Facing the biggest challenge of his life, JJ's positivity prevailed, showcasing remarkable strength throughout his recovery and going on to become an Invictus Games medallist and forging a successful broadcasting career.

A decade on, we sit down with JJ at Johnnie Walker Princes Street to enjoy a dram together and reflects on his extraordinary story.

JJ, you've been on an unbelievable journey. If we start from the beginning, did you always want a career in the military?

I was raised in a house where you served, you were part of your community, you did something - so that's why a life in service attracted me. I was also intrigued by the notion that, despite going through some really difficult things, I would get the opportunity to have some extraordinary experiences around the world and do these things with my best mates by my side.

Why did you choose the Marines?

I went to a school that had a Royal Marines Cadet Section and that gave me an insight into the Marines versus everything ese. Our Cadet leaders were superheroes as far as I was concerned. I wanted to see if I could become a Royal Marine Commando. I wanted to see if I was capable of doing that.

I always look for an opportunity to step outside my comfort zone and if anything, that has only been increased and exacerbated by surviving.

How did you feel about going to Afghanistan?

Looking back on it now, it all seems extraordinary, but at the time it was so ordinary. It was my first tour, and everything I had done in my life was up until then fed into this eventuality which was going to Afghanistan. Because that's what everybody in my life did. It was my job.

There were still moments when I woke up in the morning and thought to myself that this time next year I could be dead. You just have to compartmentalise it. On the flip side, I wasn't afraid. This was my dream. I was finally getting to do the thing which I had prepared myself for.

It was during your first tour in 2011 that you were caught in a bomb blast. Can you describe what happened that day?

Because I took a big clattering to the head, I don't remember much of the day, but I have about 20 flashing images, from waking up in the morning, to being blown up at one o'clock in the afternoon.

Our mission that day was to go and clear a suspected bomb making factory. There were about 30 of us on the ground, working in three teams. My team was the one tasked with actually going into the bomb making factory while the others secured the perimeter. When you look back it that was a pretty dangerous place to be going, but to be selected to do that was a big responsibility and one I was really quite proud to have.

We went in, secured the compound and made it as safe as we possibly could, but the enemy is pretty sneaky in the way that it buries these devices in order to catch you out. On that day we got caught out. Unfortunately, one of my friends stepped on a pressure plate which activated a pretty big old bomb.

Do you remember anything from the blast?

About ten kilos of homemade explosives went off in a confined space, which just exacerbated the situation. I was stood at the exit, meaning all of the debris came my way and tore me to pieces.

From memory, it all happened in the blink of an eye. From a pretty normal Friday afternoon in Afghanistan to lying on my back in more pain than I've ever experienced. The first thing was confusion: pure disbelief that this had actually happened. I tried to give myself first aid and that was the point I realised that both of my arms had essentially come off.

There were ten of us in that compound; five of us plus our Afghan interpreter had been killed or injured. It was as catastrophic as these situations get.

Talk to us about your recovery. How long did it last?

From the point of being injured, your life is made up of seconds or minutes. I just need to survive the next 20 minutes to make it to the helicopter; another 20 minutes to get to the hospital. Once I got back to the UK, I started measuring things in days, then months, until I hit that sort of iconic one year mark.

I was injured in 2011 and discharged in 2016, having 30-odd surgeries in that time. What I've since realised a decade later, having been in hospital for various other surgeries and catching different infections, is that I've survived the unsurvivable but that comes at a cost. The cost is having medical concerns that nobody knows the answer to, because no one has ever done this before - which is kind of cool.

What helped you get through your recovery?

The main thing was having a really good family network around me. I was so lucky to have that. My wife Kornelia was amazing. She just did everything. I never had to ask.

What was the biggest challenge?

As a Royal Marine I defined myself as being tough, but that had been taken away from me and all of a sudden I didn't know what I was.

Physically, I had to relearn how to use my hands. I couldn't feed myself for months. My right hand didn't work in the slightest, so I spent months moving marbles from one pot to another to learn the first steps.

How did you cope with that?

I had to readjust my expectations. Post-accident, the first thing I built was a Meccano helicopter, and I had to compare that progress to where I had been the week before. If I compared it to where I was a year ago - an assault engineer in the Marines who used to jump out of helicopters for a living - then I'd find myself in trouble. I just had to get beyond where I had been the day before. That was the most important thing at that stage.

Did you struggle with your mental health?

I was lucky that I didn't get a specific mental health condition like post-traumatic stress disorder, but moreover I was lucky just to do the right things without knowing I was doing them. What I mean by that is being open, honest, speaking to others around me and sharing my thoughts, good or bad.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of us going through essentially the same thing. We were all hurt in different ways, but the similarity was that we all had the thing we loved taken away from us; the thing that defined us. We were all torn to pieced, but at least we were together in that.

Some of my best life experiences took place when I was in the deepest, darkest depths of rehab, when all of us were pretty useless but we were still working really hard and having a good time doing it. It was no different to what we used to do in the Marines.

It's clear to see that your positivity has prevailed throughout it all.

People ask me if my positivity is a result of being injured. It's absolutely turned it up a lot, but I would have never been in that situation if I didn't have the positivity or the determination, because I would have quit on day one of becoming a Marine.

