Jonty Warneken is not one to shy away from a challenge. The 49-year-old amputee made history as the first ever disabled ice swimmer and this year completed his first ever triathlon ahead of more history-making challenges next year.
Growing up all he had wanted to do was to pursue a career in the military and play rugby. However, the dreams he had worked towards since he was seven were forced to alter during a life-changing year in 1994.
“I was only a few months into my army officer training at Sandhurst when I started having medical issues and I was then sadly discharged in the July,” Warneken reflected. “When I left Sandhurst, I was hoping to stay in the military and maybe go into the RAF, but then, a few months later, in the November of ‘94, I was coming back from a job interview when I crashed my beloved MGB Roadster into an oak tree at about 50mph.
“I was lucky to survive the impact but then had to have multiple operations trying to save my legs and skull with much of my forehead being reconstructed with titanium plates. Parts of my ear were put into my nose, my right leg was pinned all the way down and my ankle partially fused. Eventually, after nothing succeeded, I elected to have my left leg amputated below the knee. I was in hospital for over six months after the accident and everything I had worked on and towards since I was seven was taken away from me.”
Warneken, who lives in North Yorkshire, forged a new career path pursuing a career in private banking and investment management. From a sporting perspective, he struggled, at first, to find a sport or activity that was able to “fill the hole” caused by not being able to continue playing rugby.
It was learning to ski that encouraged him to become active again, inspiring him to lose weight, before he reignited his love of open water swimming after he and his brother took part in a 10k outdoor swimming challenge to assist with his brother’s fight against severe depression.
“After that, I carried on swimming outdoors. We moved back to Yorkshire where my coach encouraged me to try swimming without a wetsuit. At that time  ice swimming was just becoming an organised activity and the pinnacle was to achieve an Ice Mile which is swimming a mile in water of 5C or less without a wetsuit. We realised that no disabled person in the World had done an Ice Mile, so I decided that was what I was going to target, and I did it in February 2014, becoming the first disabled Ice Miler.”
It wasn’t long before Warneken had his eyes set on a new challenge involving swim, bike, run.
“I have always ridden bikes; I did the Help for Heroes bike rides to raise money for them but then I kept failing my ice swimming medical, so I had to lose weight. The doctor then recommended gastric surgery, which I organised at once and, as a result, lost nine stone. That made my body far more user friendly for doing things like triathlon which I couldn’t have contemplated before.
“Even though I can’t run, it hurts just to stand up, in the ice swimming community and in the ice world we have different categories of achievement, and this includes ‘Iron IceMan/Woman’ as one of the toughest challenges. That is somebody who has done an Ice Mile and an IRONMAN, so I thought ‘I want to achieve that’. I’d always fancied doing an Ironman anyway.
“I’ve been training since to do a triathlon. I ride my bike, I swim, which is fine, but running is the big challenge for me because my remaining ankle is so bad and so painful. But where there’s a will, there’s a suffering way.”
This year Warneken swapped the ice swimming conditions he is used to for the slightly warmer Waterloo Lake in Roundhay Park when he completed his first standard distance triathlon at the World Triathlon Championships Series event in Leeds.
“I loved it,” Warneken said. “Everyone was really supportive, really helpful and really accommodating. I needed my wife Penny to help in transition and everyone was really cool about it and absolutely lovely.
“The event itself was amazing; everyone was so supportive and encouraging out on the course, saying ‘you put us all to shame’. That is for me what it’s all about, no matter how much I’m suffering I always push myself; I do it because I want to do it, but I also want to show other disabled people that such activities are within reach.
“I love the variety and the challenge of triathlon, and the people and the community are ace so that’s a big part of it too. But triathlon really does hurt me; the running side especially, but I quite like that part of the challenge. The suffering for me is all worth it. Yes, it is painful, but I would much rather participate than spectate and so I don’t let pain and suffering prevent me from doing something I want to do.”
Warneken is no stranger to a challenge, and he’s already got more lined-up with a number of challenges planned for 2022.
First up, in February, the World Ice Swimming Championships. Then in March, Warneken will cross-country ski 185km during The Montane Lapland Arctic Ultra, a multi-day endurance race above the Arctic Circle.
In May, he will take on his first IRONMAN 70.3 in Aix-en-Provence, France, and in June he will be taking part in the first disabled relay across the North Channel. Then, in September, Warneken is targeting his first IRONMAN in Italy where he hopes to become the first disabled person to complete an ice swimming mile and an IRONMAN.
“I was hoping to do an IRONMAN in Austria this year but, due to COVID regulations, it wasn’t possible so I’m now working towards next September in Italy,” Warneken said. “I know it’s going to be a challenge but that’s what I enjoy. When I want to do something, I do everything I can to make it happen.”
You can find out more about paratriathlon and taking up the sport by visiting the British Triathlon website on the link below.