75. DARREN HICKS – Triumph After Tragedy and the Key to Success;- Belief

Today on the show I chat with Paralympic Gold Medal Para-cyclist Darren Hicks. From age 10 to 29 Darren loved riding BMX but in 2014 a motor vehicle accident changed all of that. Darren suffered severe leg and neck trauma with his right leg being amputated above the knee, and his C2 vertebra was so severely broken it required surgical fixation.

But less than a year after the accident Darren competed for the first time as a Para-athlete in 2015.

Darren became a two-time World Champion and set a world record time in 2019 in the C2 3km Individual Pursuit and was named as Cycling Australia’s 2019 Male Road Para-cyclist of the Year.

He wore the green and gold at his first Games at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games winning a silver in the men’s 3000m individual pursuit and then Gold in the C2 24-kilometre men’s time trial.

Darren went on to receive Order of Australia Medal for service to sport as a gold medallist at the Tokyo Paralympic Games 2020

Today we talk about the accident that changed his life, his transition from riding with a prosthetic to without it and the training load necessary to become the world-class Para-cyclist he is today.

At the end of the interview, after I concluded the episode, Darren and I continued to chat and it was then that he revealed even more about his struggles in hospital after his accident. With his permission, it is included in the episode and at 10mins 38 is when you will hear it. It may be a trigger for some, so if you’re experiencing hardship at the moment, you may want to skip 2 minutes from 10:mins 38.

It was a privilege chatting with Darren and sharing his story and I hope you will be as inspired as I am.

Reflecting on Disappointment

Jacklie 3:46
Darren, thank you so much for chatting with me today. Welcome to the Bodies Built Better podcast.

Darren 3:51
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jackie 3:54
It’s great to have you. You are a three time gold medalist. You’ve got four silvers and two bronze. And one of those gold and one of those silver medals were from the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, which I understand was a major goal of yours. So congratulations on gold at the Paralympics.

Darren 4:18
Thank you very much. It’s , uh, there’s always a goal to make the team by no means that I believe I’d be capable of winning a gold but, um, you can always dream that’s for sure.

Jackie 4:28
And dreams come true.

Darren 4:32
I didn’t expect it or believe it but didn’t stop me working. That’s for sure.

Jackie 4:36
Yeah, well believe it. And just recently you’ve come back from the UCI para- cycling world championships you’ve come back with a bronze. How do you feel reflecting back on that and what do you take from that race?

Darren 4:55
I’m definitely disappointed but at the same time, I need to look at the numbers and I did ride a really good race as far as speed and power and all the data goes, I just got beat on the day by a couple of better guys. So I kind of want to look at it that way. But it’s also quite hard to feel going into a race the year. You’re not capable of winning or not going to come away as a champion. So I know, it’s, uh, it’s still one on reflecting on, I think, and how we will deal with it. I guess we’ll come from–yeah, the next few weeks of going through some numbers as well as getting ready to go to Paris for our Track World Champs in the middle of October. So

Mental Toughness For Cyclists

Jackie 5:40
Yeah, amazing. With–so I watched the replay of this race. And there’s two things. Two things I have a question about. The first thing is, you guys are standing at the start line for up to like five minutes or so. And I just the question I have around that is, firstly, what’s going through your head when you you’re having to wait? And how do you compose yourself so you can get, I guess the best start to your race?

Darren 6:18
For a road race, people–they sit there for five or 10 minutes for a TC, we actually probably sit there for more like 10 to 15 to actually get back to the start line because for a time trial, we need to get our bikes checked. So we can’t actually get the bike checked until some 10 or 15 minutes before our start time. But also from that point, we currently have the start area, whereas road racing a little bit different. The bike does need to be checked. Quite so scrupulous–scrupulously. So yeah, probably TC is a bit more nerve wracking I suppose, in the first year anyway, it was now I’m a lot more comfortable. I sort of trust that. You know, know the process, I know that I don’t sort of get too nervous anymore. I just–I know what I’ve got to go and do and focus on that rather than the competition or anything else like that. And road racing is kind of I take it very seriously. But it’s also not my my pet event. So I don’t get overly stressed over it. Because I know it’s a long race and what’s going to happen in the next two hours. So we’ll just let it start and you deal with things when they crop up.

