How many milestones can one man fit into a year? In November, Dan Buckingham heads to New York to complete his first marathon, that most ancient and arduous of athletic events. Even more monumental, this year Buckingham bought a house – in Auckland! What can’t he do?
Privately, Buckingham last month passed another critical point: he has now spent more of his life disabled than able-bodied. During a rugby match as a University of Otago student, Buckingham fractured and dislocated his sixth and seventh vertebrae, damaging his spine. That was 1999. He was 18, and has been paralysed from the chest down since.
“No-one ever said, ‘You’ll never walk again.’ There was no harsh line drawn. Over time, I accepted that this is the way it is,” he says. “The next year was hard, going back to university, being around mates doing things I was doing the year before: playing rugby, even standing at the bar when I was out for a drink.”
The way forward was to change tack, “heading to a different life rather than trying to stay in my old life”. Buckingham played as a Wheel Black for 16 years and has won gold at the Paralympics. Still, there are moments of grief. When his parents sold their farm in the Catlins in 2013, he reflected on earlier plans to take over the property. “It was something that never got to happen. Snippets like that along the way have been a form of grief. I don’t ever get angry. More just wistful nostalgia for what could’ve been.”
Buckingham is competing in the wheelchair division of the New York Marathon to raise money for the CatWalk Trust, which funds spinal cord injury research. Before his big race, we asked Buckingham to take the Sunday Grill.