WE CHANGE LIVES

Discovering resilience: Nick Kennedy’s road to the Physical Disability Rugby League World Cup

  • Nicholas Kennedy
  • 18 November 2022
  • 10 mins reading time

It was October 2008 and I had just started the second year of my law degree. I’d recently completed my Army Reserve Physical Training Instructors (PTI) course, ready to attend an elite army testing course, with plans to join the Parachute Regiment. Instead, I woke up in a hospital room, with my parents tearful at the end of the bed.

A quick mental body scan and everything felt fine, but their faces told a different story. They explained I had been in a traffic accident, and that my right arm had been amputated above the elbow. I felt numb. They told me again and again, phrasing it differently each time. I couldn't process the words coming out of my parent's mouths. My arm was there. I could feel it. It wasn’t until my dad lifted the covers that I could see my right arm was gone. I panicked about an odd sensation in my leg. Was that missing too? No, just a skin graft.

Losing my arm was no picnic, both mentally and physically, but over the next few years I completed my degree and continued to work as a Senior PTI across the Army Reserves. The journey wasn’t always smooth sailing, but the role gave me continuity from my life before and after the accident.

I started a postgraduate course to become a solicitor, but a change in policy meant I could no longer be part of the Army, and I lost my role as a PTI. I felt robbed of a job I loved and excelled at.

I didn’t realise until that point just how much of my self-worth was tied to that role.

The impact of my disability suddenly hit so much harder. My mental health spiralled. I stopped attending my course. I’d cover up the fact I couldn’t get out of bed for most of the day by leaving study books open at my desk, or a bag packed for university by the door, so it looked like I’d dumped it there when I got home. I dropped out, but I couldn’t admit it. I weaved an ever more intricate web of lies to try and cover it up, always telling myself it was just until I could get myself back on track.

But I couldn’t find my way back. I’d lost my confidence. I withdrew from friends. I couldn’t deal with the guilt I felt from lying to loved ones.

I slipped deeper and deeper into depression. I would write ridiculous to-do lists, ones so long and impossible to complete, but if I could just get them done that day, everything would be okay. It became a vicious cycle of setting myself up for failure, getting frustrated with myself, achieving even less, and falling deeper into my depression...

Until I couldn't go on and was forced to confront my situation. I got medical support for my depression, and worked hard to set my own boundaries.

Not everything can be achieved at once, and setting very small targets that I knew I could reach each day paved the way to regaining who I was.

And if I didn’t achieve them? I didn’t tear myself apart. I tried again the next day.

Fitness has always been a rock for me. I got talked into giving Physical Disability Rugby League (PDRL) a try, but I put it off for a while because I didn’t know if I’d like it or be any good at it. I’d never even played rugby league, and only had a cursory knowledge of the rules. But I instantly loved it!

From the first training session, I fell in love with everything about it and played my first game two days later, being named man of the match. I was made captain of Castleford Tigers by my second game, a role I’m still proud to hold five years later.

The journey to playing for England hasn’t exactly been a smooth one. There were whispers of the possibility of an England team being set up in 2019, but no one had any specifics. The talks developed to the point where a home soil World Cup, alongside the Men’s, Women’s, and Wheelchair variants in 2021 became a real possibility but the pandemic caused delays and setbacks.

Things started to pick up during 2021. The domestic league returned, though with plenty of pandemic practices in place. We were all working hard to try and earn our places in the squad, going through classification similar to the Paralympic criteria. We were building up to the first PDRL Origin game, where an extended England training squad would be named. I represented the winning Yorkshire side and held my breath for the announcement.

Making it into the training squad was an incredible feeling. But it was quickly tinged with fear, as Australia pulled out of the Men’s World Cup, followed by New Zealand. The PDRL World Cup was dead in the water without them. It was a really difficult time, and we had no idea what would happen next. There wasn’t anything I could do about Covid, or the World Cup. The thing that got me through was focusing on the things I could control, training to be as ready as I could be, for whatever came next. As the pandemic subsided and the world started to get back to normal, so too did PDRL. Our full league came back in 2022, the World Cup was back on for 12 months later than originally planned, and England training began. Various away days and an overnight camp led to the England vs PDRL Select game. This was the decider for the World Cup squad, with players from across the league brought in to bulk out the other side. As Captain of Castleford Tigers, I had led the team to our best season yet. My personal performance had been strong, and I felt quietly confident about making that 20-man tournament squad.

My world was shattered when I was named in the PDRL Select team, rather than the England team. Despite the coaches' best efforts to explain it was to see me in a different position, with more game time, and that I was very much still part of the squad, the only thing I could see was my name not on that England team sheet. It was one of the most challenging weeks of my life, where I didn’t know what I could do to stop my dream from slipping through my fingers.

To me resilience doesn’t mean not going through tough times. It’s about coming out of the other side strong. With the support of those around me, and again, sticking to what I could control, I focused all my thoughts on the game.

Anyone that’s ever met me can attest to my competitiveness! But the thought of losing the chance to represent my country unlocked a level of competitiveness within me that I’ve never experienced before. Come game day, I was ready to run through brick walls to get to that England shirt. After everything that happened, it all came down to one 50minute game. It was do or die time. Six minutes into the game, I scored the first ever try in an England PDRL game. My own piece of history. My second try followed before the first half was out. Throughout the game, I continued to break the line, and was in the running for man of the match according to the commentators. Despite this, I’m my own worst critic, and came off the pitch worried that I hadn’t done enough.

I’m not ashamed to admit that the call from PDRL England Head Coach, and former England International, Shaun Briscoe to offer me my place in the England team brought me to tears. The last few months have been all about our final preparations, as the 20 players who would represent England in the first ever PDRL World Cup. We headed into camp on the 21 October, gearing up ready to take on our opponents over the next week: Australia, New Zealand, and Wales.

And after all the build-up and hard work, me and the England team became the first-ever Physical Disability Rugby League world champions on Sunday 30th October 2022. We beat New Zealand 42 - 10 in the World Cup final and I even scored a try.

As if that wasn't enough, England's success came after we went undefeated throughout the tournament. I was named top try scorer for England with 6 tries, and I also received two BBC Player of the Match awards.

Looking back on the ups and downs of my journey to this point, both physically and psychologically, they have crystallised what resilience really means to me:

Being honest and asking for help when you need it.

Stepping back to see the situation for what it is, not what your inner monologue tells you it is.

Focus on what you can control and let go of the rest.

From the outset, Schroders Personal Wealth (SPW) have been incredibly supportive. When each player needed a sponsor for the World Cup, SPW were happy to help. Throughout this journey if I have needed to take time away from work, often at short notice, then SPW have fully supported me.

I am beyond proud to be sponsored by Schroders Personal Wealth, and I’m so grateful for all of the support I’ve been given by the business, on my journey to the World Cup.

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