The blast gave me the biggest challenge of my life, and one that I had no other choice but to do. You can't really quit, and even if you thought you could, when you're informed that your friends in the blast have lost their lives you suddenly realise that it would be the greatest disservice to feel sorry for yourself in a world where you're lucky.

You were a participant in the first ever Invictus Games in 2014. Were the games a driving force for you?

Absolutely. Rehab was very physical, but very mundane in its physicality. Sport was a way to make my recovery more exciting and dynamic. Competition is also a massive part of that. Like in the Marines, healthy competition drives you to be better.

Cycling was my main sport and it unlocked a massive part of me that I had lost. It allowed me to get out into the great outdoors, feel independent and most importantly, it gave me ambition. Winning a medal for cycling at the Invictus Games was something I could never have dreamt of doing, so all of a sudden I had achieved something beyond my capabilities. How amazing is that?

Incredible. And you've now gone from participant to presenter. How did your broadcasting career in sport begin?

When I got to the end of the Invictus Games and I won my medals, that felt amazing, but who was I going to be on Monday morning? I realised that I needed to take all of this ambition, determination and drive that I had rediscovered and apply it to the next thing.

I had actually thought about broadcasting when I left school, but I didn't know where to start. Being part of the first Invictus Games allowed me to get to know people at the BBC and ask the right questions. With many of my friends competing at the next Invictus Games and going on to the Paralympics, I joked that I should come out and be a pundit at Rio, and that became a reality.

At this year's Tokyo Games I was the first presenter with a physical disability to have presented both the Paralympics and the Olympics, which is pretty damn cool. How do you drive parity between disability and able-bodied sport? You do so by working across both of them. That's how to say these things are one and are as important as each other. The mindset is the same, the ambition is the same, the level of commitment is the same, that's what being an Olympian is. It was a massive honour to work across both.

You've since gone on to work across a variety of television shows.

I'm really lucky with my broadcasting career. Sport was my way in but I'm what you term a general presenter, which there aren't many of these days. Not many people go straight from the Olympic Games to the Chelsea Flower Show to doing a feature for The One Show about the world's biggest rabbit!

Or CBeebies Bedtime Stories?

Or CBeebies Bedtime Stories, which was an absolute dream come true! That's probably the best thing I've ever done on telly. Let me tell you that.

And you participated in last year's Strictly Come Dancing. Was that a whole different kind of challenge?

Strictly was such a different challenge. I had no dance experience. But that was the point - I like to challenge myself. I've done things in my recovery like climb Mount Kilimanjaro and learn to scuba dive, but those things sit within my comfort zone. So when I was looking for the ultimate challenge, I wanted something that was going to be physically and mentally tough.

And it was tough, I was as physically fit as I have ever been in this body, but it was the most disabled I've ever felt in this body. Each week we had to test and adjust the routine to find out what I could actually do. It took a lot of encouragement from my amazing dance partner and choreographer to convince me that I didn't look as bad as I thought, and it was okay.

Mentally, I was overwhelmed by everything; the choreography, the wardrobe, the speed at which the show moves... but it was amazing to step into the world of dance and pretend to be that for a while. I couldn't get my head around the fact that on a Monday morning, people would be standing around coffee machines or on Zoom calls chatting about us. I wasn't used to that at all. Most people were very nice, but it is strange when you get people making a judgement about you as a person because you're rubbish at the Pasodoble!

In the little spare time that you have, what do you do with it?

My number one thing to do is spend time with my family; I'm completely blessed with my wife and two great kids.

Gardener's World and Money For Nothing are true reflections of my interests. I've always grown up in a green fingered house and now I like to work in my own garden, while Money For Nothing is literally filmed at my home! I love DIY and I'm always working away in my workshop, on-screen and off.

Whisky is my go-to at the end of a long weekend working in the house or in the garden. I feel like I've earned it.

Do you remember your first dram? 

Some of my earlies memories of Christmases and birthdays are of my dad having a dram at the end of the night. When I became old and sophisticated enough, I got to join in. Those are some of my happiest memories to this day.

And you're a cocktail fan, too?

Yeah, well, I'm in showbusiness! I've got to be, eh?

What do you make of your first visit to Johnnie Walker Princes Street?

It's amazing! Being an Edinburgh boy, I'm so proud that Johnnie Walker Princes Street exists in my town, in the same way that I'm proud of whisky because I'm Scottish. That sense you can go to the other side of the world and there's a little piece of your country on the shelf. There's an amazing pride that comes from that.

After a lot of hard work, mental and physical strength - do you feel you are in a good place?

The thing is, my life is perfect. I've got an amazing family, and an amazing job. The way I got here was pretty tough and yes, I've got a disability and that's bloody hard sometimes, but would I change it all? I wouldn't wish my injuries on anyone, in the same way that I wouldn't wish the last 18 months of the pandemic on anyone. But when you come out the other end of it and you've learned something about yourself - whether you've just survived or you've become an expert in making sourdough - there are parts of life that are better as a result of what happened. You can't take the good without the bad so I accept what happened to me; I know I can't change it, so why would I fret about it? It all worked out all right, my life is damn good. And I feel like I'm only just getting started.

Look out for JJ presenting next year's Invictus Games at The Hague, and follow him on Instagram (@jj.chalmers) to keep up with his latest projects.

The original feature is from the Winter 2021 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online. Click here to read the full Winter 2021 issue of Whiskeria online for free.