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Ex-Wallaby defying the odds to become a regular open water swimmer

Former international rugby union star Richard Tomb’s life changed after a freak soccer accident left him at quadriplegic, which in turn led him to open water swimming. This Sunday he will participate in the Balmoral Swim For Cancer.

Former Wallaby and Waratahs Rugby Union star Richard Tombs’s life changed in a matter of seconds in August of 2018 when a freak soccer accident left him with a spinal cord injury, but little did he know this accident would eventually lead him to the open water.

“I was playing in an over-35s soccer match for Curl Curl which I had done for the previous 12 seasons,” said Mr Tombs.

“I was playing goalkeeper when an overzealous striker collided with me whilst I was fielding the ball, breaking my neck and rendering me a C4 incomplete quadriplegic.

“It was a complete freak and unfortunate accident and only the second spinal injury to happen in soccer in the last 60 years, which is a bit freaky.

“My condition isn’t so much paraplegia as a result of my injury but rather spasticity. What that means is that I still have movement all over my body but my nerves are telling my muscles to contract all the time. So pretty much my body and muscles are fighting against each other.

“A good example is that when I am walking, my hamstrings and quads are on at the same time which makes it very challenging to bend my legs and straighten my legs. Which makes my walking very slow and with crutches.

“So I have spasticity from my chest down, pretty much it’s through my arms, legs and trunk.”

Mr Tombs had never really been a swimmer, describing himself as a sinker due to his muscle density, however, in January 2021 he found that he could float for the first time in his life.

“I went through intense rehabilitation after my injury and within a few months, I was able to stand again and eventually walk, but I found swimming to be the best antidote for my spasticity,” said Mr Tombs.

“It was Australia Day, I hopped in an ocean pool and floated which was a first for me, but this allowed me to swim unaided which I loved.

“It found that the lack of gravity really helps my body to relax and allows me to move my body pretty well through its full range of motion. In particular, it allows my trunk to twist and rotate which really takes the tension and pressure off my back.

“I now swim a few times a week at both the Boy Charlton Pool in Manly and the Fairlight Ocean Pool. I try not to go any longer than three days without getting in the water otherwise I find myself getting bound up and it becomes very uncomfortable sitting, lying down or doing anything really.

“Pretty much I always have to have some water near me.”

Throughout the challenges, Mr Tombs has created the Guns Out Spinal Foundation to help raise awareness of spinal cord injuries and spasticity.

“I created the foundation after my injury to really just heighten the awareness of spasticity and bring more awareness to what it is,” said Mr Tombs.

“I also wanted to provide support to not only those individuals who are affected by spasticity and spinal cord injuries but also their families and friends, while also providing fundraising to help research into hopefully finding a cure for it one day.”

This Sunday, April 2nd, Mr Tombs will be hitting the water as part of a relay team for the Balmoral Swim for Cancer.

“On top of running my Guns Out Spinal Foundation, I also head up the Hearts in Rugby Union Foundation for Rugby Australia, where we help raise money for permanently injured rugby players,” said Mr Tombs.

“Through this role, I met Hayden Rorke and Liz Swinburn who are on the board of directors and avid ocean swimmers in the Balmoral swimming community. This year we’ve decided to do the 4x200m relay in the Balmoral Swim for Cancer.

“We are still waiting to confirm our fourth swimmer but all four of us will be there on Sunday to support a great cause and contribute to hopefully finding a cure for such an insidious and prevalent disease.”

We asked Mr Tombs what he is looking forward to the most about swimming at Balmoral and he said “honestly just completing it.”

“While I do laps in the ocean pool regularly, I have no resistance to any sort of current.

“On top of that, my swimming speed is not strong enough that I could out swim of a current. So, it is going to be a very interesting swim if there is a strong current on the weekend.

“But I am looking forward to the challenge and just finishing the swim.”

To hear more about Mr Tombs’s Foundation and recovery story head to the Guns Out Spinal Foundation website, Facebook or Instagram page.

Events discussed in this article

  • Recommended
  • Harbour Swim

Balmoral Swim For Cancer

  • Sun, 26 May 2024
  • Balmoral NSW
  • Written by Ocean Swims on 28 March 2023
  • (Updated on 4 August 2023)
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