The Sydney alumnus helping people of all abilities get active

6 September 2018
James Gribble's life changed forever when he broke his neck in a freak accident. Now he's working to make his favourite sport accessible for everyone.
James Gribble

James Gribble plays golf using an all-terrain wheelchair and a customised grip.

James Gribble is quick to admit he didn’t know much about disability until he broke his neck.

It happened in 2008 – seven years after his graduation from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Economics. He was 29 years old, taking a break from his work in investment banking to travel and work on microfinance projects. He had just set off on a trip that began in Cape Town and was supposed to finish in Cairo. Instead, he ended up in the spinal cord injury unit of a Johannesburg hospital.

A life-changing moment

The accident happened on the tiny island of Bovu on the Zambezi River. Gribble had travelled there by four-wheel-drive, then dugout canoe. He was hoping to catch a tiger fish – a prized catch for anglers in southern Africa.

Before arriving on Bovu, he had gone for a run in the sweltering heat. Later that evening, while sitting on a stool in a communal fishing hut, he fainted and fell backwards onto the sand. The impact broke two vertebrae near the base of his neck.

He spent seven months in hospital – and years working towards recovery. His doctors thought he’d never walk again. But the fall left his spinal cord damaged, rather than severed, so eventually he regained some movement in his arms and legs. These days, he can walk short distances on crutches. It has been an eye-opening experience for someone who once thought “a quadriplegic was someone who drove around in a power chair controlled by their chin”. (The term refers to anyone with partial or total paralysis of all four limbs.)

'I didn’t think it'd be permanent'

The first three decades of Gribble’s life had revolved around competitive sport. As a student at St Andrew’s College at the University, he swam, played basketball, rugby and soccer. He toyed with becoming a professional golfer before moving into finance.

He has always been the type to set big goals and dedicate himself to achieving them. Before his injury, for example, he was planning to learn to speak Spanish, play the saxophone and fly a helicopter.

For years after breaking his neck, he thought that this, too, was something he could beat with determination and dedication. “If anybody told me I wasn’t going to go back to my best, I wouldn’t listen to them. I’d just use what they’d said to focus more on getting better.” he says. “For the first four years I didn’t think it'd be permanent. Probably that sounds ridiculous, but in my mind, I was making progress and it was just a matter of hours put in.”

He put off returning to things he loved, such as travel and sport. “I thought, why would I waste my time? I’ll do all that when I make a full recovery.” But as time went by and his repair slowed, he realised: this was how life was going to be. He had to find a way to pursue his passions as he was.

Back to the golf course

The first time he hit a golf ball as a quadriplegic was in a park, with his father.

“I stood up on my crutches, got dad to strap a club to my hand and made the swing. I was pretty unstable, but I made contact OK. That feeling of hitting it sweetly – yeah, that was really something.”

Since then, he has made it his mission to help people with disabilities get onto the golf course. He has established a business, Empower Golf, which delivers clinics and provides equipment for people of all abilities to try the game. He is working to establish a network of inclusive golf clubs with accessible spaces and equipment for disabled golfers. Gribble plays using an all-terrain wheelchair that raises him into a standing position to swing. He also has a customised grip that fastens the club to his hand.

“It’s about working with golf clubs so inclusion becomes a priority, not a nice-to-have,” he says. “Golf is arguably one of the most inclusive sports, because of its handicap system. I don’t have to play with other guys in wheelchairs. I can play with a professional, against my mum, or anyone else. We can all compete and enjoy it together.”

Golf is arguably one of the most inclusive sports.
James Gribble

As well as returning to golf, he has started travelling again. Last August, with a group of eight friends, he returned to Africa, determined to continue the trip from Cape Town to Cairo that was cut short all those years ago. He wanted to catch that tiger fish.

His friend, the filmmaker Nicole Alexander, was one of the group and is making a feature-length documentary, Tiger Fish, about the experience. It is due for release in early 2019.

Did he catch the fish? “I can’t tell you,” he says. “It’ll spoil the film.” But he did come back with something even more valuable. On the first night of the trip, he met the woman he wants to spend his life with. A South African friend of one of his travelling companions, she came to meet the group for dinner in Johannesburg. He hopes they’ll be able to live in the same country before long.

Life is going pretty well. A decade after his accident, Gribble is starting to think about those old ambitions: to learn Spanish, to play the sax, to fly a helicopter. “I’m learning Spanish remotely,” he says. “Saxophone would be a nightmare with my hand function, but I’m trying the digeridoo. And there’s a quadriplegic in Moree who’s trying to get a helicopter adapted for a person with a disability to fly. So who knows?”

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