James is a double leg amputee swimmer, who started competitive swimming in 2010, he developed rapidly, and competed in the 2012 London Paralympic Games coming 4th in the SB5 100 metres breaststroke event.

Video still of an interview with James OShea

Early life

A former pupil of the John F Kennedy school in Hemel Hempstead, James lost his legs at 19 when he fell under a train in an accident at Milton Keynes railway station while celebrating New Year's Eve in 1998. 

He claimed:

The moments after were the most spiritually informative of my life. I felt as if I was being touched by a feather and that I heard this very sweet voice saying, 'Don’t worry, you’re not going to die, just relax'. A near-death experience gave me a completely different view of reality.

James’s relentless positive approach to life is undoubtedly what has helped him cope with his double amputation in 1998.

I was, for want of a better word, jostled from the platform into the path of a train,” he says. There I was innocently enjoying my New Year’s Eve and a couple of minutes later I was under a train. I was terrified I was going to die or be paralysed because I couldn’t feel my legs and one of my legs was actually still under the train. I could feel pain but suddenly there was this lovely angelic voice and the feeling of feathers stroking me and I thought, this is nice. The voice said ‘don’t worry, you’re not going to die’. I guess it was a near-death experience and it kept me going.

There followed three months in hospital – James’ recovery slowed by picking up an MRSA infection.

But having adjusted to life in a wheelchair, he finished his history and politics degree at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

Then he headed off around the world for 16 months – an experience which cast new light on his disability.

In Thailand I had people coming up and grabbing me to check I was still normal ‘downstairs’. There was no mucking around just direct action. And after that I didn’t care what people said or did.

Life as a Paralympic athlete

He went on to become a dancer for Candoco, an internationally acclaimed contemporary dance company, and it was from there that James was invited to take part in the BBC3 series ‘Dancing on Wheels’, as a professional dance partner to TV celebrity Caroline Flack. 

It was whilst filming this show that James met fellow contestant and six times world champion Mark Foster, who encouraged James to start training seriously in the sport of swimming. Recalling his first meeting with Mark Foster:

The first time I met Mark I had no idea who he was – just a lanky grey-haired bloke. But he said to me, ‘you look fit, can you swim?’ When I said yes, he said ‘I want to train you for the Paralympics.’ And I thought ‘I’ll have some of that’.

Mark, who had never seen James in the pool, says:

He was very confident and chatty and able to jump up and over things in and out of this wheelchair - it blew me away. I asked him if he could swim and he said he loved it and I thought ‘there is big difference between love and being good at it’. But I asked him to come down and see how good he was. Nine months later I got him in a pool and he dived in and within half a length you could see he had it. I said to him ‘do you want to win a Paralympic gold medal’ and his eyes lit up and he said ‘yes’.

James remembers:

The first time we went down to the pool Mark opened the door, got me in and showed me how to ‘grab water’. He only showed me once but that was enough. He says if you don’t grab water you don’t win and I want to win.

After being introduced to elite coach, Rob Greenwood, at Barnet Copthall Swimming Club, James worked hard to qualify for the London 2012 Paralympic Games in the SB5 class, 100m breaststroke. 

In the lead up to the London 2012 Games, James said:

I only really started training with the elite squad last September but in the preceding year I realised how tough it was going to be. Every month I was being asked to do a bit more and shave a few more seconds off. If I’d known that the expectation was to swim 100m breaststroke in 1 minute 33 seconds to win a gold medal then I would have said ‘no’ because back then it didn’t seem physically possible. But I swam 1 minute 38.5 seconds the other day so it is getting nearer.

Training was tough and each week he swam 40,000 metres – by the time of the London 2012 Paralympic Games he would have swum six million metres in training.

Reaching the final, despite being bed bound for two days before with illness, James finished fourth and completed a remarkable story of swimming for ParalympicsGB, breaking the British record and making a Paralympic final with only 1 year of elite level training under his belt.

Retirement as a Paralympic athlete

James teaches circus skills and has a charity that takes children with an impairment to swim with dolphins in Mexico, Egypt and the United States. 

James has had significant national press exposure on his journey, and with this James has joined with the Hertfordshire Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Partnership to offer talks in schools and swimming clubs as part of the county’s legacy ‘Education Pledge’

An interview with James

James talks about the classification of leg amputee swimmers here.