How to Handle a Hill Sprint

Jackie 7:30
Yeah. And speaking of dealing with things as they crop up that final lap, there was a breakaway. And the what, four or five groups? Firstly, do you–do you have a sense if that’s going to happen. And then when that happens–you do? Tell us about that.

Darren 7:49
Oh, you. As far as things go, especially for that course, the climb was quite steep, and quite short. So it was always going to be a bunch of a kick to go up the climb. And then you’re probably you’d break up into probably two or three groups at least. So yeah, just preempt that it’s going to happen and try and save as much energy on that last lap as you can to be ready for when that jump does happen. And I go as best you can. Unfortunately, the guys that have two legs, even though we’re in the same category, and the classifications are all sort of sorted that way, they’ve got a lot more power when it comes to a hill sprint like that. So you just–in my case, I just do what I can grab whatever we’re like ends to follow and, and hope that they kick up the hill and then burn off the power and give us a chance to get back up and then it comes back down to a sprint again. So–yeah, again, you can’t stress because for the most part, you cannot change what’s going to happen. You’ve only got as much energy as you’ve gotten as much power have you got and do your best with it.

Jackie 8:55
Yeah. And do you knowing that the climb is approaching deep? Do you try and get ahead or get closer to–the to the front of the pack?

Darren 9:04
That’s what I did for this race. Yeah, I got to the very front. That way, it gives you the best chance to see when it’s going to happen, the jump or the, you know, the sprinkler if you want to call it but also gives you position as far as maybe slowing some of the guys behind you up a little bit. And also being as far up as you can when you know you’re probably going to get past. So yeah, I did the best positioning I think I could have. But either way they they all went straight around me. So what it is a display. It was what it was. And yeah, get to the top and just do what you can to catch back up again.

The Accident: Athlete Recovery

Jackie 9:41
Exactly. Well, I’d love to, um, I’d love to rewind a bit and go back to 2014 I guess to the accident where I guess this part of your life began. If you could tell us a little bit about that.

Darren 9:57
Yeah, we won’t get into too much detail about the accident but as far as it goes, I went to work one morning with no intentions of not coming home. Unfortunately, I was driving a truck that was really poorly maintained. So I came down a really steep hill and had no brakes. From that point on, I had about a minute–a minute and a half of careering down the hill until I crashed into a pole and a brick wall and a few other things in the process, basically, amputated my leg on the spot. The only thing that was really left was my main artery and the part of my kneecap as well as broke my C2 vertebrae, so the vertebrae has a top to it, if you–it looks like a dummy, if you look at it upside down. So the dummy part is called the dens–I snap the dens off. And yeah, struck stuck in the truck for three hours until they cut me up. And then straight to intensive care, or very straight to, yeah, to surgery to do the amputation. And then I think I was in a coma for a day or two, and then came out and started all the, the next part of it, rehab and the like.

Darren’s Accident And His Way To Athlete Recovery

Jackie 11:12
Tell us about the very old–even waking up and understanding what had happened and then getting into rehab.

Darren 11:20
I remember waking up very briefly. The next day, I would have assumed my partner at the time was in front of me and–dsI had breathing tubes and everything. So I couldn’t speak, I just couldn’t sign to her one or two. Because I knew that I badly damaged my leg. I still have quite vivid memories of looking at my leg or very twisted and bent up in the truck. So I just signed to a one or two. She’s signed back to me one and I think I sort of passed back out after that. But yeah, that’s the the only memory I really have. Before all the surgeries happened, and then the next one was was waking up in the spinal unit. And yeah, started the rehab sort of process from there, really.

Jackie 12:10
What did that look like?

