Niki Lauda, the late Formula One great, proved the catalyst in driving England’s towering goalkeeper Rob Johnson to an emotional medal at the Euro ParaHockey Championships two years ago.
In 2017, Johnson’s life was in danger after the 6ft 8in keeper had a seizure on the pitch and was then placed in intensive care for two days. But Johnson, who has a learning disability, rallied back to health to wear the England jersey in Antwerp against UK Lions in the Challenge final.
“The whole experience has been one big step to another,” said the 38-year-old. “Two years ago I was in hospital on the day of the finals although I did get a medal and the chance to see the trophy.
“It did stir up a few memories but as soon as I got it out my system I was able to concentrate on the job.”
He returned to health and fitness through hockey by his coach and key mentor, Steve Bradley, playing with soft balls as a gradual process back to the game.
“I wanted to get back into it straight away,” admitted Rob. “It was a similar situation when Niki Lauda got back into an F1 car after his accident. His first race he was dropping back and everyone was going past him.
“It’s how I felt and he is one of my favourite F1 drivers. I used it as a point for me to grow back into hockey. As soon as I found my stride I was back to my old level.
“To go back to hockey after my incident has been an amazing experience. It’s been a tough journey.”
Rob, who works with Parkride, Midland Mencap’s disability cycling project, added: “I always enjoy hockey tournaments and being a goalkeeper. You’ve got your team-mates in front of you and I’m always challenged with every given chance and that’s what spurs me to get better.”
With his love of F1, did Rob relish balls hurtling towards him? He said: “Well, I’ve had a few hit me on the arms and upper thigh. Apart from that, whenever a ball comes flying at me, I make sure my kickers, chest guard or hand glove are in the way. I just love it.”
The driving force behind his progression has been Bradley, the England team coach. “Steve has given me tough sessions but it’s all been worth while. I wouldn’t be sat here today with a silver medal. It’s thanks to his training and expertise that has helped me grow as a player and individual.”
With that he turned to Steve and said: “Thank you, you are the best coach ever.” Steve added: “It means so much to the players that this is one sport that they can really have a go at and get really stuck in. They come to training come ice or hammering down with rain and want to be together. They’ve never played before so they’ve all learnt at the same time.”
The ParaHockey in Antwerp was a vibrant occasion in 2019, with a raft of support for the players across the nine nations competing. Now, the push is to get more clubs involved.
“It’s great to be part of the ParaHockey experience,” said Rob. “We just need a few more clubs to get started with it and hopefully this tournament can show everyone what can be achieved. This has proved to people what can be done in the UK. We can come to a tournament like this and have two UK teams in a final and both going for gold.”
Ahead of the 2021/22 season, we are celebrating club hockey by reproducing some of our best print archive for online
Your club can offer ParaHockey. Find out more at www.accesssport.org.uk