Sports Life Stories


Watch James on Sports Life Stories, Tuesday 22nd October at 10:00pm on ITV4.

In this brand new series to ITV4, James talks to Gabriel Clarke about his career as an oarsman and as an adventurer, as well as the cycling accident which caused life-changing brain damage.

Featuring top names from Olympic gold medalists to Champions League winners, Sports Life Stories focuses on the lives of iconic sporting figures.

With contributions from five-time Olympic champion Sir Steve Redgrave and James’s wife, TV presenter Beverley Turner, the programme reveals how he approached the challenges in front of him - from rowing to physiotherapy - and he talks candidly about how the brain damage has affected his personality, his relationship with his family, and his attitude to life.

When he wasn’t selected to represent Britain at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, James says he made up his mind to quit the sport in a fit of pique: “Selectors sat me down and said, ‘You will never row for Britain again, we are going to take away all your funding.’ I went, ‘Well it’s a boring sport, I don’t want to do it,’ and went away. And that’s when it hit me that I had the talent to do that and I had wasted it.”

After having to sit out the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when he contracted tonsillitis at the last minute, James was determined to find success in the cox-less fours in Sydney four years later. So much so, says Sir Steve, that he became the driving force behind the gold-medal winning team, giving the other three rowers a hard time in training: “He would be sort of boiling under the collar, and this is almost every session, every day. He was our motivation, he was the one who was sort of pushing us.”

Beverley provides an insight into what happened after James went on to win gold again at Athens in 2004: “There’s a sense with James that all of his achievements haven’t meant as much to him as they might for you or I. So he very quickly moved on. We had dinner when he won his medal and the next day he was thinking about what he was going to do next. He is relentless, and you know he always has been.”

James explains that after retiring, rowing the Atlantic ensured he never wanted to row again. He then took to skiing across Antarctica, and later ran seven marathons in six days. Sir Steve says he believes James may have taken on challenges like these because he felt unfulfilled as an athlete: “Maybe because he stopped slightly earlier than I think he should have done.”

After being hit by the wing mirror of a lorry while cycling across America as part of another challenge in June 2010, James suffered brain injuries which meant his personality changed. He reveals that he now suffers from epilepsy and has lost feelings such as empathy and motivation: “After a brain injury you react differently to situations - my kids had one dad for six years and a different one for the last three.”

He and Beverley talk about a moment when the pair argued and he grabbed her by the neck. She says: “James got very agitated one night, I was wound up, I was newly pregnant as well, tempers frayed and James kind of got me by the neck, and it was really scary. The most important part of that story for me is that my sister walked through the door and just took him in her arms and just said, ‘It’s not you James, it’s not you.’”

Despite the impact of his brain injury, Beverley says she is trying to stay positive: “I think the man that I married did disappear, yeah he did. But there are elements that I have grown to admire about who he is now that I probably wouldn’t have done if the accident hadn’t have happened. There was a lot about the old James that I wasn’t very keen on, to be honest.”

Now James plans to stand as a member of the European parliament in the next elections in May 2014, and he explains he is determined not to be defined by his Olympics medals. He says: “There’s no doubt it is a huge gamble because as a sportsman you have a different level of good feeling from people which politicians especially over the last five years haven’t generally had. But the one thing I’ve always lived by is that the Olympics were something I did, not who I am. And for me I want to test myself and show that there is more to me than a decent physiology for rowing, that I can be on top of a variety of complex issues, which is what you need to be as a European MP.”

Taking part in the World Duathlon championship in Holland, he admits that he is addicted to pushing his limits. Yet he says the thing he most wants to achieve is to get his personality back: “Probably to hear Bev say, ‘You’re back’, it would be nice to hear that.”

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  • Hi,

    I recently watched the ITV documentary Sports Life Stories. I found it very fascinating and informative. I also suffered a TBI in 2009 after a fall. The honest and open way James spoke of his recovery really hit home and I was amazed how the injury affected James, myself and our families in such a similar way. My partner was also pregnant at the time and to hear James's wife talk of her struggle really made me appreciate what my wife went through. I have since bought James's book which is a really good read. I hope ITV will release the documentary's on DVD.
    Michael Ryan
  • Hi James
    Thanks for finding the time to talk to us and sign autographs at the Mediterranean rowing club yesterday, a source of inspiration for all of us young and old with your amazing exploits challenging yourself continuously to the limit and beyond! I was saddened to hear of your accident and as a dental surgeon used to empathising with my patients, losing the gift of empathy must be very hard and I wish you can slowly but surely regain your sense of self and recover from this traumatic episode. No doubt you have our support and votes in your quest to become MEP for Gibraltar and South West England next year.
    My sons Adam and Ryan are both keen rowers and were very happy, as was I, to speak briefly with you yesterday.
    Thanks James,
    Best wishes,
    Keith, Adam and Ryan Vinnicombe
  • I've just finished reading your's and your family story - it's amazing ..........

    Thanks for sharing both your pain and progress - I wish you strength to keeping pushing mate!
  • Hi James, I watched Sports Life Story last night and it really stuck a chord with me. I stuffed a serious traumatic brain injury 30 years ago when I was knocked off a bike and still suffered the occasional seizure as a result. It does take time to recover, but with your amazing attitude, I'm sure the old personality will come back and you'll continue to live life to the full
    Richard Purdy
  • James, I found this documentary thought provoking and touching. trauma and brain injury are rarely exposed with their consequences and your candar, determination and optimism are freshing and I hope, an inspiration for others.
    Having been through mental trauma in recent months, I know that I have the opportunity to make some changes in the way I deal with some aspects of life. I was shocked by the stats about relationship break ups, but on reflection, perhaps not surprised.
    Watching this tonight has provoked some action to ensure I do not slip back in to my previous pattern of work which was limiting time and attention for my family. Sincere regards
    Neil Durno
  • Just wanted to wish James well after seeing the heart warming and heart breaking Sports Life Stories. James is obviously an amazing character and I wish him and his family the very best for the future.

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