Few people get to combine their passions in one career package. Steve Brown has done just that, despite a life-changing accident which left him a wheelchair user.
A fall from a balcony in Germany 13 years ago broke Steve’s neck and trapped his spinal cord. He spent several weeks in a German hospital before being transferred to the specialist unit Stoke Mandeville in the UK for rehabilitation. It was here his transformation began.
Steve, 36, was guest motivational speaker at a wellbeing seminar held at Ashford International Hotel on 21 February and held the audience in rapt attention from the moment he wheeled his chair on to the stage. His good looks, strong physique and powerful personality command attention and it’s clear he refuses to be bound by his disability.
He also obviously loves public speaking and is completely at ease in front of a crowd, sharing anecdotes from his life with honesty, humour and no sign of embarrassment.
Steve, we learn, went to school at Sittingbourne in Kent, where a conversation with the careers officer as a teenager did not go as planned. “I had always loved sport and I told the teacher I wanted to play football or cricket for my county one day. He put me down, saying lots of young people had that idea, but few achieved it.
“A few days later, I went to him saying I also loved wildlife and I’d love to make that a career. Perhaps I could be a presenter on a TV programme? Again, the careers adviser was less than encouraging and I was sent away to think again.”
Eventually, Steve went to university to do a media studies degree, focusing particularly on photography, which he loved. When he graduated, he went travelling, finding jobs along the way. It was while he was staying with a girlfriend in Germany that he had his devastating accident.
“It was in 2005 and I was working as area manager for a holiday company,” he told the audience. “One evening, after dinner, I tripped on my girlfriend’s balcony and fell from the first floor. It was just an accident, I wasn’t fooling around or anything. I landed on my backside and was looking up as I fell, so my head went back over my shoulders, like severe whiplash. It snapped my neck, dislocating one of the cervical vertebra and trapping my spinal cord.”
A shocked silence descends on the audience as Steve describes his feelings immediately after the accident: “I was scared, nervous, embarrassed. I didn’t want to go out in public. Then something happened to make me see it wasn’t the end of the world.”
What happened was that he was introduced to wheelchair rugby in Stoke Mandeville and slowly realised there were opportunities out there, even for someone who would never walk again. He took up the sport, trained hard and focused on a vision of getting to the national championships. He was selected for the GB team and set himself another ambition – to become captain.
And that’s just what happened, at the 2012 London Paralympics. He captained the home team, playing in front of thousands of spectators in the basketball arena, with millions more watching on TV around the world. They came fifth, missing out on medals, but it was the experience of a lifetime – and meant Steve had more than achieved his first dream of performing in top-level sport.
Steve failed to qualify for the team going to the Rio Paraympics in 2016 because of a dislocated thumb, but was called by the BBC to be offered the job of commentating on the Games. He was a natural and was then offered a role with Channel 4, presenting coverage of the Invictus Games. This led to another opportunity to prove his careers officer wrong.
“I love wildlife, always have done – ever since my dad used to take me birdwatching as a boy. I was asked by the BBC’s Countryfile if I would like to audition for a presenter job. I took my eldest nephew Louis out on a nature reserve and we were filmed looking out for birds. The producers seemed to like what they saw and I was taken on.”
Since then, Steve has appeared on several wildlife programmes on TV and most recently took part in a challenging documentary which transported six people with disabilities to Vietnam to travel 1,000 miles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Steve shows the audience a section of the film and it is harrowing to watch him hoisting himself backwards on his bottom up a treacherous path, to become the first wheelchair user to reach a cave high on a mountain side. “It was, without doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says honestly. “It took me completely out of my comfort zone, but I managed it and made some amazing friendships along the way. What we had in common was not our disabilities, but our attitude to life. I still get emotional watching that bit.”
After the talk, I grab five minutes with Steve, who is as charming and gracious face-to-face as he is in front of the crowd.
He tells me his mantra for life is “to make people realise it’s not what happens to you, but how you deal with it that’s important. It’s all about hard work and feeling good about yourself.” Sounds good to me, Steve. I feel we shall be seeing you on our screens for some years to come.