Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.
Andy Lewis has a phrase tattooed on his left leg: Never Give Up. It’s more than a slogan; it’s a way of life for the 38-year-old. He is a father, a husband, who is also an amputee and a Paralympic champion with ADHD. He is now also a business owner who came close to taking his own life before a stranger — who became a friend — talked him round.
“If you ask our kids what’s our motto in our family, they will tell you it’s ‘Never Give Up’,” Lewis tells ESPN, recalling the time his seven-year-old son fell in a bike race but was adamant he was going to finish. “At the time [the tattoo] was a reminder to myself that things don’t always go to plan … just don’t give up.”
From struggling at school to having a life in the army snatched away from him, from taking the decision to amputate his right leg to winning gold in Rio, Lewis has never given up. Just don’t call him superhuman.
“I’m just human and that’s what I want people to really understand,” he says. “I remember when the Paralympics were on [in London in 2012], there was a [UK television] show called Superhumans and I don’t think the athletes appreciated it, because we’re not.
“Why do they make it out like we’re some sort of robots? We’re just people who love sport. I really just want people to realise that I’m just a dad, husband, someone that wants to have a job, enjoy what I do and just spend time with my wife, kids and family. I’ve given so much to sport and I just want to give back now, whether that’s in sport, school, business, education.”
ALTHOUGH BECOMING AN athlete wasn’t Lewis’ initial ambition when growing up in Gloucester, in the south west of England, sport did play a huge role in his childhood. At school, he seemed to excel at most sports he attempted but struggled inside the classroom. Lewis became frustrated, a self-doubt that only intensified when a teacher said he was “as thick as a brick” aged 9 or 10. It’s a comment Lewis will never forget.
“It just goes to show how important mentors and teachers are in our lives and our childrens’ lives,” says Lewis now. “As we’re growing up from a mindset point of view, they have a massive influence on what we think and do.”
It would be decades later before it became clear why Lewis struggled academically, when he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.
Ironically, the person who helped Lewis at sport during his primary school days was the husband of the teacher who made that unforgettable comment. He credits this tutor for inspiring him and even though he met another encouraging influence in secondary school, Lewis was still undecided on his career path.
After a lengthy job search, he was offered a chance to join the Parachute Regiment in the British Army and was accepted after passing a number of fitness tests. Just as an exciting new chapter was about to begin, Lewis’ life changed in an instant at the age of 16.
July 10, 1999, will be a date that Lewis will never forget, yet he has no memory of what happened on the day he was knocked off his motorcycle by a 38-tonne lorry.
“From then, my life just drastically changed,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the medication I had, whether it’s the accident or loss of brain cells, but I literally have got no recollection of any of it. My mum or wife will tell me stuff now about it and I can’t remember, it’s gone.”
What Lewis does recall is the months of pain, stress and turmoil that went into the recovery process in the hospital.
“I didn’t lose my leg straight away and I think that’s where things might have been different if I did,” he says. “They wanted to amputate it and to this day, I wish they did because I would’ve maybe had my life back on track. On the other side of that, I might not have achieved what I’ve achieved today.”
Lewis’ father, desperate for his son to keep both legs, wanted a second opinion and a professor assured the family that it could be saved. Following numerous trips across the country, his leg was eventually put in an Ilizarov cage — a metal brace — and although he could stand up and move around, he realised that people in his life were unsympathetic to his new circumstances.
“They rebuilt my leg but I couldn’t do anything,” he remembers. “I found that my friends disappeared off into the distance, no-one would allow me to come out with them as I was using crutches, I was slow and couldn’t watch or play sport any more.
“That was a massive thing for me because sport is a massive part of my life and straight away, it had gone. Most people at the age of 16, 17, 18 are going to the pub, clubbing and going to visit different places and I just missed out on all of that.”
Six years on from the accident, Lewis made a decision that would have even greater consequences: “At that point, in 2005, I had my leg amputated due to complications. They were going to repair it again and I just said no, enough is enough, I’m old enough now to make up my own mind.”
Despite pleas from family members, he was adamant about the decision but doubts creeped into his mind following the operation.
“You cannot imagine being laid in that bed,” he says. “As much as that leg was battered, seeing two legs, two feet and then coming round after the operation looking down at the bed, you still feel like you’ve got the leg there and you look down to the bedsheets and the foot is no longer sticking out.
