Jaco van Gass, an Afghanistan veteran who lost his left arm in a Taliban grenade attack in 2009, stormed to Paralympic gold with a record-breaking performance in the men’s C3 3000m individual pursuit at the Izu Velodrome.
The South Africa-born Van Gass broke the world record in qualifying for the final then held off his ParalympicsGB teammate Fin Graham to take Britain’s second cycling gold of these Games, after Sarah Storey’s triumph on Wednesday.
“At this very moment in time, it’s at the top. It is there. It’s right at the top. It’s the best thing,” said Van Gass of where the gold medal stood in an astonishing CV of achievements. “It’s hard to really put that into perspective, I need it to sink in a little bit as well. I have done some amazing stuff and they all have their difficulties and today was very tough. All the praise to little Fin, he pushed me really hard.”
Van Gass’s journey to these Games has been a remarkable one. He made his first tour of Afghanistan in 2008 and returned the following year as a sniper with the Parachute Regiment. It was on that second tour of duty, with two weeks to go before the then 23-year-old was scheduled to return home, that he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade launched by Taliban fighters.
He lost his left arm just above the elbow, his left lung collapsed, shrapnel punctured some of his internal organs, his left knee and left ankle were fractured. His recovery and rehabilitation included 11 operations.
The attack ended his military career but the determination that had carried him through the gruelling training for the Parachute Regiment kicked in again. He walked to the North Pole, ran marathons and competed in skiing events, and attempted to reach the summit of Everest before the 2012 London Games inspired his tilt at Paralympic glory.
“I was in the velodrome [in 2012] seeing the Paralympic Games, in the stadium as well for the athletics, and I was amazed by it and I wanted to be part of that, so I started my journey.
“I was in the buildup to Rio. I was on the team but I didn’t make the final team. I didn’t get on the plane, so there has been a lot of disappointment as well. I left British Cycling and I had to reset a bit and I came back a few years later, and here we are.”
After his Rio disappointment Van Gass arrived in Tokyo as one of the favourites for pursuit gold with his eyes set on the longstanding world record as well as a medal. That he achieved in the qualifying round with a time of 3min 17.593sec but not before Graham had surpassed the mark set by Alexey Obydennov in 2014 with a time of 3min 19.780sec.
In the gold-medal race Van Gass was again narrowly quicker than his teammate, winning by just over a second in 3min 20.987sec.
Help for Heroes, the charity for veterans and their families who helped to support Van Gass on his return from Afghanistan, said his win was a “hugely positive counterpoint to current news headlines” about the country. On the current situation, Van Gass, meanwhile, was diplomatic. “Yes, it’s sad to see what’s going on,” he said.
“Personally, I’m not disappointed or regret what happened to me in the personal matter. I had to go out and do my job. My thoughts go out to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and I think I’ll just leave it there.”
Van Gass’s and Graham’s one-two capped another successful day for ParalympicsGB in the velodrome, with Jody Cundy picking up silver in the men’s C4-5 time trial to become the first British man to win medals at seven Games, having started his Paralympic journey in Atlanta in 1996.
Aileen McGlynn also took silver along with her pilot Helen Scott in the women’s B time trial. It was McGlynn’s seventh Paralympic medal and her first since London 2012. “It’s been amazing,” McGlynn said. “Around this time last year I wasn’t training and to be here at another Paralympic Games, to set a lifetime personal best time and to come away with another silver medal is just phenomenal.”