Martine Wright: from 7 July victim to Paralympic athlete

A woman who lost both her legs in the 2005 London bombings describes how she has come to fulfil her Olympic dream

The Olympic dream for Martine Wright was one shared by thousands the moment London was announced as the host of the 2012 Games – a chance to be in the stadium when the world's top sportsmen and women stepped on to the track. But life intervened and this week it will be as an athlete, not a spectator, that her dream will be fulfilled.

For Wright there is a symbolism to her role as an athlete representing ParalympicsGB that she finds hard to dismiss as one of life's strange coincidences. On the night London was announced as the winning city, she celebrated with friends from work, before making her way home late that night, gripped in the euphoria of the time. Her late night turned into a late morning, and she rushed to work, departing from her usual routine by jumping on to a Circle Line train as the doors were about to close. It was there that her future collided with the murderous intentions of Shehzad Tanweer, one of four suicide bombers who struck that day, ending the party for Wright in a blinding white flash which engulfed the carriage and left her mangled in the wreckage.

She lost both her legs above the knee, and had to undergo many operations before her condition was stable enough to begin the long task of learning to walk again on prosthetic limbs.

"I definitely cannot ignore the fact that the day before I lost my legs I was celebrating that London had won the Olympic bid," she said. "The last thing I was reading on the tube in the newspaper was about the Olympics.'' This symbolism has been accentuated, she believes, by other signals along her path to the Paralympics.

Her team's training courts both drew her back to the places which dominated her life in the aftermath of the bombings. One was behind the Royal London hospital, where surgeons had carried out the multiple operations that saved her life. The second was opposite Queen Mary's hospital in Roehampton, where she learned to walk again in an exhausting and painful process that lasted many months.

When the team embarked on their first international tour two years ago, they boarded a plane for Oklahoma on 7 July – the anniversary of the bombings; and a few weeks ago as Wright stood at the top of City Hall to hear her name included in the first women's Paralympic sitting volleyball team, she looked across the river and found herself standing directly opposite her old offices in Tower Hill – her thwarted destination on the day of the attacks.

"There's definitely something. I don't know whether it's spiritual or it's fate, but I really truly believe that I was meant to do this journey," she said.

"I find I cannot ignore all these arrows or pointers that have led me to where I am now and made me think that somehow I was always meant to do this."

Today she smiles as she talks of the goal which has driven her for the last two years – to represent her country as an amateur athlete whose exuberance and pride seems to embody the epitome of the Olympic spirit.

"I'm in a very different place now than when I last spoke to you," she said of our meeting seven years ago. "I feel lucky to be in this place. I have had so many opportunities and life is good."

To have survived the bomb attack might have been enough for some people, but for her the years since seem to have been marked by a determination and defiance to fully exploit the life she nearly lost on the Circle Line train at Aldgate.

Taking on a new sport, excelling in it and being picked for the Paralympic team has been the story of just the last two years.

She also married Nick, the boyfriend who along with her parents, and two siblings, spent 48 hours searching London hospitals for her in the aftermath of the attacks; and she had a son, Oscar, who has just turned three.

She earned her pilot's licence after winning a Douglas Bader Scholarship for disabled people and spending three months in South Africa, she has been skiing and done a parachute jump. In the midst of it all, she has been outspoken about the length of time it has taken to fully compensate victims of the bombings, and supported calls for a public inquiry into the 7 July attacks.

It was three months after giving birth to Oscar that Wright felt there was something else she needed to fulfil in her life. "I had opportunities to do lots of stuff – flying, skiing, we had moved to Hertfordshire, found a bungalow, pretty much knocked it down and started again when I was pregnant.

"So I'd redone my house, I'd had Oscar and I wanted to do something for me. To be honest I was missing that drive and ambition that I got from work, but I knew I didn't want to go back into marketing."

Maggie, her physiotherapist, mentioned games for amputees that were taking place at Stoke Mandeville hospital, so Wright decided to take part.

She tried wheelchair tennis, which she liked, but felt it was too solitary. "So I tried sitting volleyball and thought: 'Gosh, I really like this.'"

Sitting volleyball developed after the second world war as a sport that injured soldiers could play. It is the only Paralympic sport that is played sitting down and does not involve wheelchairs.

Wright joined a London club which practiced behind the Royal London hospital – where surgeons put her back together when she was wheeled in as an unrecognisable victim of the attacks. A few months later she was asked if she wanted to join the first women's team and agreed immediately.

After an Olympic Games which has drawn criticism for excessive commercialism and the inclusion of professional sports like tennis and football, the makeup of the GB women's sitting volleyball team seems refreshing.

All but one are amateurs, who have never played competitive sport at the national level before. "You get established Paralympic sports like basketball where people have played since they were 10.

"We've only really been playing for the last two years and that's what makes us so unique as a team and so diverse," she said.

"We have maybe got a stronger spirit as a result of all having our own lives and then suddenly coming into it."

Meeting and training so intensely with a group of women, all of whom have had their own particular traumas or challenges to overcome, has also given Wright confidence, she said.

"With all of us girls together suddenly you are talking to people who understand that one day you are someone and suddenly the next day you are someone else. It's really healing and gives you a confidence boost. You are suddenly in a room full of people where it's not just me – and you are saying to each other: 'Well how did you get through that?'

"It is what makes our bond so strong."

For the last few weeks all her time has been taken up with intensive training for the Games. She spent two weeks in Loughborough training up to 30 hours a week, and the team flew to Hungary and Russia for pre-Olympic matches before moving to a holding camp in Bath on 20 August and then three days later into the Paralympic Village.

Exciting as it has been, she has missed her family, and her son, who will be in the audience cheering her on. "Nick has taught him to shout: 'Go mummy go' and 'win mummy win,'" she said.

This year, in the midst of all the activity, the seventh anniversary of the attacks came and went more gently perhaps than in the years before, a sign that she is no longer defined by what happened to her.

"The first five years was really, really tough but it's been seven years and things do get normal," she said. "What I found in the beginning was those memories of how you used to do things were there, and that was really hard to cope with. I don't think about those memories now. I just do things differently."

She puts the easing of the trauma, and the mellowing of the memories down to the passing of time, but only in part.

"I'm doing something that is absolutely amazing, that I would never ever have done, as a result of going through the most traumatic day of my life and nearly dying, and thank God I didn't die," she said.

"I think in my head it is this reasoning that helps me. There was nothing that I could have done to stop what happened that day, it was going to happen and it was going to happen because – maybe – I was always meant to be where I am today."


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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