard also said being based in Abu Dhabi was a huge advantage in his attempts to reach the Paralympics, despite being thousands of miles away from the country he hoped to represent.

“Being in the UAE is absolutely to my advantage because I can get to the water at the drop of a hat,” he said.

“I always need someone’s help to get in and out of the water but living in a community like Al Zeina means there is always somebody about to help me out.

‘I’m in the best possible spot.”

It was not just on the water that Mr Ballard was making waves as he continues to use the foundation, initially set up to support his rehabilitation, to have a positive impact on the lives of others through the sport of rugby union.

The Mike Ballard Foundation has since helped people across the world, particularly in Madagascar where the organisation donated vital equipment to a rehabilitation centre and provided educational equipment to local schools as well as organising coaching sessions with children living in underprivileged communities.