I left hospital in February 1973 and went home to my mum and six siblings. I was the oldest son and had an older sister and a twin sister.  I stayed with my mum for about two years. We moved a couple of times but as we didn’t live in accessible accommodation it was hard for me to get upstairs without splints on.  Eventually I got a little one bedroom flat to myself and a job at Remploy, a company for disabled people. My first pay packet was £26 which was a lot of money in those days; it paid my rent. 

I had a three-wheeler blue Noddy car.  If you went too fast – over 25 miles per hour - or turned a corner too sharply you’d turn the car over!  It didn’t have a steering wheel, just a tiller bar.  It was a one-seater and only had one door on the left hand side to get out.  If I folded my wheelchair it could just fit inside but I couldn’t take anybody with me.

In 1973 I went to Stoke Mandeville for the very first time to watch the National Games. I must have been the only person walking around, as I had elbow crutches on. I felt left out and decided that I would only come in a wheelchair next time.  I enjoyed the wheelchair basketball and thought I’d like to have a go one day.  

Joe playing basketball

I started going around to all the Spinal Injury Centres doing archery, bowls and table tennis.  The first time I played wheelchair basketball was at Oswestry Orthopaedic hospital and in 1974 I went to the Stoke Mandeville Games as a representative for Oswestry. I met a lady who I went out with for a whole year, but she was from Essex and it was a long way for my little three-wheeler to go so after about a year we departed. 

In 1975 I met Jen and we started going out on a regular basis.  We got our own little flat in Birmingham and in 1976 we got engaged (we never married) and in 1977 we had a little boy called Jaime. 

I was good friends with Keith Whiley and we decided to start a new basketball team, the Birmingham Bullets.  A few of us would train once a week and play league matches.  In 1980 Jen’s father passed away and her mum didn’t want to leave her four bedroom house in Watford, but she didn’t want to be on her own. So in 1981 we moved in with her; there was a good pub down the road and babysitter on site!  In 1982 we had a baby girl called Joanne. 

I would travel up to Birmingham every weekend to play basketball and I was getting better the more training I did. However, I found the 220 mile round trip quite far, so I joined the LGS Jets, a new team formed at Stoke Mandeville only 25 miles from where I lived. 

Joe with the wheelchair basketball team

I was picked for the GB team and was in the GB squad for a couple of years but I left before the Olympics because of a bad shoulder.  In 1984 when the Paralympics were held at Stoke Mandeville, I was asked if I knew a young girl so my daughter ended up presenting Sarah Ferguson with a bunch of flowers. 

In the early 1990s, I started a wheelchair company with two other wheelchair users, called GBL Wheelchair Service.  I was Managing Director but after a couple of years driving around London and the South Coast I decided to call it a day and started working at the Mike Heaffey Centre (now the Aspire Leisure Centre).  I’ve been there ever since, going from cleaner to receptionist to Duty Manager.

I started a wheelchair basketball team called the Mike Heaffey Terriers.  We didn’t have a clock or basketball rings so we raised money to get them and we travelled around the UK to play.  My shoulder started getting bad and I couldn’t shoot anymore. I was still playing but not at a very high level. It’s difficult when you’ve been at the top and go down the ladder, but I took up coaching and travelled all around UK table officiating for international games.  

Joe playing wheelchair basketball

Aspire’s new building with a swimming pool was built in 1998. People from all around the country come to use the swimming pool as it’s kept at 31 degrees and has a ramp. When it opened there was a bar in the Sports Hall and I went on a course so I could be a licensee and barman! 

In 2001 Jen died; she just didn’t wake up and they said it was pneumonia.  I was on my own with the kids for a couple of years and then in 2003 I met Debbie.  We got married in 2005.  We had a four bedroom house but once the kids left it was too big for just the two of us, so we got a bungalow. I was still working full time and coaching the juniors, some of whom moved on to the GB squad and it’s nice to see them doing well.

Joe and Debbie in Jamaica

I’ve taken part in three London Marathons for Aspire, in 1998, 1999 and 2001. My fastest time was 2 hours 45 minutes. I was coached by David Weir’s coach and a wheelchair company donated a chair. It was quite an experience – the fastest I’ve ever been round London!  The only problem area was by Cutty Sark as there’s a ramp to get up to it and cobblestones, which drops your time down because you can’t get up to any speed on them. 

Joe holding the Olympic torch in 2012

In 2015 I got my first handbike and started handcycling - it was brilliant!  Since then I’ve been cycling 1500 miles a year and in 2016 I handcycled 2,000 miles, raising £1,500 for Aspire.  In 2020, during lockdown, I did over 5,000 miles as I couldn’t work when leisure centres were closed and I was furloughed for 12 months.  The weather was fantastic and we weren’t allowed to go out unless we were exercising, so that’s what I did.  Since then I average 3-4,000 miles a year.

Joe by the Aspire Leisure Centre sign

In 2019 I retired from full-time work and so I’ve been cycling every day when I can.  I still work part-time at Aspire as Duty Manager.

Living with a spinal cord injury since the age of 19 has meant that my life has turned out differently than it might otherwise have.  The worst part has always been not having control over my bowels and bladder; if had control over them but was in a wheelchair for the rest of my life, I’d be fine with that.  However, if I hadn’t had my accident I would have missed out on so many thing, such us my two wives, my two children and nine grandchildren, playing wheelchair basketball and having a career at Aspire. 

It’s Joe’s Life: my injury in 1972

Joe - It's My Life

Joe Gilbert handcycles 2,000 miles for Aspire

Travelling abroad with a spinal cord injury

Living with Spinal Cord Injury

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