TO say Stuart Penn is an inspiration is an understatement.
Born with only one fully-formed limb – his right arm – his list of achievements are nothing short of phenomenal.
Encouraged by his parents that nothing is impossible, Penn – a Move More ambassador for Jersey Sport – has never let his disabilities get in the way of achievement. In reality, he has achieved more than 99% of fully able-bodied people. From snowboarding, cycling, kayaking and scuba diving to Aikido, boxing and taekwondo, Penn has tried them all. He’s been a stuntman in films and TV and last year completed the London Marathon.
But his true love is Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
And having competed in the Abu Dhabi World Para Jiu-Jitsu Championships in 2017, where he picked up a gold and silver medal, Penn is looking to go back to the Emirate for this year’s championship.
‘It’s actually a huge advantage if you’ve got limbs missing because you’ve actually got less things to target. You can slide into smaller spaces and it has become a really popular sport,’ says Penn.
On his side already is triple-amputee, former Royal Marine, award-winning author and Invictus Games athlete Mark Ormrod, who is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu devotee.
While Penn was born with his disability, Ormrod lost his limbs while serving in the military in Afghanistan, after triggering an explosive device on foot patrol. He is now a trustee – along with Hollywood superstar Tom Hardy – for a charity called Reorg, which uses Brazilian jiu-jitsu to work with people who have experienced life-altering physical injuries, as well as those suffering debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
His own journey in the sport started six years ago, when he was introduced to it by the founder of Reorg, Sam Sherriff, a Royal Marines physical training instructor.
‘I thought it was going to be a lot of wrist locks, throws and judo-style stuff, because I didn’t know what this sport was,’ says Ormrod.
‘When he explained it to me, and kicked my ass, I understood a lot more of what it was about. Personally, I thought that part of my life had gone forever – that adrenaline-fuelled fight or flight, trying to survive when in a fight with somebody. That was pretty much my life from 12 to 24 and I thought it had gone. It’s just brought so much value to my life and I cannot overstate the importance of the mental-health benefits it brings.
‘My worry with any sport is that they are centred around sympathy and pity, but it doesn’t apply here. Lads don’t take it easy on you. They don’t care. They treat you the way they would treat able-bodied athletes.’
It’s something that Penn concurs with.
‘Me and Mark have both competed in para sports where we’ve felt like you’re being treated like a second-class athlete,’ he said. ‘Whereas when you go to Abu Dhabi for the world championships you are treated like the athlete you are and you are given exactly the same as the top able-bodied athletes.
‘That’s why we want to get a team together and let them experience that too.
‘There’s no ego when you get on the mat and it’s quite an equalising sport, and very humbling.’
Like anything though, there are costs involved and Penn and Ormrod are on the lookout for sponsors.
Outside of jiu-jitsu, Penn and Ormrod both reflect on the changing attitudes towards people with disabilities and how they can inspire children too.
‘One of the really powerful things is when it comes to kids and what they see you’re doing,’ says Ormrod.
‘I remember in January 2008, being in a hospital bed having a million questions and no one to answer them because I didn’t know if there was anyone in the world that was living with the disabilities like I had. Over the years I’ve met children with anything from a single below-knee [amputation] to a kid with all four limbs missing.
‘If this was 30 years ago I would have been shoved in a corner and called a ‘’freak’’. But now people want to put you on posters and brands want to work with you modelling. I use it to my advantage. You want to tick some diversity boxes? Here I am,’ he jokes.
Penn has also noticed the changes of attitudes towards disabled people.
‘When I was a kid I was meant to go to a special school, not a normal school, and my parents really had to fight and say “no, he really needs to go to a normal school”.’ But now we are recognising that people with disabilities can grow their skills faster in a workforce than a lot of the abled. We talk a lot about adaptability because the world changes so frequently. ‘’How well can you problem solve and adapt?’’ Well, anyone with a disability is living in a world not built for them, so you’re adapting every single minute of the day.
‘It’s not just people with disabilities either. We can inspire and help anyone out there, who has got a low self-esteem or has just never tried anything before. If it makes them go “oh, I might as well give it a go if those little guys can do it’’, that’s brilliant.’