Para Trooper to Para Olympian…

South African soldier looks to Rio for cycling success – having ticked off the North Pole and (almost) Everest on the way…

Interview by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham

It’s not every day that you meet someone who sold everything to travel to Britain to sign up in the Army, has toured Afghanistan, climbed Everest and is now looking to be a part of the Para-Olympics later this year. However, upon meeting Jaco van Gass his determination is palpable and is what has led him up to this interview in the entrance lobby of the National Cycling Centre in Manchester the launch-pad for his bid for Rio success.

Weeks before the end of his second tour of Afghanistan in 2009, Jaco was caught in an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion and lost his left arm below the elbow as well as suffering severe internal injuries. After extensive rehabilitation, he took part in a number of Walking with the Wounded treks before eventually leaving the Army in 2012. Watching the London Olympics that same year rekindled a passion for both cycling and competition that has lead him to becoming an elite level para-Olympic athlete.

Educated in South Africa, Jaco studied part-time at university whilst working towards the ultimate goal to taking over the family business. Having always been independently minded and keen to make his own way in life, Jaco was unsure however that this was what he wanted; He had long been interested in the British Army and so, in 2007, he sold up the business that he had founded, boarded a plane for the UK and presented himself at the Strand Army recruitment office in London. He opted for the Parachute Regiment as he thought, “they looked cool”, so after the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) in Catterick, “P” Company and the jumps course, Jaco was posted to the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment.  Two back – to – back tours in southern Afghanistan followed in 2008 and into 2009.

Like many South Africans, sport had been an integral part of Jaco’s life whilst growing up. A keen rugby player, he broke his knee when was 16. Reconstructive surgery rebuilt the knee, though he smiles when he recalls how British Army medics never quite knew how much ironmongery was in him when conducting his medical checks for the infantry. It was as part of his rehabilitation that Jaco took up cycling, “the bike was my getaway”, he recalls, giving him that critical independence and a sense of freedom once again. At this time he cycled for the fun of it – both road and mountain biking – and the thought of competing in Olympic events could not have been further from his mind.

Following the IED blast and subsequent traumatic injury, Jaco spent the remainder of 2009 in rehab. However, Jaco’s desire to test himself meant that, when he heard through the grapevine about Walking with the Wounded and their plans for a trek to the North Pole, he put himself forward. Having completed the expedition in April 2011, he also went on to take part in the charity’s attempt to climb Mount Everest in the summer of 2012, with only bad weather preventing the final assault on the summit. Upon his return, he was able to get tickets to watch some of the cycling events in the London Velodrome at the 2012 Olympics, re-igniting his interest in the sport.

At this time Jaco left the Army and he decided to stay in the UK rather than return home to South Africa due to the superior medical care available in this country. He began working for a risk mitigation firm though he found the work drab and uninspiring. With the competitive seed replanted within him after seeing the Olympics, he attended a Para-Olympic open day and passed the initial tests to be taken onto the development programme.

Now classified a C4 (cyclists with upper or lower limb impairments and low-level neurological impairment), Jaco splits his time equally between track and outdoor cycling. Doing so, especially given his extra perspective through injury, he is well placed to comment on the banter and snobbery between road and track types. Diplomatically he says “roadies” and track types are just rather contrasting personalities. At the time of this interview in February 2016, he is focused on track events with his specialism being the 4km Individual Pursuit. Jaco is now in the elite programme, which means he receives Lottery funding and in addition to this, he is a brand ambassador for Roseville, the building and decorating group. Having met them at a charity event, the Roseville firm, as part of their corporate and social responsibility programme, decided to fund him. Whilst Jaco was on the development squad and building up the performances he needed to be taken on board the elite Lottery funded programme, Roseville was his sole form of funding.

There is a substantial change in training routine and tapering between the indoor and outdoor seasons. Given the nature of Jaco’s injury, he has a number of differing prosthetics for varying events. For track work and outdoor time trials he has a short arm which is locked to position. This does mean however that he cannot get out of the saddle and so has had to train himself to deliver climbing power from a seated position. Despite this, Jaco points out that he remains more aerodynamic and balanced than those up out of the saddle. For longer road races, he has a longer arm that does allow him to rise out the saddle to generate the torque needed. Such is his performance that during the road season, Jaco frequently trains and competes with able-bodied athletes.

Cycling clearly fulfils a need within this determined South African. He says it has certainly filled, ”a hole” and he can see the planning similarities between Army operations, charity expeditions and top end sport. As Jaco says, race tactics and mental performance become critical at the highest level of competition. There is also a clear element of psychological freedom. Another sport and Army similarity is the all-encompassing nature of the life – he happily confesses to eating, sleeping and dreaming about cycling. At Manchester, he’s on the track for a minimum of three days a week and these are frequently for five to six hour training sessions. Gym conditioning alongside preventative and recovery physiotherapy can be added on top of that. Rather like the Army training cycle in the Paras, he finds himself away from home a lot at training camps and competitions – in one recent three-month period, Jaco enjoyed a total of three nights at home.

May 16 will see him defend his two gold medals from the Invictus Games in 2014. This year the games are taking place in Orlando, United States and Jaco will be competing in the road race and the time trial. March of this year saw him race at the Paracycling World Track Championships in Italy where, in his favoured 4km pursuit, he achieved a personal best of 4minutes 48.28 seconds, finishing 8th.

With all races now leading up to a potential selection for the Para-Olympic team, all emphasis is on Rio. Jaco laughs when he reveals that the bespoke bike he’d be given if he makes the cut would be his tenth. But behind the mirth lies steely determination. So this summer in Rio, look out for a thoroughly nice South African chap who is going to be doing really rather well.riddle_stop 2


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