“You look down and there’s just loads and loads of bandages around the end of your leg and you think, ‘What have I done?’ There’s no going back. That was a massive, massive turning point but I wasn’t prepared for what was to come and that hit me a bit hard after that.”
The experience of his brother, an army veteran, helped put what Lewis was dealing with in a new light. “I didn’t really have any support mentally,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone to help with that and there were times where I might have needed counselling.
“My brother is back from Iraq now and been out of the forces for a number of years and he suffers massively from PTSD — he can’t even sleep in the same room with anyone because he screams in his sleep. He tells me that he thinks I’ve got PTSD and I’m on medication now.
“That’s what people don’t know about me, they think I’m just this robot and not this human. They don’t realise what you still have to deal with in your head and that’s a really important part and it’s a challenge. When my leg was amputated, I just wasn’t prepared for the mental health scars and the physical element of not being able to do anything.
“Using crutches more often, a wheelchair, the way that people treated you differently — that hit me. Even those people who I thought I knew, they just avoided eye contact and communication and that was a hard pill to swallow. I suppose that stayed with me for a number of years where I wouldn’t wear shorts, I was hiding things away, physically and mentally.”
A year after the amputation, Lewis had entered a very dark place mentally and the situation spiralled out of control so much that he wanted to end his life.
“Around September or October in 2006, I remember going down to my dad’s field and I was just going to end my life. I decided I’d just had enough but I couldn’t figure out how to tie a proper knot and thought, ‘I can’t do anything.’ I managed to sort it all out and thought, ‘This is it’.”
“My dad’s field has a small model airplane strip but I thought no-one was there at this time. I thought my dad was going to find me before my girlfriend [but] then a guy came down there to fly his model airplane, found me and stopped me from doing it.”
When Lewis returned home that night, he was greeted with the news that his partner was pregnant with their first child. He remains close with the model airplane enthusiast, a mental health first aider, who saved him that day and is a fond believer that destiny played a role in him being around today.
“You have to ask yourself, was that fate?” asks Lewis. “Was that him being there for a reason to enable me to go on and bring up my daughter? I’m a massive believer in fate, that probably happened for a reason because of what I went on to achieve and who I’m helping now.”
Lewis found a new lease of life and learnt how to fly — full size planes rather than model ones — as he started to regain his confidence. He proved to himself that he was capable of excelling academically, and passed the exams to claim his pilot’s license that allowed him to enjoy solo trips around the UK and France.
He would go on to work at Airbus where a fellow colleague noticed that he had behavioural similarities to his child and advised Lewis to get tested. He travelled to Bristol, England, where he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and after years of believing he wasn’t intelligent, the news came as a huge relief.
“When I was in the test centre, around me on the walls were pictures of all these people who have dyslexia and ADHD and they’ve done very well for themselves,” he says.
“I was looking around and thinking: ‘Wow, and some of those people didn’t know they had it either at a young age and they’ve still gone on to achieve things.’ It was at that point where I thought ‘What can I do then?’ and that played a massive part in my life now and going forward.”
AFTER WATCHING THE London 2012 Paralympics, Lewis’ love for sport was reignited once again and he put together a message on his social media channels in the early hours one morning saying he would win a gold medal at the next Games. The post drew some negative comments which only stoked the fire inside Lewis to succeed and prove people wrong.
His first hurdle came in buying a running blade which cost around £10,000. But with the help of Airbus and the local community who raised funds, Lewis was able to focus on his new dream. In 2013, he went to Stoke Mandeville Stadium for a charity day on the track to test himself at Para sports. He was spotted by members from the Arctic One Foundation, who encouraged him to attempt triathlon. At first, Lewis was reluctant but after the foundation’s persistence, he accepted the challenge and found himself re-learning how to swim for the first time since he lost his leg.
He was disappointed with his performance when he took part in his first triathlon but later received a call from British Triathlon after someone had posted photos of him and his backstory on social media. He was then invited by the organisation to a talent day where he impressed and by the following year, he had left his £40,000-a-year job at Airbus to become an athlete who earned an annual salary of £10,000.
Although his wife “went absolutely nuts” at the idea, Lewis went on to win the British Paratriathlon National Championships and followed it up with victory at the Europeans in 2016, booking his place at the Rio Paralympics later that year. He stormed to an emphatic 41-second victory to claim gold but admitted he came close to not competing as the pressure built in the days leading up to the race as depression took hold.
He recalls taking antidepressant tablets before and after winning that race, and wants people to understand that success will not be an instant remedy for mental health struggles.
