Initially Anna was just proud to be at the Invictus Games in Florida. She didn’t think that she’d be able to win a medal.
It wasn’t until she came up against the Americans on the cycling track and came within touching distance of the podium that she thought, “I can do this, I could get a medal here.”
From then, as her competitive spirit kicked in, it was only a matter of time.
“I thought he was an idiot”
Anna joined the RAF when she was 17, keen to take on physical challenges and keep fit.
It was this interest that led to her meeting her husband. In 2003 she had to do regular physical training (PT) sessions, and one of the Army trainers was keen on pushing people past their limits.
“He was proper gung ho. Whenever he was taking a lesson we’d say ‘Oh god no’ because he used to really try and beast you.
“So I thought he was a bit of an idiot, but he thought I was one as well because I’d refuse to do the really hard stuff.
“He didn’t like that, because in the Army you have to listen to the trainers.”
But their opinion of each other would soon change. One night they were at a social event at the NAAFI and they hit it off. A year later they were married.
Anna Pollock in fancy dress with her husband.
In late 2005, just after she’d been promoted to Corporal, Anna found out she was pregnant.
“Suddenly it wasn’t about me anymore: it was about this little baby. From the day that you find out that you’re pregnant you’re the protector of this child. It changes everything.”
So she went to see her Warrant Officer and said that she wanted to come out of the RAF.
“I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to give my career a hundred per cent anymore,” says Anna. “I wanted to be a mother first.”
It was a big change for Anna, who’d always been a risk taker and a bit of a dare devil.
Waking up in agony
By 2013, Anna’s family had increased to three and the family were ready to move to Gibraltar. Anna’s husband had been transferred out there and everyone was excited.
Anna had been planning to get back into work once her youngest was old enough. Gibraltar was the perfect moment for this as she had just qualified as a fitness instructor and wanted to set up her own business there.
The blood clot stopped all this from happening.
Anna (top right) as an RAF medic.
The night before they left for Gibraltar, Anna woke up in agony with severe pain in her back. An hour later she was paralysed from the waist down.
She was rushed to hospital where she was diagnosed with a bleed on her spine. This had clotted around a nerve and she would need an operation immediately.
The hospital didn’t have the right equipment, so she had to be transferred.
Three hospitals later, the doctors were able to operate but by this point it was too late. Anna was told that she would never walk again.
A shadow of her former self
As the months passed, Anna was able to get back on her feet, but only with a crutch. She couldn’t walk outside and suffered from chronic pain and fatigue.
Her family was thrown into disarray. Anna had always been proud of being a wife and mother: now her husband and her kids had to look after her.
“I used to be the life and soul of the party: telling jokes, first up to dance. Now I just wanted to go home.”
“I’d always been bold, been a fighter, and the bleed took that away from me. I lost the person that I was.
“I’d suddenly become a shadow of my former self.
Anna in the hospital with her children.
“I’d go out with my friends and feel like everyone was looking at me in my wheelchair. I used to be the life and soul of the party: telling jokes, first up to dance. Now I just wanted to go home and for no-one to see me.”
“I was constantly mourning the person that I used to be. I couldn’t get to grips with being happy when I couldn’t do the things I used to be able to do. I was letting my pain, my situation, get the better of me.”
Getting the spark back
In 2014 Anna went to a meet up for wounded, injured and sick veterans. They encouraged her to go out on a recumbent bike.
“I remember going down a hill at 25 mph with the wind in my hair and thinking it was immense.”
“When you jump out of an airplane, it makes you feel completely alive. Riding the bike made me want to keep that feeling, especially for my kids. They were becoming my carers and I didn’t want that for them.”
This was where she started fighting back. The Royal British Legion gave her funding to buy a recumbent bike of her own and Anna was off.
“The Legion gave me that spark, just riding that bike made me feel alive again.”
Anna started taking on challenges like long distance bike rides from Catterick to Windsor. Then she set her sights on triathlons. She took on Arch to Arc, a triathlon between Marble Arch in London and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Competitors run to the coast, swim the channel and then ride to Paris. It had never been attempted by a disabled team before.
The clock starts in London and doesn’t stop until Paris, no matter what conditions the competitors faced on the way.
When she crossed the finish line at the Arc de Triomphe Anna joined the handful of people who’d been able to take on and beat the triathlon. Completing Arch to Arc was another step forward for Anna.
“I realised that I didn’t have to give into the pain,” says Anna, “Even though I’d never be the person that I used to be, the person that I was becoming was ok too.”
Anna meets Prince Harry at the trials for the Invictus Games.
Each challenge completed gave Anna more confidence to regain control of the household and care of the kids.
Invictus: Master of my fate, Captain of my soul
“The year when I took on Arch to Arc was an unbelievable year. But at the end of it I had an operation which didn’t go very well.
“After the first operation I had to have another, then I became ill and I ended up coming down with Septicaemia.”
Anna’s contact at the Legion, Donna, knew that Anna had been having a tough time of it and suggested that she apply for Invictus.
“I didn’t think I had a hope in hell. I still felt unwell, I’d literally taken the last antibiotics two days before the trials. But Donna believed in me and said ‘You’ve got nothing to lose, just go for it’.”
Anna’s fears were groundless, she passed the trials and was going to the Games.
“The Legion did so much to get the families there, and that made such a big difference for everyone.
“I know for a fact that my kids will be better people for seeing how others have overcome their own challenges. It was such an unbelievable time.”
“The Invictus Games were another stepping stone. I realised it’s not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do.”
At the Games, Anna showed her fighting spirit, winning three bronze medals for swimming.
Anna competing in the backstroke at the Invictus Games Orlando 2016, where she won three bronze medals.
“I’ve always loved the feeling of being strong, of not being a weak little woman, of being able to take things on and beat them.”
Looking to the future
“No-one knew why the blood clot happened to me. I didn’t have an accident; it was just a freak event in the night. I was young and fit and healthy, and it was unheard of for it to happen to someone like me.
“When I look back at all of these amazing things that I’ve done since, it makes what happened to me easier to bear.
“This is especially true on my darker days, when I don’t get out of bed and the pain is just too much. I can think that I can do it, I just have to try tomorrow, because look what I’ve done, what I’ve achieved.
“It gives me a lot of self-worth as well. It means you’re not defined by your illness or injury. You’re defined by your ability to overcome and your ability to not let it be the end of you.
“Invictus pushed me to be more in control of my physical health day to day, so that I can be there for my kids. Now I’m increasingly in the driving seat as the head of family life. It’s not anywhere near as much I’d like to be but it’s better than it was. So that’s been a massive step forward for me this year.
“You can’t give up until you’ve tried. I won’t know whether I’ll be able to cope with all this until it all comes to fruition, but my main priority will always be being a mam and a wife first. That’s what’ll be my driving force, whatever’s best for them.
“At first my husband wouldn’t leave me alone with the children, but now I’m the one who’s in charge of the kids.
“I’ll always have chronic pain and chronic fatigue. It’s always there in the background, but the days you beat it: those are the victory days.
“Not every day can be a victory, which makes them all the sweeter.”
A new generation of veterans needs your support
RAF Medic Anna was paralysed in 2013.
With help from The Legion, Anna went on to represent Team UK at the Invictus Games.
Your donations help us to be there for people like Anna.