The man who took in Paralympian Jaco van Gass after he suffered life-changing injuries with the British Army has said “I’ve seen him (go from) the worst situation he could ever be in to winning a gold medal”.
The 35-year-old left his home in South Africa to pursue a military career 15 years ago, but was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan in 2009 while serving with the British Army’s Parachute Regiment and lost his left arm at the elbow.
Van Gass also suffered a collapsed lung, shrapnel wounds, punctured internal organs, a broken tibia and a fractured knee, requiring 11 operations and intense rehabilitation.
With family across the world, he was largely kept company upon his return to the UK by former paratrooper and darts announcer John McDonald, who met him at rehabilitation centre Headley Court and offered to host him at his home in London.
“As far as we were concerned we knew it would go one way or the other, and luckily for us he was a perfect house guest really,” Mr McDonald told the PA news agency.
“He just settled into the family – he attended weddings, family functions, even my 85-year-old mother-in-law called and said ‘I got up and watched it (the Paralympics), isn’t he amazing?’
“So he took to the family quite well, and he needed it at that time in his life.
“He says I’m his UK dad… I thought he was my mate! He was sitting in my hot tub in my house chatting away to the kids and I said to my wife ‘he never speaks to me like this’ – she said ‘you’re not his age!'”
Van Gass stayed with the McDonalds intermittently during his recovery and his pain was apparent to those around him.
“This is what people don’t understand about Jaco… they see the obvious, the missing left arm, but the injuries to his leg I would have said were much worse than anything I’d ever seen in my time in the military,” said Mr McDonald.
“The pain he was in every day, he lay on the settee in our house over Christmas.
“My wife is in the health service – she knows what it’s like to watch people in horrendous pain, and she would often comment on his bravery.”
After his own time in the military, Mr McDonald has sought to improve the morale of soldiers by arranging for them to attend sporting events such as boxing and rugby.
He also set up a service called Future Pathway, which offers athletes and veterans free access to educational opportunities.
Van Gass, now an ambassador for Future Pathway, was watched by what he calls his “UK family” in the early hours as he secured gold in the men’s C3 3000m individual pursuit in Tokyo on Thursday, before adding a bronze medal on Friday.
“We all went straight to bed and then we got up at 3.30am and watched the qualifying heat,” said Mr McDonald. “We went up to bed for a little while, then we got up at 8am to watch him win the gold medal.
“I’ve seen him (go from) the worst situation he could ever be in to winning a gold medal – I mean, what more can you say?
“He’s done it himself. No one can take the credit for him. It’s all him.”