This year, the South Africa-born British para cyclist is switching gears from his epic journeys to aim for the biggest challenge of his sports career - his first Paralympic Games
From completing a 250-mile trek to the North Pole with Prince Harry in -60C temperatures as part of Walking with the Wounded charity in 2011, climbing the Mt Everest (whilst technically just narrowly missing the summit) or cycling the Cape Epic in South Africa in 2019 - there is no adventure or expedition that is off-limits to Jaco van Gass.
Whilst the South Pole and another attempt to climb Mt Everest is on the horizon, the heart-stopping journeys can wait for the 34-year-old — as there is one type of summit that he is raring to climb this summer: the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
The South Africa-born British para cyclist, who won his first UCI para cycling gold in February last year, is going full gear for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
“It is the only focus at the moment. Well, obviously, there are always a lot of things you think of and hope you can do at the moment, [but] the next adventure is Tokyo,” he said in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.
The athlete returned to the United Kingdom in January after visiting South Africa and is doing his best to manage training in preparation to compete in the Paralympic Games.
“Now that I'm out of isolation [quarantine], I'm capable of going back on the road. It's just a bit icy, so I'm basically sticking more to the turbo and to the velodrome at the moment. It is a bit dangerous to ride outside at the moment.”
“What is actually the next big challenge is just getting to Tokyo and actually racing in the Paralympic Games and I'm hoping that it goes ahead,” van Gass said.
© Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
From a wounded soldier to athlete
Whether it is winning cycling medals, trekking mountains or reaching new milestones, van Gass, who has been to the top of the world and back, knows that his life could have been different.
Before becoming a professional athlete, van Gass had always wanted to become a police officer and a soldier but at the same time craved the financially independent lifestyle being part of the military could bring. So at age 20, he left his life in South Africa, joined the British Army and eventually became part of the Parachute Regiment in 2007.
But his life was about to change: In his second tour in Afghanistan in 2009, he was caught in crossfire and a rocket-propelled grenade caused him life-threatening injuries — he lost his arm at the elbow, had a collapsed left lung, a fractured knee and also went through 11 operations.
The injuries ended van Gass’ military career.
"You fracture your leg and your knee and your ankles are broken, you realise the extent of the injuries and that's on top of an amputation of the arm. Life was really hard and really difficult. [At that point] I really didn't know what I was going to be capable of doing in life."
"It took me a good month and a half to figure out more the mental side of it. And again, you ask yourself questions of why did I survive? Why did it happen to me? Would I be better off dead? [And] all that kind of stuff. And then you realise that something happens for a reason. You don't know why but it becomes a bit clearer."
Van Gass had to relearn how to walk and run and also use a new prosthetic limb. He then turned to cycling as part of his rehabilitation.
“I was actually still in my rehabilitation and for some reason, the one thing that I was kind of drawn to was getting back on a bike. And I don't know why, because I've spent quite a lot of time on the indoor bike in the gym. And once again, the movement of cycling and pedalling [even with] the injuries sustained in my leg, was very good. And I was starting to think 'how can I take this outside?'"
2011 Getty Images
What sealed the deal and made him take cycling more seriously was watching the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“It was the London Paralympics that really inspired me. I lived in London at the time and I went to quite a few of the events. And I was just so amazed," he said.
"I was sitting in the crowds looking at these athletes performing [whom] you know so well and it's such a high level, and then seeing the crowd behind me and how inspiring it was, that [was the moment] I decided I wanted to be part of that. That's something I want to do. I want to be on the field and not in the stand anymore."
Van Gass turned professional in 2013 and officially became part of the Great Britain cycling team. He won his first Invictus Games in 2014 and competed in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships.
With all the glory that comes with winning, behind-the-scenes there was a constant struggle to cycle with one-arm and with prosthetics.
“I constantly had to adapt and to change and it takes a long time for your body to do that. I had both brakes [on the bike] on one side so there's a load of ama."
"Sometimes I miss one brake and I only put my front brake [on] and then you crash. And then I looked at various ways of how I can adapt that and make my kit and equipment better and make sure that whatever adaptions I used are good enough," he said.
And then there's also the issue of finding a bike that is suitable for his needs. Over time, van Gass looked at what other riders were doing on the international circuit.
"I saw some of the other races and other nations, especially in international competitions, and saw what other riders have done to their bikes and thought maybe there was something similar that could work for me? [I could] find a middle ground between what they've done and what's best for me and then apply that to my bike."
