David Jackson, captain and all-time top-scorer of Nottingham RFC, was 31 when he was told that he had suffered a head injury so potentially serious that further violent sport could kill him.
Five years later, Jackson says he’s stronger and fitter than he’s ever been – which is just as well for someone who is now a major figure in an exercise discipline which is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Indeed, some of the moves in Jackson’s School of Calisthenics curriculum – like the one known as the Human Flag – might be dismissed as downright impossible until you see Jackson demonstrating it by grabbing a pole with both hands and using his upper body and abdominal strength to levitate into a horizontal position with his legs together.
Basically, calisthenics, which is exercising using your own bodyweight to build muscle, comes from the Greek for beauty and strength and involves little or no fitness equipment and works on fundamental moves like handstands and headstands.
The ultimate calisthenics move is the Human Flag, which Jackson can endure for 32 seconds and is now working towards a crack at the world record of one minute five seconds. Is it as excruciating as it looks? “Let’s say it’s tiring.” is how Jackson puts it.
He wants to rid calisthenics of any unattainable image: “It can be off-putting because it really does look difficult, but we strip it right down and make it accessible to anybody. You have to understand how the body works, what your end goal is, and then provide exercises that fit the individual.”
On the premise that anyone can do a handstand if they put their minds to it, the School of Calisthenics is organising International Handstand Day in Nottingham on June 23rd for an official Guinness Word Record attempt for the most people doing simultaneous handstands for 15 seconds.
The current record, set in Belgium in 2006, is 399. “We have 1,000 signed up already,” Jackson says, “And I’m hoping for double that. With a bit of luck we should have the record in the bag.”
He was only 31, at the top of his game as Nottingham’s most capped player and the team’s top scorer of all time when the life-changer came out of the blue. “I hadn’t even given any thought to retirement – it still seemed a long way away,” he says.
Five years on, Jackson still can’t remember exactly what happened to end his career so cruelly. “I’d had a lot of head injuries during my career, along with plenty of other breakages and knocks, and had always recovered, but this was different.
“We were doing pre-season training in August 2013 and apparently I collided with another lad whose shoulder and elbow caught my head and knocked me out. My first memory is of being in hospital and asking what had happened. It was the fourth time I had been taken for a CT scan and being kept overnight, but I had always been ok.
“It seems that this time I had suffered a seizure and been left with bleeding on the brain. I was told that I could be risking my life if I tried to do anything before I’d fully recovered. The medical advice was that I shouldn’t play rugby again.”
Jackson delayed his decision for four months. Nottingham rugby had been his life since he was six and he had become a massive driving force as the club rose from National League Two to challenge for the Premiership, scoring 102 tries in 316 appearances.
“I started the return-to play protocols two or three times but could never get past not being able to run without getting blurred vision or headaches. I also experienced depression and some pretty dark times, and began to fear the worst.
“I went back to the specialist, had more scans, and was again told that I shouldn’t play again. You can’t go against that kind of advice. Of course it would have been nicer to have made the retirement decision yourself rather than it being forced upon you, but this time there was no sensible alternative.”
So in December, 2013, a week before Christmas, Jackson hung up his rugby boots for good and at only 31, started his search for a another challenge. He had a degree in engineering and had done some work as a science teacher, but what he wanted was something rewarding and physically-challenging.
“I had always loved rugby training and I missed the motivation of learning new things and working towards a goal. I also knew that impact sports were out. But calisthenics, with its emphasis on static positions, had everything I was looking for.”
In January 2016, Jackson teamed up with Tim Stevenson, another retired rugby player turned paralympic strength and conditioning coach, to start the Nottingham-based School of Calisthenics with a grant from the county’s Community Foundation.
They got the money after a Dragons’ Den-style interview during which Jackson demonstrated his “human flag” exercise to the judges. “I had to get it right. It reminded me a bit of the pressure I used to get before a match. It was nice to get that exciting feeling back,” he remembers.
Today the school has expanded to run classes on-line and at workshops across the UK for over 100,000 students ranging from teenagers to pensioners.
“Tim and I are not trained gymnasts. We were once beginners and I think that encourages people because they know we were once at the same place they are now and it gives them the confidence to get started,” Jackson told us.
“When I did my first handstand I fell flat on my face. Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve built my handstand ‘our way’ and love the strength and options it gives me, including those free-standing handstand push-ups which I once thought were impossible.
“It took me three months to learn the ‘human flag’ – one day I couldn’t do it and the next day I could. Your body starts to adapt and you look better but you’re not doing it for purely aesthetic reasons. You’re trying to achieve something and you have to learn to activate multiple muscle groups at the same time.
“Don’t worry what your starting point is – don’t be afraid to try something you’ve never tried before.”
One of the school’s most spectacular success stories is 70-year-old ex lorry-driver Graham Parrington, who says: “Calisthencs has changed my life. After years of driving a lorry I could hardly move my arms at the end of the day. Now I am constantly changing my conception of what is impossible.
“I can do the ‘human flag,’ backlevers and headstands – all things I couldn’t have possibly done when I was 30.”
“Graham is an incredible pupil,” Jackson says. “He just shows that no one is too old to surprise themselves with what is possible and change their lifestyle.”
Which is one reason why Wales and Preston North End goalkeeper Chris Maxwell can be seen at his local gym hanging at right-angles from the wallbars like a human flag. “Calisthenics is particularly good for core strength which is generally an underdeveloped part of football training but essential for goalkeepers,” Maxwell says.
“I’ve already noticed the difference when making saves – I have more strength in my arms and shoulders – and that could be of vital importance if we reach the Championship play-offs.”
Maybe he should celebrate with a handstand on June 23 if Preston get back to the Premiership.