Lifesaver Aaron back from the brink and Heading to Tokyo

As Olympic selection stories go, Aaron Heading’s tale of saving lives and almost losing a leg will take some topping as the shooter looks to cap it all with Olympic gold.

The 33-year-old trap shooter will finally make his Games debut at Tokyo 2020, completing a remarkable comeback from a motorbike crash that threatened to cut short his career.

Heading is a three-time World Championship medallist, a Commonwealth champion and an athlete who has been ranked number one in the world.

But that crash in 2014, just two weeks before qualification for the Rio 2016 Games began, was a – literal – bump in the road.

Heading “bounced off a house and landed on a fence” after a resurfaced bend caught him out just a mile from home, breaking three ribs and ripping tendons in his knee. He was in hospital for two-and-a-half weeks and required a wheelchair for two months. He almost lost his leg.

Heading then lost his form on his return to the range, causing him to contemplate retirement as his Rio 2016 dreams went up in smoke.

In its place, he focussed on volunteering.

Every day, Heading is on call with the Sutton Bridge Coastguard, covering the marshes and seaways of South Lincolnshire, saving lives and helping those in danger.

It not only gave him a new sense of perspective, it got his shooting career back on track.

“I like to help people and it has shown me a side to life I didn’t know,” he said.

“As an athlete, you are blinkered in what you do. You train, compete, go home. And so, to get out of that bubble, to look at what everyday emergency services do, has been big.

“I have a lot of respect for them and it’s big for me to be able to help them in my spare time. I log on as soon as I get home to see if I can help the team.

“I hope people don’t need our help but there are a lot that do and it is so nice to be able to do that. You get a bit more respect for life in all honesty."

There have been sad days, of course. Hours after Heading came back from the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he was called out to a body that had washed up on the shore. He’s also been on the scene after a fatal plane crash.

But Heading’s shooting has also drastically improved and volunteering has sparked a career renaissance that will take him all the way to the Asaka Shooting Range this summer.

“It took some pressure away from shooting and I was back in a team,” he said.

“When I started to get the little itches to start shooting, I was really relaxed and enjoyed it again. So, taking that step back and joining the amazing team at HM Coastguards just highlighted elements that being back in a team environment was really enjoyable.

“I started to miss going away with the GB team, so once I started competing again, I was straight back in. I was relaxed, hit form and won medals. Then I returned to the international team. Sadly, I was too late for Rio but it gave me time to build and get onto this cycle.”

And build, he certainly has. Heading has since won two World Championship medals – a mixed trap pair bronze in 2018 and team bronze in 2019 – while at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, he collected individual silver.

In 2019, he also booked a quota place for Team GB but it was only on Wednesday that he was officially announced. Many athletes wait a long time for their Olympic moment but few journeys have matched Heading’s.

“To get to this day is amazing. I kind of knew I was in but now it is official, it is a massive weight off the shoulders. This is something I am going to really enjoy,” he said.

“My name was sent to Team GB before Christmas and they had to ratify it and make sure they were happy. I got a message from our sports director asking if I had confirmation. So, I phoned my wife at home to look through my post and she said there was a letter. She opened it and started to cry. It was a great moment.

“It has been an incredible journey and it’s still not over. It has been a rollercoaster to get to this point and I am so happy that it is something off my list – this is the pinnacle.

“My mum is a massive sports fan, so I can remember the Olympics being on when I was small. I can just about remember Linford Christie winning but it was Sydney 2000 which really got me.

“I had started shooting just before and we won gold and silver, so I was hooked. The first Olympic trap competition I went to, Ian Peel was there and he won the silver in Sydney. So, I was mouth wide open and gawping.”

Now, all that’s left is to compete and Heading has plenty of time to prep after being announced among the first wave of Team GB’s 2020 shooters, with Seonaid McIntosh, Matt Coward-Holley and Kirsty Hegarty.

The man from Long Sutton will have his eyes set on gold – but his stomach on something else.

“I eat sushi, so this is going to be amazing,” laughed Heading. “There is the actual job in hand but I can’t wait to see what Tokyo is like. I will be window shopping at the restaurants, that’s for sure.

“I won’t be indulging before I compete but I’m sure I can sneak in afterwards. After all, you have to have fun!"