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BADMINTON HORSE TRIALS: Harry back from the brink
8:00am Thursday 8th May 2014 in Sport
HARRY Meade will never forget Christmas Eve 2013 and the horrible sleepless hours caused by a nightmare realisation that his riding career was all but over.
A dreadful competition fall four months previously when Meade, in his words, "was speared into the ground like a javelin" left him with elbow injuries so serious that one consultant said the shattered bone resembled grains of sand.
Even Meade's father - triple Olympic gold medallist Richard Meade - braced his son for the prospect of life beyond being a professional rider and running a busy competition yard at the family home in West Littleton, near Chippenham.
It was a potentially defining time for the 30-year-old - whose pregnant wife had nursed him through months of incapacitation - but he will complete a truly inspirational triumph over adversity this week when he lines up in the showpiece of world eventing.
Meade's appearance at the Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials represents a remarkable recovery from being stuck in a hospital bed unable to feed or wash himself, to once again rubbing shoulders with the sport's elite.
Badminton is no new experience for Meade. Not only does he live in the neighbouring village of Luckington, but he has also completed the demanding dressage, cross-country and showjumping skill and stamina tests on seven previous occasions, twice with this year's entry Wild Lone.
On August Bank Holiday Monday last year, though, the sporting fates dealt him a savage blow.
Expertly guiding Shannondale Santiago through the horse's first advanced class at Wellington Horse Trials in Hampshire - the combination lay in third place following dressage and showjumping - he suffered a rotational fall, the sort of fall that all riders fear and that claimed the life of fellow event rider Tom Gadsby only the weekend before.
The galloping Santiago made an uncharacteristic error on take-off at an early fence on the cross-country course, chesting the solid fence at speed and sending horse and rider momentarily into orbit.
Meade stretched both arms in a split-second attempt to break his fall - "it was either my arms that were going to take the impact or my neck," he recalled - and he knew instantly the injuries were bad. Very bad.
"My arms were out straight, they locked at the elbows and snapped backwards. I remember it all, 100 per cent," Meade told Press Association Sport.
"As soon as my hands hit the ground it felt like a trigger detonated explosives strapped to my elbows."
Meade was taken straight into an emergency operation. The elbows were dislocated as well as shattered, and a team of surgeons worked to get all the bones back into the right place.
When he came round from that operation, his arms were hanging from the ceiling. It was a position that he remained in day and night for the next week.
A limb reconstruction specialist, who predominantly works with injured soldiers whose limbs have been severely damaged by explosives, was brought in and carried out a second batch of operations. Meade's elbows were pinned, plated, wired and even glued back together, although there was no guarantee of success.
After six weeks of recuperation, during which time he existed in a child-like state of dependency, a lengthy gym-based rehabilitation period followed at Bath University and Moulton College in Northamptonshire.
"I thought it was all progressing pretty well," he added. "But I went back (to the hospital) in December, had a CT scan and was told the right elbow had shown no sign of healing.
"My arm still had multiple fractures running through it, so I was booked in four days later to have the elbow removed and a prosthetic joint put in. It was a real shock to the system.
"They do around 100,000 hip replacements a year in this country and 80,000 knees - but they only do about three elbows a year, with a 50-50 chance of working. At this point, it wasn't brilliant news.
"Then by complete chance, I was introduced to a doctor at Olympia Horse Show two days before the operation was due to take place.
"He had heard about the planned joint replacement and took me to one side, explaining that once they remove the elbow there is no going back, and the chances of making a good enough recovery to continue a career in eventing with a prosthetic elbow was slim."
With surgery looming, Meade cancelled the operation at the 11th hour, and he pushed on with his rehab regime in the hope that the broken bones would heal enough to ride again. Two months later he gingerly climbed back into the saddle to see if they were up to it.
He gradually started to train again and made an initial target of attending a British squad training session before competing again when the eventing season began in March.
"I suppose I have a stubborn streak in me," he said. "If I am told that there's a 90 per cent chance something won't work, all I hear is that 10 per cent will succeed and I'm going to be in that statistic.
"To be back at Badminton was my big target. When someone tells you that your career is over, it makes you look at things in a very different light.
"I didn't discuss my aims with too many people, but I think that the few who knew didn't believe I was serious. My father thought I was in denial that my career was over. When I said I planned to compete at Badminton he assumed it was part of a grieving process!
"When you get a second chance, you don't take things for granted. I am going to enjoy Badminton, especially having thought it was never going to happen again."
The hard work seems to be paying off. Amazingly, far from just finding his feet again, 2014 has seen the best start to any season in Meade's career.
Having passed his own punishing fitness test of competing five horses in one day at Devon's Bicton Arena last month, including Shannondale Santiago, Meade is ready to meet the Badminton challenge once again.
And there will be a new addition to the family looking on - Meade's baby son Charlie, who arrived so quickly in January that he had to be delivered at home by his father.
It prompted Meade's fellow rider Sam Griffiths to tweet: "What can't you do?"
And as a summary of the last eight months in Harry Meade's life, there could be no more apt a description.
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