Darren 12:12
We’re in the very short term, I still hadn’t sorted out what was happening with my neck. So the first thing I had to decide once waking up was how I was going to do that. So the two options were to stay in traction, so laying down, but I had to wear a brace called a halo. You want to look one up. They’re horrifying. Yeah, so sits over your shoulders, and screws into your forehead and the back of your head. So you’ve quite literally can’t move your neck, even a millimetre. So I work in for all his purposes loosely for probably an hour. And it was really the most scary hour of my life. I instantly knew I couldn’t wear that for three months. So the other option was a surgery, inherent risks that come with a surgery as well. So I sort of had to make a choice to take the risk. And the risks were even though I wasn’t walking at the time, but essentially walking into a surgery with a functioning lower half of your body and then potentially having the surgeons actually nick your spinal cord and do damage and potentially make you a paraplegic or worse. So that was the stuff I had to sign off on before going into that surgery was that I was okay with the fact that these risks were there. And yeah, at the time, I couldn’t do the three months in traction and in the halo, so I went for the surgery option.

Jackie 13:45
So that three months would have just been you laying down in that. Wow.

Darren 13:51
Basically unable to move. Yeah, yeah, I probably could have sat up but with the help of people. And yeah, that wouldn’t have helped my amputation my wife e anyway, adults I wouldn’t have been weight bearing through it, I w wouldn’t have been able to start wearing a prosthetic. So there was lots of negatives that would have come with that three month traction as well. So I’m very glad that I went with the option I did. But also as I got out of a very lucky didn’t have any complications. So…

The Accident: How It Changed My Perspective

Jackie 14:24
This next audio clip has been inserted. This was our conversation after we had concluded the episode. And with Darren’s permission, he is happy for me to include this into the episode as we are talking about his surgery after the accident.

Darren 14:45
The day before I had this surgery. I was actually scheduled to have my surgery done. But there was a accident that happened in Adelaide to all all surgeries that were pre-planned got put on hold for the emergency ones. And that night was my worst night I had in hospital a quite honestly, I begged to Karis as my wife. I begged her to get a doctor or a nurse to come in and kill me. Like, quite literally said those words I, I can’t–I couldn’t hold her anymore. I couldn’t bear to live any longer. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t shit I couldn’t. I couldn’t move for myself. And I just gave up because I thought that surgery is like the only way of getting getting through anything. And then they, they delayed it. There’s only a day that I–it was like, a day too long, almost. Luckily, I just press my ketamine, morphine button enough times that it put me to sleep and woke up the next day, went into the surgery, and then woke up that evening. And yeah, I could sit up in bed. And everything from that point change as far as my outlook on on getting better. I never really looked back on on the fact that I gave up on point. I still remember the cost, but yeah, it’s pretty, pretty full on what got that surgery did to change me. That’s for sure.

Jackie 16:34

Darren 16:37
Yeah, and I know. That’s the stuff that I probably should share more often. But it’s just bloody hard to convey the right way. I have no issue in showing emotion to people like–I think it’s extremely powerful. But yeah.

A Long Road Ahead: Path To Athlete Recovery

Jackie 16:56
And so after you came out of that surgery, how long before–I guess you’re up and about rehab.

Darren 17:07
A couple of weeks was not even two weeks, I think in this bottle, you know, an intensive care, and then another almost two weeks in a rehab hospital. But essentially, I kind of just got moving. So I had to have my amputate side of my right but also broke my left leg in the accident as well. So I had a moon beat on for the first two or three weeks at least I think I was kind of not getting around, even when I knew I kind of could get around after having the surgery and began to move my neck and set up and stuff like that. Be I think I walked again for the first time in October and which is probably a lot further down the track than I probably should have been. But another thing that happened on my amputated side was I had a really bad laceration on I guess my quad so that took ages to heal ’cause actually had to have a skin graft. Got photos of all these things if you’re interested to look it up, but yeah, it was pretty gruesome looking–it was pretty gruesome looking. So yeah, first walked again in October, which, I guess isn’t that slow, but also probably wasn’t as fast as I would have liked. And in the interim, we just did as much sort of weights in the gym as we could for rehab. So just getting my arms and everything sort of functioning as best we can, again, trying to not lose too much muscle and started to build my core and other bits up which I was going to need for walking again. So…

Where to Find Darren:

Instagram: @hicksy37

Support Services:

Beyond Blue: https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

Life Line: https://www.lifeline.org.au/

Mental Health Australia: https://mhaustralia.org/need-help

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