Kristian Speake – a man of courage!

Kristian Speake

There’s courage, and then there’s Kristian Speake.

There’s fightbacks from adversity, and then there’s Kristian Speake.

There’s desire to overcome traumatic, life changing injuries and then there’s…… well, you get the message.

But in an age where news stories come at us thick and fast, some heartening and others mortifying, it takes a special kind of tale to resonate with you long term.

Deserved standing ovation at the Sports Awards

Undoubtedly, Speake’s unparalleled determination to overcome grievous damage to his skull following a prolonged period in a coma, not to mention three eye operations and brain surgery, falls into the latter category.

The standing ovation he received last Friday when presented with the Chairman’s Special Achievement honour at the Sport Pembrokeshire awards spoke volumes. The chosen winner of course surprised nobody, except Speake himself.

“I was here as part of the Strength Academy Wales team nominated for the Club of the Year (a category they duly won) and really didn’t know I was in line for anything myself,” he said.

“So it was a nice surprise and after everything I’ve been through there was a lump in my throat when the audience reacted like that.

Grateful for support from family and friends

Kristian is on the ball"Obviously people in the community know about my situation and I’m glad it was a moment that my parents, Robyn (his girlfriend) and some of my best friends who were there could share with me.

“They’ve supported me through everything and I can’t thank them and so many others enough.”

Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the incident in question last February, Nigel and Susan Speake were primed for the kind of brutal scenarios that no parent can prepare for. Aside from the obvious threat to his life, Speake eventually waking up brain dead, or unable to communicate or walk, were all considered distinct possibilities.

No one ever literally goes ‘to hell and back’, but Speake’s family and partner came pretty close.

The fight back begins

He duly endured 24 days in a coma in intensive care at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, followed by two months on a neurological ward and then another six weeks in a special unit in Port Talbot, where he underwent extensive physical and cognitive rehabilitation. This included the afore mentioned eye operations and laser surgery to amend his distorted vision, and a surgically implanted titanium plate in the right side of his head.

During this time he battled pneumonia and contracted MRSA three times. To say he went through an ordeal would be a ludicrous understatement.

Photographs of Speake from that period may border on distressing for some, and yet his demeanour is anything but. Throughout, he maintained the look of man who, despite losing half his skull, knew he was coming out the other side.

Looking forward now

“The worst of it is behind me but my life has changed. The thought I might not be able to play football again is hard to take,” he admits.

But typically, it’s not something he’s given up on. Perhaps understandably.

In his own words, the game was his life when growing up. He spent most of his youth at Swansea City before parting company with the club at 16. A three year stint on a football scholarship in Tennessee in America followed, where he represented Nashville FC.

Prior to his brain injury, he was an integral part of the Haverfordwest County side pushing for promotion in the Welsh League Division One. Then manager Sean Cresser later cited losing Speake for the latter part of the season as pivotal, with the Bluebirds eventually missing out on the title to Llanelli Town.

Playing some friendly football

But although he still suffers soreness from the surgery, and heading the ball remains forbidden, Speake is back in action. It’s only once a week with friends on the Astroturf, but it’s a start.

“Given what we were told I’ve been so lucky to make a very good recovery and my main goal is to play proper football again. I understand I’ve had a traumatic injury so it will be at least another two years or so before I can head a ball or be cleared to play again.”

Originally, that declaration of intent surprised me. In hindsight, it really shouldn’t have.

So much is banded about regarding the state of grassroots football (sport) and the lack of motivation, interest, or commitment from individuals that plagues the local game. And yet we have a 27-year-old determined to defy all medical logic or get back out on a Saturday afternoon.

It’s an attitude that puts so many to shame.

Indeed, Speake essentially had to learn how to walk again. You could be forgiven for thinking doctors skipped that bit, and simply threw him straight onto the treadmill so he could re-learn to run first.

And those who assumed a previously commendable sporting career was now at an end, were promptly made to think again.

Amazing recovery to run Cardiff Half Marathon

Soon after coming home, he wasn’t only strength training at SAW, but preparing to tackle the Cardiff Half Marathon to raise funds for the Cardiff and Vale Health Charity. To everyone else it was a courageous idea, to Speake, it was merely a thank you to the staff whose treatment ensured he’s still here today.

Less than eight months after suffering the unimaginable, he clocked one hour 46 minutes over 13 miles. He’s also completed Ironman Wales in the past, and while returning to football is his priority, a second tilt at Tenby’s titanic test is ‘on the cards’.

Of course it is.

“My mindset has helped with the physical side of my recovery,” he told me, in turn making the understatement of the decade.

“I’m my own biggest critic and have always pushed myself to be fitter and stronger. Training at a setting like SAW has helped my rehab a lot and I’m back working again at the council which has helped me get back to normality.”

Kristian in action
Difficult days still remain

And yet, difficult days remain.

Before presenting Speake his award, the Chairman of Pembrokeshire County Council Aden Brinn, said his story thankfully had a ‘happy ending’. The comment was clearly well intended, and yet didn’t quite ring true.

Speake has made remarkable progress down a long winding road, but the finish line is not in sight yet.

Because of the brain injury, Speake inevitably fatigues mentally a lot quicker than he used to. Days in the office or out the house can bring exhaustion. He has no memory of the week leading up to the night that changed his life forever, and he admits the lack of clarification or closure exasperates him.

There is no quick fix to any of the above, and all are issues nigh on impossible to comprehend unless you have experienced similar.

And finally . . .

But the support of family, friends, and of course Robyn around him is unwavering, and combine that with a desire that knows no bounds, and you get a man who will only get stronger.

Like so many others, I’ve played sport all my life and endured occasional set-backs, injury lay-offs, or periods of personal difficulty. I thought I understood what mental strength entailed.

Now I realise that until I met Kristian Speake, I didn’t have a clue.

Kristian Speake celebrates