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Steve Brown: Paralympic wheelchair rugby player and television presenter

Steve Brown is a former Paralympic wheelchair rugby player who captained Team GB at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and went on to set up the Canterbury Wheelchair Rugby Club. He is also a television presenter, best known for appearances on Springwatch and Countryfile.

Our writer, Emma Purcell, spoke to Steve about his time as a wheelchair rugby player and his television career.

39-year-old Steve Brown was born in Chatham in Kent. He loved sport from a young age and dreamed of becoming a footballer.

At the age of 23, while working as an area manager for a holiday company in Europe, he fell off a first-floor balcony and broke his neck, which led to him becoming a wheelchair user.

During his rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Steve was introduced to wheelchair rugby and, soon after discharge, joined the London Wheelchair Rugby Club.

By 2006, he was awarded a place on the Great Britain team and won gold in the IWRF European Championships in 2007.

After missing out on the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, Steve fought on and was awarded captaincy for Team GB at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Since retiring from international wheelchair rugby, Steve has helped to launch the wheelchair rugby club Canterbury Hellfire.

As well as sport, Steve has a passion for the natural world and TV. This led him to build a career as a TV presenter and has gone on to appear in many prime-time programmes, including Blue Planet UK, Escape to the Country, Springwatch and Countryfile. 

In addition, Steve does a lot of public speaking and mentoring in schools and for global companies.

Read on to find out more about Steve Brown in his own words.  

Steve Brown playing wheelchair rugby

Steve Brown on becoming disabled

When you first found out you would become a wheelchair user, what was your immediate thought?

When I fell in 2005, I was conscious – completely awake and with no pain. Then, all of a sudden, I realised that if I had no pain, I had no feeling either.

Whilst lying on the floor, trying to get up and nothing working, I was confused and asked myself the initial questions of “why?”. I couldn’t really piece together what had happened.

The environment around me was all still. I was looking up and there wasn’t any noise or movement. The trees were still. It was almost as if me lying there was reflecting the environment I was in. Everything was so still and quiet, including my body.

I was taken to the hospital and, no doubt about it, they saved my life that night. It was then that I started being told a little bit about what had happened.

When I found out that I broke my neck, I started trying to work out what that meant. The doctors explained to me what my injury was, but they didn’t give a diagnosis of what would happen.

Because my injury was C6-C7 incomplete they didn’t know how much better it might get and the last thing they were going to do was turn around say, “Right, you are going to be in a wheelchair forever.”

So it took a long time to sink in that I would become a wheelchair user.

The biggest shock was when I went to a physio to get measured up for my wheelchair. At that moment, I realised I was going to need a wheelchair either on a part-time or full-time basis for the foreseeable future.

Before then, I was just using the hospital wheelchairs and I kept thinking, “I’ll be alright. I’ll be able to walk again.” But, all of a sudden, things shifted and I realised I wasn’t going to able to.

I saw it on the top of the page at the session; “Steve Brown: non-walker.” That was the moment when it all came into focus and lined up. I knew that was it – Steve Brown wasn’t going to walk again.

Steve Brown in a blue puffer jacket sat in his wheelchair in front of a lake and reeds
Steve Brown presenting Countryfile

What kind of rehabilitation did you receive at Stoke Mandeville Hospital?

My rehabilitation was fantastic. The physios, nurses and doctors were very honest with me, but they had an awful lot of empathy and understanding too.

My weekly sessions included hand and occupational therapy because my hands are quite impaired by the injury. I swam, used the gym and did balancing work.

I also learnt how to think straight and put things into perspective, which was invaluable.

All of these elements fit together. It wasn’t just about not walking again. I realised that there was also a lot of other areas that come with it, such as not being able to stand up to reach the top shelf.

It is not necessarily the frustration that comes from not walking, it is losing the things that walking enables you to do.

How does your disability affect you on a daily basis?

I’ve been a full-time wheelchair user for the past 14 years now, so I am used to it. I can get in and out of my wheelchair to sit on the sofa and go to bed, but there still are situations that frustrate me.

For instance, during the lockdown, we had work done on the house, such as painting and tidying, and all I wanted to do was join in.

There’s nothing worse than knowing exactly how to do something but not being able to do it. It’s caused a lot of frustration for me and my partner.

However, although my disability has its drawbacks, it has also given me so many opportunities, particularly with my career, and there’s no getting away from that.

I love my job and my career. I love being outside in the wildlife and the countryside and I love playing sport.

Since my injury, I have been captain at the Paralympics and now work as a TV presenter, which are both things I absolutely love and were childhood dreams.

Steve Brown playing wheelchair rugby

At school, I spoke to my careers advisor about being a footballer. I was told that might not be a realistic option and that should consider an alternative career. I then decided I wanted to be a wildlife presenter. Since then, I’ve been an athlete and a wildlife presenter.

It’s funny how when you’re injured, you assume it’s the end of everything. I’m not saying that life is easy in a wheelchair, but everyone’s got their own issues going on.

The difference is that my problems are visible. There are a lot of people with disabilities or mental issues that are hidden.

I’m fortunate that I get help, such as holding the door open, because people can see my disability. But there are people who need a door opened just as much as I do, but because they don’t look like they need it, they don’t get help.

Steve Brown as a wheelchair rugby player

What was your first experience of wheelchair rugby like and how did it feel to captain Team GB at the London 2012 Paralympic Games?

I was very sporty before my injury and played a lot. Because of my interests, while I was at Stoke Mandeville hospital I was asked whether I would like to try wheelchair rugby. I gave it a go and loved it.

But it wasn’t just the sport I loved – it was the people too. I learnt a lot from them about myself and what it’s like being a wheelchair user.

I kept playing and progressed to become part of the Great Britain rugby team. Becoming captain of the wheelchair rugby team at the home games in 2012 was phenomenal.

I loved heading out into the arena and hearing the national anthem being sung. I scored the first try of the home games and the noise from the crowd took my breath away. It completely took me by surprise, the amount of noise and support was amazing.

Why did you choose to retire from international wheelchair rugby in 2012?

Steve Brown on the court playing wheelchair rugby at the Paralympic Games 2012 with him about to catch a rugby ball in the air
Paralympic Games 2012

Well, it’s the same as with anything – everything has a shelf life and being a sportsperson is no different.

I wanted to go to the 2016 Paralympic Games, but I acquired an injury. I didn’t know whether I’d be fit enough and good enough to go to the games in Rio, so nothing was clear cut.

At the same time, I had opportunities with other work. So instead of being a player at the Rio games, I was one of the presenters.

That in itself was a massive honour – being able to be the conduit between the games itself and the public. I wanted to make sure that people understood my passion and the rules of wheelchair rugby.

Can you tell us about the Canterbury Hellfire Wheelchair Rugby Club?

I was asked by the Canterbury Wheelchair Rugby Club to help set up a wheelchair rugby team, to help other young disabled people like me develop and grow. It was a lot of fun and I loved every moment of it.

We got the team started and fortunately, it turned out really well. The past couple of seasons I have taken a backseat in terms of playing to let others have a go while I have coached and helped them reach their best.

It’s been a privilege to watch these young lads and ladies go from being nervous and worried individuals to more confident across all aspects of their lives.

Sport doesn’t just help you with being fit and active, but also with your confidence and mental wellbeing. Sport, and wheelchair rugby in particular, has given so much to me.

Steve Brown as a television presenter

How did you go from presenting the Rio Games to presenting on nature programmes?

After the Rio Games, the BBC invited me to join the coverage of the Invictus Games. Once the producers had seen me on that, they said, “You’re pretty good at this talking malarkey, have you got any other hobbies or interests?”

So, I had the chance to expand what I was doing and talk about my passion for wildlife and the countryside, and the rest is history. I did some bits with Springwatch and Countryfile, and then this led to more and more.

Steve Brown in a blue jumper and jeans sat in his wheelchair in a field with trees along the back
Presenting Greatest Escapes to the Country

You’ve been involved in the coverage of many other sporting events. Which was your favourite and why?

I love broadcasting at the marathons and speaking to the people taking part. And at Wimbledon, it is always fun to watch top athletes battle it out.

Presenting the Invictus Games has been fantastic too because of people’s stories and the internal strength that the competitors have found to be part of it.

Of course, the Paralympics for me is always going to be my thing. It’s amazing watching people working hard and achieving – I know what that feels like. Every athlete puts in so much effort to be there.

The Paralympic movement is always going to be a huge part of my life because it was my bridge from being an athlete to a presenter.

To be able to go from playing rugby and to becoming a presenter, which meant a lot to me, and being able to share how passionate I am about the sport was huge for me.

You’ve also made appearances on shows including BBC Breakfast and The One Show too. Tell us more about that.

On those shows, my focus has mostly been on disability-related issues. But, what I particularly love is that it led to the other things in my repertoire as well – I wasn’t just talking about disability.

Now I like to feel like I’m seen and respected as a presenter, not just pigeonholed to one area.

The proof is in me having done a range of shows, including Blue Planet UK, Countryfile, Springwatch, Escape to the Country and Escape to the Perfect Town. There are so many things I’m fortunate to work on now.

It shows the BBC is looking well beyond the norms by giving people with different disabilities an opportunity both on-screen and off.

What got you interested in the natural world?

Steve Brown on a farm sat in his wheelchair holding a black and white goat

My family, and particularly my Dad, got me interested in the natural world. I spent all my time growing up in fields looking for frogs, snakes, slow worms and grasshoppers. I always liked the outdoors, and I grew up to be a young man who now loves the outdoors.

For me, it has never just been about walking through it. It is about trying to understand and enjoy it for what is there – not just for the scenery, but breaking it down and seeing it in smaller parts.

I now have the opportunity to share my enthusiasm and help other people fall in love with nature, like I have.

How did it feel to win the New On Screen Talent award at the Royal Television Society West of England Awards?

To be recognised for presenting at the Paralympics and being captain of my home country team, and then being seen as the best new onscreen talent was such a privilege.

I’m glad that people see how enthusiastic I am and enjoy what I can bring to a show. It’s all about passion. I’ve always been very passionate about wheelchair rugby and sport, so it’s great to see people recognise that.

Steve Brown public speaking and mentoring

Can you tell us more about your public speaking and what you talk about?

Steve Brown in his wheelchair next to a small boy in his wheelchair at a school wheeling away from the camera

Public speaking is a big part of what I do now. I talk at school sports days and assemblies because I think it’s very important to promote and encourage young children to get into sports.

I also speak on behalf of Microsoft and Allianz and other big global companies.

The topics always vary, but they include teamwork, understanding the strengths that people bring to a team, perseverance, self-resilience and making the most of a situation.

What I want to do is make people realise what they’re capable of, think positively and make them feel good about themselves.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for productivity in your work, hobby or personal self, the happier you are, the more relaxed you are and the better you’re going to do.

How did you get involved in mentoring and what kind are you involved in?

Mentoring came from working with schools and people seeing that what I was talking about might work well with individuals, as well as a group

It gives me an opportunity to pass on a little bit more detail and have a much more bespoke conversation with the student. It means I have a chance to listen for an hour to what the students thought, rather than just talking at them.

Ultimately, mentoring means listening to other people’s stories, which gives you a new angle on life. I’d like to think that mentoring helps them as much as it helps me.

What advice would you give to other disabled people wanting to become a Paralympian and/or a presenter?

It’s all about taking control. As you go through life, you take what is given to you. Think about the situation you’re in and accept what you have and what you can change/.

Some of the brightest people I know are the ones that say: “Right, I’m not happy with this. I want to move and try something different. I want to quit my career and do something else.”

There’s no right or wrong. There are no definite answers to what will motivate you or what makes you happy – you have to discover it for yourself.

But courage and self-confidence, to me, are the primary things that underpin everything else. If you can do what you want, even if you’re not sure about it, tackle it with courage and you’ll be alright.

You can find out more about Steve Brown by visiting his website and following him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube

Interview by Emma Purcell – follow her blog Rock For Disability

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