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Ironman triathlete, 61, on the miracle that changed his life

After back surgery 20 years ago, sports-mad Paul Hickman was told he might never walk again. The pain was so bad he tried to kill himself ...

After back surgery 20 years ago, sports-mad Paul Hickman was told he might never walk again. Now 61 and a triathlete, he’s preparing for four Ironman challenges in 2014. It’s something of a miracle, he tells SHARON BARNARD

What impact did your back injury have on you – mentally as well as physically?

It almost destroyed me. I was in so much pain for six years that 20 painkillers a day had no effect. I visited doctors, tried every form of alternative medicine, including seeing a faith healer who made me feel ill. I tried to commit suicide just to get away from the pain.

You were invited to a Christian dinner that was to change your life. Why did you go?

I thought Christianity was for weak-minded people who needed a crutch to lean on. I went because I was in great pain and emotionally drained. It was a free dinner and I wanted to take the mickey out of the hosts.

So what happened?

After Bob Maine, the speaker, shared his testimony he invited people who were ill to go up for prayer. He prayed and some people fell on the floor, which is when I thought it was definitely time to go!

My host, ex-Portsmouth FC player Mick Mellows, encouraged me to go up for prayer as he could see I was in pain.

After declining three times, I gave in and thought at least I could then go on home and take some painkillers. The speaker asked me a couple of questions and the next thing I knew I was on the floor. No-one had touched me. I felt an amazing sense of peace and love.

Eventually I was helped up. Bob told me that God had told him to tell me to do something I could not do. For the first time in eight years I touched my toes. It was quite remarkable and I was in no pain.

Why did you decide to compete in triathlons?

After my 50th birthday I accepted I was unfit, so I started walking and then jogging bigger distances. I entered the London Olympic-distance Triathlon that year. I was sure with training I could do it, which I did, and got hooked on the sport.

You’ve now completed three Ironman Challenges. What’s involved?

The Ironman is an international competition held in different cities throughout the world. It is a 3.8k open water swim, a 180k bike ride and then a marathon, all of which has to be completed in under the cut-off limit for the race, usually 16 or 17 hours, depending on the course. My best time is 14 hours 20 minutes.

What went through your mind when you had another health scare prior to the 2011 France Ironman Challenge?

I was totally devastated. I had not finished the France race in 2006 due to mistakes with my nutrition. I then had knee operations in 2007 and 2008 and a steroid injection in my knee in 2009. Then to be told by a consultant that they believed I had had a mini stroke and a heart condition completely destroyed me.

I believed they were wrong, but they stopped me driving and competing. I was cleared 18 months later after scans and tests, when the fourth specialist apologised and said their diagnosis was probably wrong!

How does your Christian faith help you deal with the lows of the sporting life such as disappointment and injury?

My faith is central to everything I do. I have had so many setbacks and disappointments in my life, I know that is when I am closest to God. There is usually nowhere else to go, which in itself is reassuring.

You are now a qualified sports therapist, helping other athletes back to fitness and preparing them for events as a mentor as well. How good are you at listening to your own advice?

Quite frankly, rubbish! I am usually far too tired to follow my own advice.

What are you training for at the moment?

I have decided to really go for it in 2014 when I am 62 and enter four Ironman Challenges – if I can raise corporate sponsorship. My goal will be to complete the courses.

I believe the greater the test, the greater the testimony, and hopefully this will inspire others to have a go at something they have always wanted to do.

Paul will also be raising money for a Mustard Seed Ministries’ project called Little Angels, an orphanage for children with special needs in India. Go to https://my.give.net/Ironman4littleangels

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