“I’m very open about that because even someone who’s achieved what I have, I’ve done it with depression and mental health issues in the background,” he says.
Lewis, who received an MBE for his services to triathlon in 2017, also believes that athletes need to be shown more support by the governing bodies after the event, where the comedown can be severe.
“That took a massive, massive toll on my life, suicidal thoughts came back into my head again,” he recalls. “I think people need to realise that being an elite athlete, being a professional sportsman or sportswoman, there will always be troughs and peaks. It’s very, very rare that an athlete that is trying to push their boundaries will just continue like this.
“There’s always a comedown to anything but when you’ve been at the top and you’ve got a Paralympic gold medal, which is the pinnacle of any Para sport, to be at that point and then come down, it’s like coming down from the moon. It was a massive shock to the system. Even after that, you’re on a bit of a high, there wasn’t the support there that I would’ve hoped.”
AFTER RETURNING HOME from Brazil, Lewis decided he would take matters into his own hands and provide an environment for others to overcome challenges in their lives. He got in touch with friend Chris Powell, who he met around 2011, about the idea of setting up a business.
“I wanted to help other people who were suffering with mental or physical issues because I thought I’ve been through it, I’ve tasted it, lived it,” Lewis says. “I know I can offer other people advice, support and coping strategies to help them to get the best from themselves.”
Powell was keen to get involved after going through his own difficulties in the workplace. His background was in teaching but following a move to a new school and a change in roles, he began to feel that there was “kryptonite around my neck” that prevented him from going to work.
“I had my interview with the headteacher and they asked how did you deal with stress? And I was like, I don’t get stressed, it’s not me,” he tells ESPN. “Within six months, just travelling to school every morning, that journey was killer.
“My whole body was buzzing, I can’t explain it — anxiety must have been going through the roof and one day I just drove into Asda car park and it hit me, burnout. I went to my GP and ended up having six months off work and then just re-evaluated everything.”
The duo’s company, Bespoke Mentoring, was launched in 2018 and has kicked on a gear since Lewis officially retired from sports in September 2020. The former Team GB man has found a true friend in Powell which contrasts with those who turned their back on him after his accident.
“When I’m feeling a bit crap and can’t attend something, he can go for me or vice versa,” Lewis says. “It is absolutely nuts that my voice unlocks his phone on Siri and his voice unlocks mine. People say we’re like brothers. We have great banter and what makes it work is for us to accept each other.”
Powell lights up when talking about Lewis and reveals it’s a friendship based on trust and respect. Powell also underlines the importance of understanding his friend’s ADHD both in and outside of the workplace.
“People see his disability as being an amputee. It’s not,” Powell adds. “He’s conquered that and yeah he’s got things that get on his nerves when he goes into his wheelchair or crutches and the way people treat him a bit differently, but his ADHD is the hard bit for him.
“The hard bit is knowing that other people don’t [know]. In a meeting, he might be doing something and you know people are thinking, ‘What is he doing? He’s being so rude,’ but he’s just bored,” laughs Powell. “There are times where I have to support his mental health but a lot of the time, it’s supporting his ADHD.
“He was told once by a top American coach that he’s got the heart of a lion and a brain of a tractor. So I’m getting the absolute most out of that heart of a lion and I’m making sure that I’m the brain. I learn a lot from him and I hope he would take a lot from me.”
The business has continued to grow in Gloucestershire as they work with hospital services, one-to-one mentoring in schools as well as helping people with universal credit claims and providing support for individuals with learning difficulties to find jobs.
Lewis is eager to see the future growth of the business but there remains a hunger to get back involved in sport — not on the track, but among those in higher positions to develop a more open environment for athletes.
There is a message in one of the Bespoke Mentoring offices which reads: “BE SO GOOD THAT THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU.” With everything he has achieved, Lewis has demonstrated that his work should not be overlooked by the sporting governing bodies if they want to create a healthier dialogue around mental health.
“I’d like to see higher-profile people talking about it and people within business talk,” says Lewis. “People in the workforce will not talk unless they see the managing directors having those types of issues, because they feel like it’s going to impact their career progression and it’s the same with sport.
“Athletes won’t talk about it and open up unless the people at the top say it’s OK to come and talk and they put a clear outline to it. I would love to be able to return to a governing body within a sport, to be able to sit down with management of that team and critique them and see, how can we make that better.”
Lewis has a new target, so don’t expect him to give it up. He never does.
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