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How Commonwealth Games hopeful Micky Yule rebuilt his life after Afghanistan bomb

For Micky Yule, it all changed in a split second.

Photograph: Alastair Devine and Stuart Gray
Photograph: Alastair Devine and Stuart Gray

A time frame little more than the blink of an eye; the lone beat of a bird's wing; a single breath, which saw his life jump the tracks on to an irrevocably altered path.

A staff sergeant in the Royal Engineers, the 35-year-old was serving in Afghanistan when, on a routine mission to clear improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one detonated beneath his foot. Yule lost both legs instantaneously. The left one was severed from the knee down, the right an unsalvageable tangle of bone, muscle and sinew.

Yule gazed upon the carnage, both disconnected yet fully engaged in the moment. "I can't remember being in any pain, only feeling shock and hoping that the guys who were giving me the first aid could stop the bleeding," he says.

"I think there was just so much adrenalin rushing through my body. I can't recall it being excruciating, it was almost as if it was beyond pain.

"There wasn't a feeling of screaming in agony, more one of being shocked and realising what had just happened. It was knowing that, depending on the next five minutes, I would either live or die."

He was under no illusions about the severity of his injuries. "I could see it," he says, simply. "It was more the visual of my right leg that stood out because it was still there but in a bad, bad way. The left leg wasn't there at all: it was gone completely. It's a strange feeling because you think it's going to be there somewhere, perhaps lying nearby."

As medics battled to stem the bleeding, there came the welcome, almost soothing sound of thudding rotor blades in the distance. "The last thing I remember was the down draft of the helicopter, I could feel the heat from the engines. I knew there was specialist support on board. I'd seen guys in a bad way be put on those helicopters and live.

"In a strange way, I felt relieved. I knew that if I was still alive when I got to them, I was in a good place because they had saved so many of the lads."

Airlifted to the UK from Helmand province, he spent eight weeks in hospital, including two in intensive care. When Yule woke from an induced coma six days after his emergency helicopter evacuation to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, first came the task of absorbing the enormity of what had happened.

"I was in a room on my own at first, so you don't really get to see anyone else because you are hooked up to so many machines," he recalls.

"It was only when I went to Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Unit in Surrey, where everyone who is severely injured in Afghanistan goes, that I began to see people in different stages of recovery.

"You see the guys who are two years post-injury, walking, carrying on with life and regaining their independence. It's encouraging to see the lads who are six or nine months ahead of you. It makes you want to set your own goals. You think: 'I want to be where he is. I want to be like that guy who is two years down the line. I want to be driving, getting out of my wheelchair and walking.'"

He has undergone 40 operations while adapting to life as a double amputee and, testament to his determination, soon set his sights on a far greater challenge.

Yule is among Scotland's leading hopes for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and the Musselburgh powerlifter is ranked seventh in the world in his 72kg weight class.

If he can lift between 190-195kg - almost three times his body weight - that will push him into the medal zone.

It is a feat made all the more remarkable given that he only embarked on his bid for selection two-and-a-half years ago: a mere 12 months after being injured in 2010.

Formerly a competitive amateur powerlifter in the Army, he heard about the Gold4Glasgow scheme, launched by the sportscotland institute of sport to uncover talent for the Commonwealth Games and turn ordinary Scots - office workers, students, recreational enthusiasts - into champions.

When Yule attended the talent scouting day in Stirling, he was unsure what to expect but, having impressed selectors, he returned home brimming with optimism. "At first I thought my injuries were so extreme that I would never be able to get back into competitive sport," he says. "Being selected for the programme gave me something to focus on and get motivated.

"I was so happy that they saw something in me because back then I was still fairly weak - only showing about 75% of my potential - and knew how many operations and months of rehabilitation I had ahead of me."

That early ambition hasn't faltered. Yule won the British Weightlifting Association for the Disabled National Powerlifting Championships last June, setting a new record with a personal best of 183kg.

He has since bettered that with 186kg at the Malaysia Open Powerlifting Championship in November, placing him on track for success at the Commonwealth Games. Powerlifting is one of five para-sports included in Glasgow 2014, alongside cycling, athletics, bowls and swimming.

Yule splits his training between Edinburgh and Leeds, with his base and family home in Lincoln. He is married to Jody, 34, a jewellery designer, and has a six-year-old son Charlie who reckons his dad is the strongest man in the world.

"Most of my medals and trophies are up in his room - I only have a few down in the cabinet," says Yule.

