Toronto’s Invictus Games athletes talk about what motivates them to compete
As the Invictus Games enter their home stretch (and as the international press catches its breath after sighting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in the wild), we caught up with a few members of Team Canada who live in the Greater Toronto Area. Like all of the games’ participants, they’re military or ex-military personnel who were injured in the line of duty, and who are now pursuing sports as they recover. Here’s what they told us.
45, retired Air Force tech
Competing in power lifting, discus, shot put and rowing
What did you do in the Air Force?
I was fixing aircraft. Until I was medically released in January 2007.
What was the reason for your medical release?
PTSD, anxiety and depression related to being overseas. The doctors felt that I wasn’t fit enough to go overseas anymore. Because of that, I wasn’t fit to be in the military.
Where were you, overseas?
I was in the former Yugoslavia in 1995, which is now Croatia. We were there for six months. I came back in September or October. I continued with training and never really thought much about the war, because PTSD wasn’t something that anybody talked about. You knew as soon as you talked about it your career was done. Later, when I was in the Air Force, my bosses noticed things that I didn’t notice I was doing. I got mood swings, I would go from sociable to isolated and angry for no reason. A few times they sent me to the base doctors, and the doctors wanted to test me for PTSD. The first time, I said no. A few months later they called me back in again and told me I had no choice. I went to get tested, and they diagnosed me. I was coming to terms with the fact that my career was going to be shortened.
How did you get into sports?
My dad was military as well. He encouraged us to get into sports at a young age. So I grew up playing hockey and baseball. My mom being from England, I played soccer in the summer. And then in the military I continued. But then I got away from it, with my PTSD and everything. I’d go to the gym and work out, and that would be about it. Later on, I started to get back into sports and training. I think it’s been instrumental to my recovery.
How did sports help your recovery?
Both physically and mentally. I’ve had numerous surgeries over the last 12 years, and when I’m sidelined I get very short-fused, very depressed, very down on myself. As soon as I’m able to train again, I find that my mood starts coming around. I’m more upbeat. I feel better, I eat better, I sleep better. Overall, I’m a better person to be around. You feel like you’re accomplishing something. Even though you couldn’t finish your military career like you wanted to, at least when you go work out you feel good about yourself. Because you accomplished something.
How are things going now?
I have a wife, and we’re expecting a child in February. And I have a daughter from a previous relationship.
Congratulations on the baby.
Thanks. It’s something I never would have fathomed a year ago, without this journey. There was no way I was in the right state to have a child.
What do you mean by “this journey”?
This process of meeting Invictus Games teammates with different injuries. It allowed me to know that I’m not alone. There are other people out here, and they’re moving forward. Why can’t I? It’s like being part of a team again. Just meeting other people and being part of something can help you.
44, operations controller from Burlington
Competing in wheelchair rugby, track and cycling
What did you do in the Army?
Most recently I was a geomatics technician. A map guy.
How were you wounded?
I shattered my kneecap at work in 1997. It didn’t heal properly, so over the years of doing stuff in the military it got worse. And I got wounded on the job again in 2003. I got a linear fracture in my skull. That put me out of commission for a bit. I did a few tours in Afghanistan, between 2007 and 2009, and one in Bosnia, in 1997, so I suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Injury, too.
How did the skull fracture happen?
We were loading an F-18 jet with armaments, and one of my crewmates shifted his hand slightly. I was checking the serial number, and the bomb dropped on my head. You can laugh about it now, right? I’m alive.
That sounds pretty serious. You had a bomb dropped on your head.
I still suffer from severe headaches.
How did you get into sports?
In high school I played rugby, and I was on the swim team. When I went to college in Thunder Bay, I joined Canadian junior league football. After that, through the military I still played rugby at different bases. I did the Petawawa Ironman in 2012, just before my knee surgery. I did that just for me. I set goals for myself, and that was one of them.
Why did you get involved in the Invictus Games?
Team spirit. Giving back to the country. Getting to represent Canada again. That’s just amazing. Canada gave my dad an opportunity, and it gave me an opportunity. We immigrated from Trinidad when I was ten years old, and I grew up in Regent Park.
You’re competing in wheelchair rugby in the Games, but you don’t normally use a wheelchair, right?
I’m not in a wheelchair. You can have a certain number of able-bodied people on the court at a time.
34, stay-at-home dad from Flamborough, Ontario
Competing in the 100-metre dash and wheelchair rugby
What did you do while you were in the military?
