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Sussex war hero's Paralympic race against time
Daredevil war veteran Joe Townsend wowed the crowds at the Olympic Stadium – but nearly missed his moment in the spotlight. The 24-year-old prospective Paralympian, who descended into the Olympic Stadium on a zip-wire from the ArcelorMittal Orbit, had major surgery on Monday.
A pressure sore in his leg became infected on Sunday and Mr Townsend, from Hankham, Pevensey, near Eastbourne, had to be whisked to hospital. But he managed to get out in time to carry the Paralympic Torch into the stadium in high-flying fashion.
Anna Roberts spoke to Mr Townsend and his family about his role in making sporting history.
Three weeks ago double amputee Joe Townsend, who was seriously injured in Afghanistan, got a rather unexpected phone call.
It was from the Paralympic organising committee. Bosses were interested in learning if Mr Townsend, a Royal Marine, was interested in playing a key role in the Paralympics Opening Ceremony on Wednesday night (August 29).
When they explained what was planned, Royal Marine Mr Townsend, who wants to compete in Rio 2016 as a Paralympic triathelete, did not hesitate in saying yes.
Joe TownsendI recovered quickly as I have had about 50 operations now. I wanted to be at the ceremony.
And so in front of millions of people he ‘flew’ into the Olympic Stadium on a zip wire, holding the Paralympic Torch.
He passed it to David Clarke, Britain's five-a-side football captain, wowing the crowd with many reviewers describing it as a highlight of the opening ceremony which was focused on the theme of enlightenment.
On Thursday (August 30) Mr Townsend, who was spending the afternoon at home, said: “It was pretty amazing.
“I got a call about three weeks before the event when they asked if I was interested in bringing the Paralympic Torch into the stadium.
“Of course I said yes.
“I went up there for the first time last week to see the scale of what of I was doing.
“On the night it was amazing.
“Before I went down the orbit I could see everyone in the stadium. The crowd was roaring and there were floodlights on me.
“It went without any snags.”
Mr Townsend, who lives in a specially-adapted bungalow in Hankham, met actor Ian McKellen and Beverley Knight who sang at the opening ceremony.
He said he had received lots of text messages from his Royal Marine colleagues, many ribbing him.
He said: “People were saying how brilliant it was but the rule is when you are on television in the Marines you have to buy all your fellow Marines a big crate of beer.
“I have had a lot of text messages saying, ‘Crate?’”
But the lead up to the ceremony was stressful. Mr Townsend said he was raced to hospital in Salisbury on Sunday for an operation under general anaesthetic.
He said: “There are two surgeons who perform surgery in Salisbury for military lads for free so I went there.
“I recovered quickly as I have had about 50 operations now.
“I wanted to be at the ceremony.”
Mr Townsend hinted he had a part to play in the ceremony in the hours leading up to it.
On Wednesday morning he tweeted: “Morning, I hope you are all watching the Paralympic opening ceremony tonight. If not, I advise you do as you might see someone familiar.”
He later added: “It’s going to be something special!”
Even Mayor of London Boris Johnson was impressed with Mr Towsend’s display, tweeting: “Thanks to Royal Marine Joe Townsend for the stunning zip wire display. That's how to do it!”
Mr Townsend’s grandmother Lynda Carter, 64, of Hankham, said: “He said he had a part in the Paralympics but he did not say what.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw him on the television.
“It was so emotional. His grandfather Dave was emotional too.”
His brother Charlie Townsend, 21, added: “I am so proud of Joe, he was great.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw him on television.
“He was unbelievable – amazing.”
Determination and drive
It is not surprising that Mr Townsend was picked to play such an important part in the Paralympic Opening Ceremony.
Since being injured he has impressed with his drive and determination.
Mr Townsend was serving with 40 Commando in Afghanistan's Helmand province in February 2008 when he trod on an anti-tank mine.
He had joined the Marines at the age of 17 and was five months into his first tour of Afghanistan when he lost both legs, one completely and one to the knee.
Mr Townsend, who attended Eastbourne's Ratton School, faced an initial 12 hours of surgery following his injury before being flown back to Britain for months of treatment and rehabilitation.
He spent time at the Ministry of Defence's Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court he found using sport and outdoor activities aided his rehabilitation.
At the end of June this year the avid hand cyclist, along with seven other wounded British servicemen, returned to the UK after finishing one of the world's toughest cycle races.
The team crossed the finish line after cycling 3,051 miles in the Race Across America (RAAM) in just seven days, seven hours and 59 minutes, with an average speed of more than 17mph.
The eight disabled servicemen received a heroes’ welcome on crossing the finishing line in Annapolis, Maryland, after setting off from Oceanside, California.
Mr Townsend covered up to 500 miles per day and scaled heights totalling more than 100,000ft.
In the process the team raised almost £100,000 for forces charity Help For Heroes.
A little over three years after he was injured, Mr Townsend had mastered his prosthetic limbs and was about to take on able-bodied athletes in one of the world's ultimate tests of endurance.
He had joined Team True Spirit - made up of patients and staff from Headley Court - with the goal of completing Ironman UK in Bolton in July last year. He successfully completed it in just 12 hours.
The event - a long-distance triathlon - is considered to be one of the toughest single-day endurance events.
In 2009, Mr Townsend accompanied Prince Harry during his visit to New York to meet wounded US troops at a veterans' hospital.
The Prince and Mr Townsend toured the advanced prosthetics facilities and a post-traumatic stress disorder treatment clinic at the Veterans Affairs Medical Centre in Manhattan.
Mr Townsend also made headlines after he become embroiled in a row with council chiefs over plans to build a specially-adapted bungalow.
Councillors had rejected an original bid to build the home on the grounds that it would be "intrusive".
The decision by Wealden District Council prompted tens of thousands of people to rally to Mr Townsend's cause, saying he deserved the property for the sacrifice he had made for his country.
The council shifted its initial stance after then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and then Conservative Party leader David Cameron urged the authority to reconsider its decision.