Former professional rugby player Ed Jackson’s life changed forever when he dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool and suffered severe spinal cord damage one fateful day in April 2017.
Jackson’s accident left him with only very limited movement in his right arm and the scale of the challenge in front of him was so big that experts warned he may never walk again, never mind continue to play rugby for a living.
Today, he is an adventurer, charity founder, broadcaster, speaker, author, brand ambassador and mentor, driven by a desire to encourage others to never let adversity stop them from achieving their goals.
A number eight with hometown club Bath, Doncaster, London Welsh, Wasps and the Dragons, Jackson exudes positivity but admits to dark times as he battled to defy medical opinion and regain his independence.
Nights were the worst as he lay prostrate in his hospital bed contemplating all the things that he once took for granted as a young healthy and athletic man but was now unable to do.
“It’s unsurprising when you have a life-changing incident like that and there is a lot of uncertainty and you’re told you’re never going to walk again, it is going to hit you hard,” said Jackson, a pitchside reporter for Channel 4 in the Heineken Champions Cup.
“I have always been a relatively positive person, even before the accident, and also I wouldn’t stand here today and say that I have suffered from serious mental issues because I have known people who have. But I have been through depressive bouts and I understand what it feels like to not want to be here anymore.
“When you’re left with your own thoughts at night, naturally your brain goes down those paths. I was lucky I was able to pull myself out of those and other people helped me pull myself out of them, but it gave me a completely different level of respect for how hard it is for people who have to deal with that on a day-to-day basis, and how easy it is for even a positive person to end up in a spiral, like that; I felt it for sure.
“So part of my process was not feeling guilty for feeling like that. Being a rugby player you are brought up to show no weakness, and being a young bloke and feeling weak and vulnerable, you almost beat yourself up for feeling like that. It was understanding that it’s okay to feel like that, to feel like life is sometimes working against you.
“I have become more emotional since my accident because I have allowed myself to, and I have higher highs and probably lower lows, but I don’t have as many lows and I can rationalise them quicker and have developed ways to pull myself out of feeling like that because I have more perspective on things.
“It’s not like I don’t ever feel like that, because I do, but I am just better at not feeling like that for a long time.”
Excited for our Wellness Day down in Cornwall this spring! We will be walking 9 miles from Port Isaac - Polzeath that day. Come and join for delicious food & drink, Q&A with special guests & much more! #wellness #cornwall #wellbeing https://t.co/UIiARmPcsZ pic.twitter.com/xZbrvIsKJe— Lois Jackson (@loisjackson91) March 18, 2021
Showing sheer grit and determination, together with an amazing support network around him and extensive rehab, Jackson refused to let the situation get the better of him and came through the other side.
After his 10-year playing career abruptly came to an end, he discovered a new purpose in life – helping others, through fundraising and as an inspirational figure who knows no boundaries.
Within a year, Jackson went from flickers of movement in his toes to pushing his body to its limit, scaling mountains, figuratively at first but then actual mountains, including Mount Everest, despite the difficulties he still has to overcome.
Not even the coronavirus could stop Jackson, who used the 16-step staircase in his parents’ home in Bath to climb the equivalent distance that it would take to scale the Himalayan landmark during lockdown – a total of 2,783 trips.
Now, as co-founder of the charity Millimetres to Mountains with his wife Lois and ex-England international Olly Barkley, Jackson is providing eight hand-picked individuals going through tough times themselves with the chance to experience the same exhilaration he’s experienced in pushing himself to his limits.
Expeditions to the Icelandic wasteland, culminating in climbing an active volcano, Nepal and the Alps and a Festival of Wellbeing in Cornwall are all booked in for what promises to be a busy 2021, COVID permitting.
“For me, being outdoors, being up mountains, achieving things and challenging myself and raising money for charity and inspiring other people was a great way to find some purpose again,” said the 32-year-old Bathonian.
“So, instead of raising money for people back home, I thought the real power was actually in doing the trips. And that’s what I set up Millimetres to Mountains for – to help people in a transition and a sticky spot in life, who are struggling with their mental health and are looking for a path forward, and giving them the same opportunities I had to see if they can get the same rewards.”
In addition to the expeditions, Millimetres to Mountains hopes to bring about positive change in the people involved through ongoing support.
“I appreciate it wasn’t just me climbing mountains that helped me get where I am today, it was a lot more than that in terms of the support network from family and friends and RESTART (The Rugby Players’ Association charity) … all these different people, who helped get me back on my feet,” the former Millfield schoolboy pointed out.
“We want to add that on as well, so we will provide that support where we can, fund life coaching and retraining, and all those kind of things, for one to three years to try and turn people’s lives around.”
Millimetres to Mountains relies on the generosity of its trustees and charitable donations to fund its projects.
“Taking someone to Nepal is £6,000 and then you’ve got the aftercare programme, and you’re looking at 10,000 per beneficiary if they take up the full programme,” Jackson explained.
“But we’ve got an amazing group of trustees so we’ve actually been able to take everyone away, within reason, who applied.”
In addition to the expeditions and the aftercare programme, Millimetres to Mountains supports the Neverest Foundation, which was set up to provide better orthopaedic care in the Nepalese cities of Kathmandu and Chitwan.
“They (the Foundation) do a very good job at raising money for new wards and facilities because that is the glamourous stuff that businesses want to get involved with, by having their name above a ward and that kind of thing. But they have to find the money for things like the laundry costs and heating costs, the less glamorous things that keep the Foundation going year-on-year, and we’re going to help them with that.”
‘Conquering your Everest’ can mean many things to many people, and Jackson has achieved his goals several times over, and continues to do so, with his next target to become the first quadriplegic to climb Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps.
“As a recovering quadriplegic, I am a living example that no matter how impossible it seems, you can move forward into a brighter future. I’m so excited to see what can be achieved as people realise that they can, and should, dream big.”
That said, it is the small gains he says he derives the most pleasure from.
“I interviewed Billy Monger last week, the racing driver, and he’s just raised £3 million for Comic Relief, and we were chatting about that,” Jackson revealed.
“Yes, he is doing all these challenges, but really the highs, when you lose the ability to look after yourself, come from the day-to-day stuff.
“For him, making his own breakfast and getting in a car with hand controls, that’s what makes him happy. For me, it’s being able to feed myself, whereas before it would have taken a lot more than that to make me happy.
“My bar to happiness is a lot lower, and the day-to-day things that I never really noticed before, now I do.”