"I think he tries to bluff his mates they are his. When Charlie watches the WWE wrestling on telly, he'll ask me: 'Dad, are you stronger than that guy?' and I'll say: 'Oh yeah, easy'. They will be 6ft 8in giants but he still reckons I could beat them."

Yule was given a medical discharge from the Army in October which, after 18 years' service, he admits still feels "a bit strange and surreal".

Rehabilitation has proved to be its own steep learning curve. After "31 years of having legs", learning to walk again with prosthetics, he says, is hard to get your head around.

"You go through so many emotions as you learn to adapt," he says.

"Some of the lads I compete against were born with disabilities and, yes, they've had to deal with that, but mostly it's all done and dusted for them in terms of coming to terms with it mentally and physically.

"For example, after an amputation you can get phantom pain where the leg used to be and that can continue for a few years. Most of the other guys are beyond that stage. I'm still dealing with it as well as making sure I'm keeping up with them when it comes to the numbers I'm lifting."

But even that discomfort is slowly abating. "I'm getting it less and less," he says. "Sometimes I get a shooting pain for no reason, which I think is just my brain trying to send a signal down to check that my legs still aren't there.

"In terms of pain, I'm on top of that. I just need to make sure I keep my walking going because the more you do that, the better independence you have. I like walking and not being in my wheelchair, so that's what I'm concentrating on at the moment."

Yule possesses an infectious enthusiasm, coupled with a brilliantly dry - verging on black - sense of humour.

While convalescing, he met Prince Charles, who asked about his role searching for IEDs. Yule pointed to his legs and deadpanned: "As you can see, I found one ..."

While acutely aware of the intrinsic dangers of his Army job, he made a conscious effort not to dwell on it.

"I've had friends who were blown up, shot, killed. But if you got into the mindset of worrying about it, it would drive you mad. I had to get out there and do my job each day."

Yule concedes that the events in Afghanistan will remain forever ingrained in his mind.

"It was just a normal day, everything was routine up until then," he says. "There are parts that are blurry, but I can remember most of it including the actual incident. I'm not going to forget that because it's the biggest thing that has ever happened to me. It's etched in there, that memory isn't going anywhere."

He hasn't given much thought to how life might have unfolded if he hadn't been injured. "There's every chance I would have been back out to Afghanistan because you go out there every 18 months to two years," he says.

"A lot of my best mates are still in the Army. I may be on a different path now, but they are all really supportive of what I'm trying to do. A few of the lads are hoping to come and watch me compete in Glasgow."

Yule had hoped that operation number 40 last year would be his final one, but has recently discovered he may not quite be at the end of that road.

"I'm due to have another one on January 23, a skin graft on my leg," he says. "It's all smaller and smaller stuff but it's still hanging about. I don't know when it will all come to an end.

"Thankfully because I have such a good relationship with my surgeon, I've arranged to go in the week after I've been in Hungary competing. Hopefully I'll only be in two days and then home. Compared to some of the operations I've had, it's nothing: just like going in for a little service.

"I'll take three days off and get straight back to training. As long as I don't burst any stitches it should be fine. I can't sit around and do nothing. The Games are getting too close now. I need to be hitting those numbers."

He hopes to inspire others and has already taken a role in helping nurture the sporting talent of other injured soldiers.

"A big part is being able to show other people who have been injured that life isn't over - they can achieve their goals," says Yule. "I see guys in the same position I was a year or two ago and try my best to encourage them. There are two or three lads who have started showing interest so I'm keen to keep them on track. They've got that twinkle in their eye of wanting to get back into sport."

His ambitions don't end with Glasgow 2014. Yule hopes to be part of the GB team competing at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. "I have a big Brazilian flag above my bench which I look at every time I train," he says. "It reminds me where I want to go."

Whatever happens, his dogged tenacity shows few signs of waning. "I've never been in a position before where I've had to push myself as far and hard as I have," he says. "I never expected it to happen, but once you accept it and start having different ambitions, you get on with it as best you can.

"I'm not one to sit back and dwell on things. What happens, happens. As long as you still have goals and are dedicated to achieving those, I believe you can do anything you set your mind to." n

Micky Yule is one of the subjects of a series of Team Scotland "ones to watch" images released to mark 200 days to go until the Commonwealth Games. Keep up with all the Team Scotland news on the supporters' website goscotland.org or on Twitter @Team_Scotland

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