I joined the Army in late 2001. After training, I was sent to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. I was in the military for 13 years before I retired.
How were you wounded?
I was on patrol in Afghanistan in 2006, and was shot in the neck during an ambush. I’m a quadriplegic now. I worked as a clerk for a few years afterwards before I was released from service.
At what point did you start getting into sports?
In 2009. It was excellent. It really helped my rehab. It did a lot for my quality of life. It helped me regain my confidence in myself. When I started playing wheelchair rugby, I had to relearn everything. It was difficult, because it’s a whole new game. It wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. Preparing for the Invictus Games has been a long road, obviously, but it’s one that I’ve become accustomed to.
How did you get yourself into rugby-playing shape after your injury?
You just push your chair. It’ll get you into shape.
What, for you, is the importance of being involved in a sport?
I’ve always believed in a healthy, active lifestyle. Even in the military I’d work out twice a day. It’s just who I am, I guess. I just wasn’t ready to give that up yet.
53, retired military recruiter from Barrie
Competing in archery
How did you get your start with the military?
I joined in 1981. At that time I was in artillery air defence. In 1986, I went from the Army to the Air Force as an aviation technician. I did that up until 2010 and retired, basically for a weekend, and then got back into the military as a reservist. I kept doing that until 2016.
How were you wounded?
What I have is PTSD. I have a mental illness that was caused by a couple of the jobs that I had done for the Canadian Armed Forces, particularly involved with aircraft crash investigations and casualty investigations. All from Afghanistan.
I was stationed in Canada, but whenever there was a casualty overseas, we’d pick up all the personal protective equipment—combat clothing, combat boots, tactical vests, fragment vests, ballistic eyewear, helmets—and bring it back here, and then do an examination of the complete kit. By looking at the kit we could determine whether it was possible to make it any better. It was very difficult. Out of the 150 cases we had, I examined 89 of them, and at that point I had to stop. I found that I would get to the point where I would remember names and faces. That started to take a real personal toll.
At what point did you get into sports?
Sports have always been a part of my life.
What are you doing at the Invictus Games?
Archery. Something I’ve never done before in my life.
Why did you decide to take it up?
Just for the challenge. I continually challenge myself, now. It’s phenomenal. With PTSD, your mind wanders. Archery forces you to focus on the task at hand, so it’s been a lifesaver. I’m out on the archery range every day, practicing.
Do you think you’ll continue doing it after the games are done?
Oh, without a doubt. I’ve already bought a bunch of equipment.
How good are you now?
I’m getting there. I’m on target. I’m not always in the centre, but I’m on target every time. When I started in May, I was losing arrows. Literally losing arrows. I’ve come a long way in the past few months.
What’s the significance, to you, of participating in the Invictus Games?
I can’t even tell you the words. It’s a pinnacle of my life to be able to represent Canada in front of the world. This is a first for me.
43, Air Force financial supervisor from Brampton
Competing in swimming, track and field, and sitting volleyball
What did you do before you got into finance?
I was a boatswain in the Navy. I started in 1996.
How were you wounded?
I have physical as well as mental injuries. I was on the HMCS Vancouver for Operation Apollo. It was right after 9/11. We were on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. We had a lot of ships to inspect, and we did a lot of patrolling in the Persian Gulf and outside of the Gulf. I left early because I damaged my knee in 2002. I just rounded into the deck. I can’t really remember what happened. Then, in 2004, I had a 20-pound box dropped on my head from eight feet, which damaged my neck. I’m dealing with mental health issues now. I recently was diagnosed with PTSD.
When did you start getting into sports?
In 2014, I heard about Soldier On, a program that supports injured military personnel through sports and activities. They had advertised the Army Run in Ottawa. I decided to apply for it. I was super overweight at that point and not able to move very much, and my knee was just a mess. So I decided to give it a try. It was very motivating to see other injured soldiers at different parts of their recovery.
How did you get interested in the Invictus Games?
Through Soldier On. I was running five to ten kilometres at that point. I’d lost 100 pounds. I thought, “You know what? I can apply for this.” So I decided to just give it a go, and I was selected.
You’ve lost 100 pounds since that first run in 2014?
Yes. It’s awesome. It changed my life. I was dealing with a lot of depression and anxiety and absolute sheer fear. When I run, I’m able to disappear into music. Nothing exists but my step, my breathing and my music. It’s my escape.
What’s the significance, for you, of competing in the Invictus Games?
Knowing that another nation has somebody in the same position as me? That means a lot. We’re not alone.