Broken and Still Going
Paralyzed Veterans of America members, along with other military veterans, learned just how invigorating and memorable the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto could be.
There was Jesse Graham, lying on the deck of the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre after his first 2017 Invictus Games swimming event, the men’s ISA 50-meter freestyle. A trainer and coach hovered over him; they checked on the U.S. Air Force veteran and Team USA member every few seconds. Just gassed — that was all.
A Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Mid-Atlantic Chapter member, Graham had just completed a struggle in the 50 free, with the crowd clapping and pushing him the last 15 meters as he earned a sixth-place finish. Having a spinal-cord injury (SCI), he’s not the strongest in that event. Then came another tough road — getting out of the water. He looked up at the scoreboard, bobbed himself underwater and back up, then had to duck under five lanes to get to the right side of the pool to the deck, where he was lifted out just before the men’s ISB 50 free final. That’s when his body finally let go of all that adrenaline and exhaustion, as his energy levels recouped. He still had three more races to go. But to him, putting his body through all this is worth it — especially at the Invictus Games.
“It’s the idea of showing the world that, you know, people that are ‘cripple’ can still do everything that we wanted to do, that we’re still active, we’re still going. I see it all the time in stores. People look at me with the sense of ‘I feel sorry for you,’ and it’s like if you knew what I did, you know, you’d realize I probably do more than you. Life is different, but I’m still the same person. I’m still going to keep pushing,” Graham says. “So, I mean, the Games are more than just me showing it, but it’s showing that this large group of people showing the world that we’re still going — broken and still going.”
That spirit is what Prince Harry wanted when he started the Invictus Games in 2014 as an international sporting event for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and servicewomen, both active duty and veterans, to help showcase their drive, perseverance and power of sport on their journey to recovery. More than 550 athletes from 17 countries competed in this year’s Invictus Games in Toronto, participating in 12 sports: archery, track and field, cycling, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, indoor rowing, a Jaguar Land Rover Driving Challenge, wheelchair tennis, swimming, powerlifting, sitting volleyball and the newest addition, golf. Graham earned bronze in the men’s ISA 50-meter backstroke (1 minute, 34.79 seconds) and as a member of Team USA’s wheelchair rugby team. He also earned two fourth-place finishes in track and a handful of fifth and sixth-place finishes. Rugby remains his favorite because of the bonds, especially for those with SCI.
“It became a passion when I started because outside of the Invictus Games world, it’s a support group as a quad,” Graham says. “You meet other quads, and you learn a lot more than just rugby from them. You learn life tips. It gives you a network of people that understand you.”
For PVA Northwest Chapter member Danny Dudek, the Invictus Games gave him the opportunity to make a first impression on his 12-year-old niece, Gain, from southwest of Seoul, South Korea. He met her for the first time in Toronto after she traveled all the way across the country by herself. They even met Prince Harry, just by chance, in between Dudek’s swimming events.
“This is a girl that’s from Korea, speaks Korean, doesn’t speak much English. I have never met her in person before,” says Dudek, who was also joined by his wife, Megan. “We met via text and Facebook and pictures, and she knew about her uncle, her American uncle, but never met him until Invictus, and so this is her first impression of me and I get to utilize Invictus and all the pageantry to hopefully make a good impression.”
Dudek also made another new friend — one maybe for life. On a short bus ride to High Park for the cycling time trials event, the Team USA member and his newfound buddy, Temur Dadiani from the country of Georgia, bonded. An active duty U.S. Army colonel, Dudek, an L3/L4 incomplete paraplegic, sustained a SCI after his convoy was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. A corporal in the military, Dadiani, a double amputee, lost both of his legs to a landmine in Afghanistan in 2011. The pair shared plenty of laughs, jokes and stories during the bus ride and warmups. And it continued even during the men’s IHB2 time trials. Dadiani placed sixth (12:19), while Dudek finished eighth (13:06) in the event.
“We had talked so much and had fun on the bus and then out here practicing,” Dudek says. “So when we were crossing on the way back where the route kind of bends back on itself and you can see the people ahead of you kind of going, he yelled, ