Derenalagi eyes London Olympics

By Martha Kelner Daily Mail, London There is nothing plastic about Derek Derenalagi. His broad shoulders, thick torso and unflappability made him a perfect soldier when he was recruited from
19 Mar 2012 10:01

Hopeful: Derek Derenalagi is going for gold.

By Martha Kelner
Daily Mail, London

There is nothing plastic about Derek Derenalagi.
His broad shoulders, thick torso and unflappability made him a perfect soldier when he was recruited from Fiji, the country of his birth, to join the British Army in 1999.
Eight years later, both his legs were blown off by an anti-tank mine as he served in Afghanistan.
But his strength of mind helped him make the transition from the battlefield, where he was pronounced dead, to the athletics field and a chance to bring further honour to Britain at the London Games.

  1. “I don’t regret losing my legs because I did it serving this country and doing something I love,” said Mr Derenalagi, now Britain’s leading Paralympic discus thrower and shot putter.
  2. “To represent Britain in a home games and compete in that awesome stadium will be a dream come true.”

Mr Derenalagi, 34, was with three comrades from the Mercian Regiment as dawn broke in Helmand Province on a July day in 2007. Their job was to clear a site for a Chinook helicopter to land. Derenalagi was at the back of an unarmed Land Rover.
“I asked the driver to reverse so I could get a better view of the whole site,’ said Mr Derenalagi.
“We rolled on to a 44-gallon drum hidden underneath the ground. Inside they’d filled it with hundreds of ball bearings and metals and six inches of nails.”
Mr Derenalagi was thrown 30 metres, landing on rocks. ‘I could hear screaming and shouting and explosives. I glanced down at my body.

  • “My left leg was completely missing and my right leg from the knee down was hanging by a thread of flesh and bone. I was lying in a pool of blood. I thought then that I would die.”

It was a medic at Camp Bastion who saved Mr Derenalagi when he felt a pulse as the ‘body’ was being washed and prepared to be flown home in a body bag. Derenalagi woke up eight days later in Selly Oak Hospital, in Birmingham, with his wife, Ana, who he met and married in Fiji, at his bedside. “I saw her and said, “What are you doing in Afghanistan?” I had no idea where I was.
Then I told her I had to go to the and she said, “You can’t”. I didn’t understand why. She couldn’t tell me about my legs. She had to take a picture and say, “This is you now, Derek”.
For his daughter, Anna, who was 16 at the time, it was too much to absorb. “She moved back to Fiji with relatives,” said Mr Derenalagi. “She couldn’t see me in the wheelchair and with no legs.”
For Mr Derenalagi, who had played rugby to a high level in Fiji and New Zealand, sport was a refuge. Two weeks after he arrived at Selly Oak hospital he asked the nurses to take him to the gymnasium.
“I couldn’t lift anything but I just needed to be in an environment where I knew I could still achieve,’ he said. When the Ministry of Defence launched its Battle Back programme to rehabilitate injured soldiers four years ago, Mr Derenalagi was identified as a candidate.

  • “I fell in love with the shot put,” he said. “That was my strongest event until last year when I put an extra 10 metres on my discus.
  • “I was very determined to represent Britain, I was thinking of London 2012 the whole time. I watched the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 while I was still bedbound and knew I could do it.”

Mr Derenalagi, who lived in Fiji until he was 20, baulks at the idea he could be considered a ‘plastic Brit’. He said: “I may be born a Fijian but I am British. I sacrificed half my body for this country and I love this country. If I qualify for London, I won’t just be representing Britain, but all the British soldiers who have been killed and maimed at war.”
In fact, he is a near-certainty for this summer and his wife and the daughter he sees only on Skype will be there to watch him.
“She will be coming back to England if I make it to the Paralympics,” said Mr Derenalagi. “To look up and see her and my wife cheering for me at the Olympic Stadium would mean the world to me.”


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