Two years after a brain injury left him introverted and aggressive, James Cracknell and his wife Bev tell how it nearly tore them apart
17:25 GMT, 4 November 2012
Olympic rower James Cracknell and his wife Beverley have talked about little else in the past two years besides whether they can hold their marriage together. They’re still not sure.
The other weekend they celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary with a night away at a hotel in Richmond, south-west London.
It was one of the few grown-up times they’ve had together without their three children – Croyde, nine, Kiki, three, and 18-month-old Trixie – since James suffered a brain injury after being whacked on the back of the head by the wing mirror of a petrol tanker while cycling in Arizona.
James and Beverley are still unsure of whether they can hold their marriage down
‘It was awkward,’ says James, 40. ‘It was really nice to get away, but there was also that realisation that we hadn’t had time alone together for so long so it felt very unusual. It was a lesson we should do it more often. If I don’t make an effort, the reality is I may not have my family in the future.
'That would be the worst outcome – if we don’t stay together.’ And, for a man who struggles to show emotion since his brain injury, James looks indescribably sad.
It was in July 2010 that the double Olympic rowing gold medallist was hit by a truck while attempting to travel from Los Angeles to New York in 16 days – running, cycling, rowing and swimming.
His brain smashed against the front of his skull, damaging the frontal lobe – the part of the brain that governs personality.
When the call came, Beverley, now 38, didn’t know whether her husband would be paralysed, brain-damaged or even dead by the time she got to the hospital. Ten days later, she discovered she was pregnant with Trixie, at a time when the doctors were unable to tell her if James would ever be the same again.
Even now, two years later, he is not. Beverley has struggled to recognise the ‘gentle, laid-back, surferish’ James she married. Instead, she has had to contend with an irritable, occasionally aggressive stranger. It became impossible to leave James and Croyde in the same room together because this once-besotted dad would bully and mock his son.
Beverley didn't know whether her husband would be paralysed, brain-damaged or even dead by the time she got to the hospital
‘That was when I was almost going to ring his parents and say, “You’re going to have to take him. I can’t have him near the children.” That was my red flag,’ Beverley says.
‘I don’t know why I didn’t. I just felt sorry for him as well. It wasn’t his fault. But in that first year I wasn’t sure I could do this for the rest of my life. No woman would be. No matter how much you love them, that person is effectively dead.
‘I remember being in a supermarket and Sade’s /11/01/article-2226360-0B8006B3000005DC-955_634x776.jpg” width=”634″ height=”776″ alt=”While Beverley feels extremely sorry for her husband, she began to doubt whether she could continue to be with him” class=”blkBorder” />
While Beverley feels extremely sorry for her husband, she began to doubt whether she could continue to be with him
The divorce rate among couples dealing with brain injury is 75 per cent and James is desperate not to be another statistic. ‘I cope better now but I can remember situations where I’ve felt frustrated,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t being understood. Through my eyes everything looked vaguely as it had done before the accident. It was other people who were treating me differently.’
The truth is, James’s behaviour was bizarre in the first months. He convinced himself he’d been commissioned to ghost-write Gary Lineker’s column on the Ryder Cup, telling Beverley, ‘His girlfriend told me because she slept in my room last night.’ But he’s come on in leaps and bounds.
Today, his eyes sparkle and his wit is quick. Take, for example, when he explains that tests show his ability to recognise faces is towards the special needs end of the scale, whereas his numerical recall is up there with members of Mensa, Nasa and MI6. Ever fancied being a spy James
‘Well, maybe James Bond,’ he says. ‘But I wouldn’t be able to tell the baddies from the goodies.’ We both laugh, then he adds, ‘I’ve had to recognise I’ve changed.’
The divorce rate among couples dealing with brain injury is 75 per cent and James is desperate not to be another statistic
So has Beverley. ‘When we were first home I thought, “He’s never going to bear any resemblance to the person I married.” That was a bleak time. I thought, “I’m going to have to start grieving.”’ I wonder what’s left to love when the man she knew has gone.
‘I have a great respect for him for doing everything he’s doing [meetings for future documentaries, commentating during the Olympics]. He could have so easily laid on the sofa for two years and felt sorry for himself.
‘And I do still fancy him, he’s still in great physical shape and he makes me laugh every day,’ she grins. ‘I didn’t fancy him for a while because brain injury complicates how you see that person. But there were much bigger issues to worry about than the physical side of our relationship.
'That was probably when our relationship was less like that of husband and wife, when he was home for the first year to 18 months and was in a bleak place. He just wasn’t funny any more because he didn’t find life funny. Weeks went by when he didn’t seem to smile, let alone laugh. In that situation you think, “How am I going to ever be back on an even keel”’
Working together on their book has been a huge help. ‘I’ve got to spend more time with him and I’m able to see his personality again. I think he’ll always be different, but I’m beginning to see ‘different’ might not necessarily be bad.
'There’s not a day goes by when we don’t wish this hadn’t happened, but we’ve got to try and see it in a positive way. If nothing else I think about the families who are living with brain injuries who can read this book. All marriages can be difficult, but you stick with it because that’s what you do – until you get to a point where you really can’t do that any more.’
But after spending several hours with this gutsy couple, I wouldn’t mind betting that won’t be any time soon.
Touching Distance by James Cracknell and Beverley Turner, published by Century in hardback and ebook, 18.99.