Actor, sports enthusiast and aspiring snowboarder Darren ‘Swifty’ Swift tells us how he followed his passions after losing both legs while on duty on Northern Ireland that changed everything…
Can you talk us through what happened to you?
In 1991 I was working as a tracker dog handler for the Royal Green Jackets regiment [now The Rifles] while stationed in Belfast. One afternoon I’d gone down to feed the dogs at the back of the security base we were in with my buddy, Terry ‘Geordie’ O’Neill, when two members of the IRA came out onto the fire escape of a nearby building and a ‘coffee jar bomb’ on our heads. It was basically a home-made grenade, but a new device and the first one they’d ever actually thrown live.
It landed at my feet and killed Geordie instantly. When I realised what had happened I just dealt with it as much as it could, trying to self administer. I had three or four minutes of numbness, but then there was moment where I thought I was going to die in a lot pain. I would have shot myself, but didn’t have my pistol on me. A good job, as I’d probably have shot my nose off, the way my luck was going that day.
What did your recovery involve?
I was flown back to mainland UK and admitted to Queen Elizabeth Hospital Woolwich and three weeks later I was at home on leave. I then had another 18 months of rehab and operations at Headley Court before being discharged from the military in 1992.
I’d been a soldier since I was 16 and knew nothing else, so I didn’t know then what I was going to do. I really wanted to get back to travelling, which was a big part of why I joined the army in the first place, so that’s what I did. I headed off to Canada for a couple of months, hired a car and just drove around the Rockies getting lost in the mountain woods and it was fantastic.
What were your initial plans for your post-army career?
I had relatives who worked at Pinewood Studios and one of them suggested I try doing extras work, but I thought ‘What are they going to want with a bloke with no legs?’ Still, I made a few calls, registered with a couple of extras agencies and the next thing I knew I was on some film with Clive Owen playing a bloke with one leg.
From there I did various films and TV shows. Lots of war films, science fiction, horror stuff, that sort of thing – anything with blood and guts. I’ve been doing that for about 23 years now, and within the last 10 I’ve done casualty simulations for the military and emergency services. You could call it ‘extreme medical role play’ where we simulate the initial point of incident through to hospitalisation. It requires a certain amount of acting, but essentially involves what I’m good at – being blown up!
Had you always been interested in extreme sports?
I didn’t do much sport during my 10 years in the army aside from the odd afternoon, because it was a very active job where you were constantly doing physical work. The first changed when some of us on the ward at Headley Court were taken by physios and OTs to Heron Lake, a water-skiing centre for people with disabilities. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and it was thrill to see that I could actually do something. I wasn’t great, but I could do it without falling in, so that was probably the launching pad for me to get into other things.
What sports have you been involved in, and what is your current focus?
I’m a qualified canoeist and do a bit of coaching. I did sit ski for about 10 years and a couple of competitions, but got bored with it. I remember having lunch in an Italian ski resort once, looking up the piste, and seeing these three young lads come speeding down on snowboards, slide up beside to me, take their boards off and go inside for a beer – and I thought I want to be able to do that.
Back home I got chatting to a mate of mine who’s a product designer. We drew a rudimentary sketch of specialist snowboard bindings on the back of a beermat and a couple of days later we worked up a basic prototype. Eight years later I’m now a snowboarder thanks to those bindings, but for someone like myself without the ability to use knees, you need some suspension between you and the board, which right now only comes through my pelvis. Once that’s done, I’d like to supply the bindings to ski resorts, so that people with similar disabilities can hire them out.
You recently acted in the theatrical production The Two Worlds of Charlie F – how did that come about?
Five years ago I auditioned for the National Theatre, got the job and did this play [Travelling Light] for the next seven months, plus a national tour. I only had four lines, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and on the back of that [Charlie F producer] Alice Driver invited me to join the cast and tour with them. I’ve had a few parts here and there on TV since then and am looking for other work, but I’m maybe a bit ‘niche’ – I’ve got to find the work that’s out there for a bloke with a big nose and no legs.
What’s next for you?
I want to make it to the 2018 Winter Paralympics in South Korea, but the IPC first needs to confirm that competitors with lower limb dysfunction can take part in the snowboard events. I’ll be going out and training in the meantime, but it’s frustrating not knowing. I’m of an age now – 48 – where 2018 is the one I need to be in. If the IPC gives the go-ahead, I’ll be pulling out all the stops.
– Swift’s acting and extras work has previously included appearances in, among others, Bramwell, Band of Brothers, Children of Men and Event Horizon
– Alongside fellow forces veteran Al Hodgeson and aerial cameraman Steve Newman, Swift was a member of the Lost Boys skydiving team. The first skydiving team to comprise two double-leg amputee performers, they went on to win the 2003 British Skydiving Championships
– Swift is closely involved with the Not Forgotten Association, which provides entertainment and recreation for the wounded, injured or sick serving and ex-service men and women. He has also done work for the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association and the Soldiering On Through Life Trust, organiser of the annual Soldiering On Awards