EXCLUSIVE: Aaron Phipps - GB Wheelchair Rugby's Kilamanjaro Climber Eyes A Return to the Gold Medal Summit - Ruck

EXCLUSIVE: Aaron Phipps – GB Wheelchair Rugby’s Kilamanjaro Climber Eyes A Return to the Gold Medal Summit

With the 2024 Paralympic Games continuing to come over the horizon, one member of the Team GB Wheelchair Rugby squad has a renewed sense of spirit heading into Paris. Having scaled Kilamanjaro by crawling on his hands and knees, Aaron Phipps MBE knows all too well the human endurance it takes to reach the quite literal mountain top.

Whether its battling through a four-day crawl to summit of the Tanzanian titan, or leading Great Britain to their first ever Paralympic gold medals, Phipps’ mentality of overcoming the world’s obstacles is something which he’s incorporated into a successful career as a motivational speaker. Eyeing up the incoming Paralympics as potentially his final crack at the podium, the 41-year-old spoke exclusively to RUCK about his pinnacle accomplishment.

“I think Kilimanjaro, I would never have made it to the top if it wasn’t for my sport and experience.” Phipps said, when comparing the two incredible accolades. “But, I knew how far I could push myself. You know, I’ve done Vo2 Max tests I understood nutrition and things, and when the going got tough on that mountain, I kind of knew what I had in the tank, although that was more extreme than I’ve ever experienced before.

“But, you know how to look after yourself. And I think sport does that for you, doesn’t it, it teaches you little lessons about life. I’m pretty sure that if I hadn’t been a Paralympian before, I wouldn’t have made it to the top of that mountain. I think it all probably stems from being poorly when I was 15. So I got a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that.

“I’ve been aware of my own mortality, and I just thought, There’s no way I’m going to get carried on this mountain. Also in wheelchair rugby, I’m the least disabled. And if I’ve got carried up that mountain, I mean, Dave (Ross), and everybody else I’d have never heard the end of it! It would have been horrendous, for the rest of my career, I’d have been the guy who got carried up a mountain!”

Ever a finder of silver linings amongst the darkest of skies, Phipps was an able bodied person until a battle with Meningitis changed his life at 15-years-old. An amputee following his year-long fight against the illness, Phipps found a new lease on life after his recovery, and believes that he would not have become an elite level athlete, had his life continued on the way which it was heading as a teenager.

An inspirational individual, Phipps takes a leading voice in the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby set-up, but recognised how his team talks differ to when he speaks publicly. Phipps does not have to breathe determination into his teammates, as every one of his on-court colleagues have overcome life’s hardest obstacles, and backed themselves against the odds to wear the union jack upon their chest.

“I guess for me, I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t been poorly. I don’t know what route my life would have gone down. There’s no way that I would have had the determination to become an elite athlete at all. I was making bad choices as a teenager, and that probably made me (change).

“But across the squad, everybody’s got their own story. We’re probably all wired that way a little bit, because of, you know, what’s happened to us. So, I guess this goes back to your point about, you know, when we’re in training, when you’ve got that many elite, angry people who are that motivated, when you’re training against them all the time, it can be tough, and it can take it out of you.

“It’s not that I’m drawing on my own experiences to teach them, I guess that’s what I do with my motivational speaking, with people that perhaps haven’t been through that. But, you know, with my teammates, most of them have, I’m less disabled than most of them.”

Supported by non-profit organisation Get Kids Going and an avid fundraiser for charities, Phipps’ raised an outstanding £250k for the Meningitis Research Foundation when he reached the 19,340ft peak of Kilimanjaro back in 2016. With his Dad by his side for the journey, Phipps refused any assistance and scaled the mountain unaided once his wheelchair proved useless against the terrain.

With countless supporters willing him on, Phipps had plenty of people behind him as he scaled the colossal mountain face. The reality of his accomplishment only settled in once he returned home, to which Phipps recalled some very interesting conversations.

“Well, I was there with my dad. I dragged him along so he could fix my wheelchair if I broke it is like no mechanic. So I was there with him. I was doing it for the Meningitis Research Foundation, that was a charity I was raising it for. There was this really lovely moment when Benny from the charity was there. And you know, they were saying to me, you’ve got to be carried, and I was crying going ‘Benny, I can’t be carried’, and he went ‘I know mate, just go for it and we’ll see what happens.’

“I mean, when you think how much was riding on that, in terms of, you know, if we’d failed, we’re raising a hell of a lot of money for charity, that would have been bad. But for him to have the balls in that point to go, ‘yeah, okay, let’s do it.’ When he had so much pressure on him as well, he’s someone else that I really respected.

“But to be honest, it wasn’t until I got home and people went to me, ‘how did it go?’ And I went ‘I crawled’ and they’d be like, ‘what do you mean, you crawled?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, they we’re going to carry me. So I crawled for four days, I wasn’t going to get carried,’ they went, ‘what?’

“That’s when I realised what I’d achieved. I didn’t realise it. When I was doing it. I just was like, ‘well, you’re not carrying me, that’s stupid, shut up.’ So I was stubborn and just did it. It was when I got home, and then when I started talking about it to people, the penny dropped what I’d actually done.”

Image Credit: IsouCentre Sport

After the incredible effort to scale the highest peak on the African continent, Phipps added a solid string to his motivational speaker’s bow. Having already tested the waters within the industry ahead of the climb, the Great British icon has since been sharing his story through corporate events discussing his mountain summit and the 2021 Paralympic gold medals. In what was the first team gold for Great Britain at the Paralympics, Phipps explained how the on-court achievement lifted his motivational speaking career to even greater heights.

“It originally started off the back of London (2012 Paralympics – fifth place). So I had friends who were teachers and in schools, and they’d asked me to go in and do assemblies in primary schools, and the teachers would say, ‘that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. You need to do this as a job’, and it built up from there.

Image Credit: Aaron Phipps

“What really amplified it was winning the (gold) medal (2021 Tokyo Paralympics). Yes, Kilimanjaro helped, but it was after we won the medal, people wanted to hear about that and our success. I mean, on paper, we went from fifth in the world, in the middle of a pandemic, to gold medal, which was unheard of. So that’s what really what amplified it, but I like the sound of my voice so that plays up to my strengths!”

Phipps sounded off this insight into his incredible mindset, by revealing some of the most compelling motivators that gets the Team GB trailblazer up and going. Phipps believes that to live life to it’s fullest, you should never be afraid to vary up the day to day, and to take risks to avoid a predictable routine in your comfort zone. Summarising his thoughts that spurred him to do the Kilimanjaro climb, Phipps said;

Image Credit: KOMPAS TV

“Don’t overthink things, just do it. That’d be my advice to people is don’t overthink stuff. I think my story is probably a good example of how things can go wrong very quickly and it’s no one’s fault. It’s just one of those things. So just push yourself out of your comfort zone, you know, do something that you’ve been putting off for ages, sign up to do a charity event.

“Life gets interesting outside your comfort zone, doesn’t it? You think everything’s gonna be the same, and you don’t know what’s around the corner. So do something that you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.”

Coming Soon: Aaron Phipps Interview Part 2 – 2024 Paris Paralympics preview as Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby look to retain gold medals.