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'Good has come from my disability, like finding Becky'

Seven years ago, when he was just 18, William Doggart, from Bangor, was told he would never walk again after he dived into the sea and hit a sandbank. In a remarkable interview, he talks to Ann Schmidt about how wheelchair rugby has helped him rebuild his life - and his joy at getting married.

Published 14/09/2016

William and his wife Becky
William and his wife Becky
Dame Mary Peters and Stuart Carson from Rainbow Communications with William as he received the Rainbow Communications Sports Award, presented in partnership with the Mary Peters Trust.
William enjoying a game of wheelchair rugby

William Doggart is a cheerful, easy-going type of guy. Nothing really gets him down. Even after he was told he would never walk again at the age of 18, he didn't believe the doctors' prognosis.

"At the start, you're sort of like: 'No, I am going to walk again. I'm not going to let that stop me'. But then I think you sort of know."

Will had a spinal injury seven years ago that left him unable to walk. He uses an electric wheelchair to get around, but otherwise he's like any other 25-year-old. He plays sport, he's newly married and he enjoys a good laugh.

"I don't see myself as disabled, I see there's parts of the world that make it inaccessible," he says. "It's nothing to do with me."

Will, from Bangor, is currently looking for a job with a charity or a non-profit organisation. His wife Becky is from Dungannon and is a primary school teacher. They are sitting in their home in south Belfast, with new wallpaper and a box or two waiting to be unpacked. They recently got back from their honeymoon in Mexico and they're still settling in.

Will moved into the house five years ago with his friends, but when he and Becky got married in July his friends moved out and she moved in. The house had some remodelling done when Will first bought it, to make it more accessible. The benches in the kitchen are lower, the shower is bigger, and on the outside there's a ramp that zig-zags up to the front door. Otherwise, the house is pretty much the same as any of the others on his street.

Will plays wheelchair rugby for Ireland in Dublin and when he's with his team-mates there's no end to the practical jokes.

"We've left my friend in the middle of a hotel with no chair. We took her chair apart and left her there. So people were just walking past this poor girl who was crawling along, dragging her legs on the floor."

As he tells the story, Will is laughing and moving his arms as if he were dragging himself on the ground. Becky is also laughing, but not quite as much as Will.

Pranks like that are just part of life for him. He's always had a wild side. In fact, that's what left him paralysed. But with his wild side comes a positive outlook that helped him survive the injury.

Will prefaces the story of his accident by saying he wasn't drunk when it happened. "They said if I had have been drunk, I wouldn't have broken my neck, because you're more relaxed."

After taking his A-levels Will went on holiday with some of his friends to Majorca. Following a night out, he and a friend went down to the beach to meet some girls. He and Becky laugh a little and she pretends she didn't hear him mentioning the girls.

Will's friend was seeing one of them and wanted Will to go along to keep the second girl company. "He was talking with them and I got bored," Will says.

"So he decided to go skinny dipping.

"I dived - no arms - and as soon as I hit it (the sand bank), I thought I hurt my shoulder, but I couldn't move anything. I was under the water for about two minutes and I started to pass out a little.

"And then my friend pulled me out of the water and told me to stop messing about. He thought I was trying to get attention, that I was just pretending."

Will isn't laughing any more, but he's not upset or distressed. He's just explaining exactly what happened as he remembers it.

When he dived into the sandbank he landed on his head and smashed his fourth, fifth and sith vertebrae. While he was in hospital in Majorca he had an operation to fix his neck.

The operation itself sounds complicated and extremely painful, but Will promises it wasn't too bad. At the time he even thought he'd be out of hospital quickly.

"I didn't know how bad it was. I got my A-level results the next day when I was in bed and I worked out that I'd got enough to get into university. So I thought: 'Right, I'll be out in a few weeks and then I can go to Newcastle-upon-Tyne and nearly miss freshers week'. That was it."

When he broke his neck Will's parents came out to Majorca and stayed with him for the three weeks while he was in hospital. When they got back to Northern Ireland his mum saw him every single day over the course of nine months.

"The people around me are my support system. I'm from a really good family and during my injury I just relied on them," he says.

Will also has two younger brothers, Michael (24) and James (20).

At the time of his injury they were still in school, and Will says they took care of each other while their parents were looking after Will.

"They became very close," Will says. "They helped each other through it."

Today Michael is working in financial services and James is at university.

Thinking back to before his injury, Will says he thought he wanted to be a writer. He planned to attend Northumbria University to study script writing, but he was really excited about the prospect of partying in Newcastle.

"It seemed like it was all sorted, it was going to be easy. And then after my injury, you sort of have to start again and re-evaluate what is important and where you want to go."

After his three weeks in Majorca he was in Musgrave Park Hospital's spinal unit in Belfast for about nine months.

His eyes light up as he talks about his time there. "I know it sounds really crazy, but I loved my time in hospital. We got really competitive (in rehab). I'm a very competitive person. So it was, like, who could do the most rolls in a bed in a minute."

Will quickly mentions that he had a few complications over those nine months. He had some problems with sea water and scar tissue in his lungs and had to have several tracheostomies.

He also had a few close calls with cardiac arrests, but he survived. Will doesn't really say any more about it.

But he did admit that the hardest part of being injured was waking up from dreams.

"I loved cricket, so I would be dreaming about cricket and then you wake up and go: 'I can't do that again'," he says. "It was all the things you hadn't done. The regrets of not going skydiving… at that stage I didn't know if I could drive a car. I didn't know if I could play sport again. I didn't know if I'd go to university. It's just the worry of what do I do now? And that was a big thing."

But leaving hospital was also difficult.

"Because then you're suddenly in the real world. You're sort of sheltered in hospital. In there, everyone knew who I was. And then I had to go into the real world and people do give me looks, especially when I'm in this big electric chair."

Once he got out of hospital he decided to go to the Ulster University in Jordanstown so he could stay closer to home. He did communication studies, but never really felt drawn to the subject.

Instead, he spent most of his time partying and meeting new people.

"That was sort of my rehab, just getting back into being a bit mental again."

After about a year of that, however, he was ready for something new.

"Rugby came along and I got hooked very quickly," he explains. "I'm a lot healthier now that I play rugby. It's had a really good effect on my life."

Will started playing wheelchair rugby almost five years ago. Last year Ireland ranked sixth in the European Division A tournament, so they qualified for the Paralympics in Rio this year. Unfortunately, they couldn't afford to travel.

Will's competitive side comes out a little when he says: "The team we could have beaten ended up qualifying. So we're watching the Paralympics with people I should be playing against."

Still, none of this has daunted his enthusiasm for the game and he has recently been awarded the Rainbow Communications Sports Award in partnership with the Mary Peters Trust to help him with purchasing rugby equipment and the transportation costs for driving to Dublin twice a week.

Two years ago Will met Becky. They're both embarrassed to say they met on Tinder, but they add they had some mutual friends, too.

Their first date was at The Dirty Onion in Belfast and they talked for four hours. After six weeks Will knew he was going to marry her.

"I think we just get on so well," he says. "It was really easy. We always laugh. We still laugh just constantly all day. And we didn't argue until we got married."

Of that first meeting with Will, Becky says: "I think what attracted me to Will was his attitude to life and I think his sense of humour. He's really easy-going and he'll just tell you how it is."

Her family grew to love Will pretty quickly, too.

"Within two weeks of me dating you, your family had built a ramp into their house," Will says, something his own family still haven't done.

"I think my father was just so shocked that I had a boyfriend," Becky laughs. The most serious Will gets is when he talks about falling in love with Becky. "I don't want to say the reason it was so easy was because she took me with disability, because the disability's not the reason that we fell in love, but the issue that it wasn't part of it was maybe what sealed the deal."

He says that, with some girls, his chair had been a problem. "I just saw you for Will, whether in a chair or not doesn't bother me," Becky says.

Her family had previously adopted two children from Thailand who were raised in a home for disabilities, so Becky isn't unfamiliar with people who are "differently abled", as she calls it.

But dating Will made her more aware about people who use wheelchairs.

"Even when you just go out to a restaurant, I would never think: 'Oh, there's actually not an accessible loo, or there's actually no ramp here'. I just never thought of it, and when I started dating Will, I was like: 'Whoah, I actually just need to let them know that we need to make sure there's an accessible toilet.'"

Though he doesn't like to admit it, Will can be a little sentimental. They had only been dating for about six months when Will decided to propose to Becky. He was going to give her his grandmother's ring after a nice dinner out, but Becky, who knew him a bit too well, got it out of him the night before while they were watching a movie.

"She noticed I was acting strange," Will laughs. "She just knew something was up and squeezed it out of me."

They were engaged for about a year-and-a-half, and on July 27 Will and Becky were married in Virginia, Co Cavan. As well as their friends and families, Will's rugby team also came to the wedding.

"You would see them out on the dance floor, out of their chairs, dancing away, just embracing life," Becky says.

Will adds: "I think, at the wedding, your side were loving it because they saw more people like me."

Seven years after the injury, Will is adamant he wouldn't change anything. "It was a crazy time. But, to be honest, I don't regret it," he says.

"There's a lot more good than there is bad in my situation. You know, finding sport, finding Becky, finding all my friends that I have through my disability.

"I get to travel the world. I've seen a lot more of the world since my injury than before… and I help people who are going through similar situations.

"So, if I can sort of help other people, who might not have taken it as well as I had, it's a pretty big victory for me."

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