"It's taken a long process to eventually be happy with where we are."
2014 Getty Images
Learning from success and failure
Van Gass was preparing for Rio 2016 but when he found out he didn't get a spot, he took the time off from competitive sport to take on more adventures: he summitted the Grand Paraiso in Italy, cycled the 1,200km Carretera Austral in Patagonia, Chile in 2016 and also completed Race Across America (from east to west) in six days along with other riders in 2017.
By the time he got back into cycling, he has found his love for the sport again and was ripe and ready to win.
In 2018, van Gass won bronze in the C4 4k Pursuit in Brazil. Having been reclassified from C4 to C3, he claimed his first gold in C3 Kilo at the 2020 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Milton, Canada before adding gold in MC3 scratch race and MC3 omnium and silver in team sprint and MC3 individual pursuit.
“It's fantastic. It's everything I've worked for for a very long time. To finally have a rainbow jersey means the world," he told the media afterwards.
After finally reaching the pinnacle of the sport, van Gass can look back at how far he has travelled.
"It's taken me eight years to be where I want to be and at the level that I am now comfortable with," he said, but also pointed out, "and some people's journeys are a lot quicker than others.”
However, with all the accomplishments he has achieved so far both in cycling and his personal adventures, van Gass is still in it for the challenge.
"It's just a great sense of achievement all these things - [cycling, Mt. Everest, North Pole] - and they're challenging. They're all challenging for anyone or any able-bodied person to go and do it, and it's a slightly bigger challenge on top of that trying to do stuff with one arm and a bit of a leg missing."
"It's a big sense of satisfaction for me, doing and achieving these things and even attempting them. And I don't succeed all the time, like Everest. And it was all the learning - that's what we took to go and climb other mountains and make sure that we were successful on them. [That's why] you can always learn from failure or bad experiences."
A rising phoenix for Tokyo 2020
With Tokyo 2020 fast approaching, van Gass hopes that everything goes ahead in a format that both athletes and fans can enjoy.
"I think, as athletes, we're going to really have to be able to adapt to that. There's nothing more I want than for spectators to be there and especially friends and family to come to cheer me on."
"But maybe that's not a possibility. So how are we going to deal with that? Especially [with a] sport like track cycling. The velodrome? It plays a big part if there's a lovely crowd and it's a very close spectator sport and it might just bring a totally different atmosphere at the biggest race in your life. But we're just going to have to adapt to it and and see how we get on."
Still, van Gass does not let anything get in the way of his Paralympic ambitions.
"At the moment [the Paralympic Games is] the only thing I am really preparing for," he stressed.
"I just see the power of the Games as a pinnacle of the sport, not even just for cycling but for most sports.
"To even just have the honour of knowing or presenting yourself as a Paralympian, having been to a Paralympic Games - I think it's a privilege of competing and testing yourself against some of the the best athletes in the world at that very moment in time.
"It's just a unique opportunity that doesn't come every day.
© Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com
Van Gass admits that he would like to see the Paralympic movement not only grow further but also be given the same spotlight and breadth as able-bodied sports, such as the Rugby World Cup, Tour de France and the Olympic Games.
"This is one time in four years where we actually get a bit of recognition for what we do, what we have achieved and how we adapt it with life, [whether it is] a disability from cerebral palsy to amputation to whatever other disability there is, and where we really do get a little bit of the limelight, so that's why it's just so amazing to just show the world what you're capable of doing."
"I do look back on it and I know if [the accident] didn't happen to me, I wouldn't have gone off to achieve some of the amazing things I have achieved in my life and gone on to do amazing things from trekking to the North Pole and attempting Everest and climbing mountains and becoming a Paralympic athlete."
Van Gass has been to war and to more corners of the earth than most of us, but now he's aiming for the velodrome in Tokyo. From wounded soldier to athlete, he's about to embark on a journey that isn't reserved for the faint-hearted but for heroes in their own right - for Paralympians.
The adventure awaits.
✅250-mile trek to the North Pole with Prince Harry ❄️— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) February 25, 2021
✅Cycling the Cape Epic in South Africa 🚴♂️
✅Attempted to climb Mt Everest ⛰️
Adventurer Jaco van Gass will soon take on his next great challenge: #Tokyo2020 @ParalympicsGB @BritishCycling
👉 https://t.co/2K3crPZaNu 👈 pic.twitter.com/bDGbg8ZKDE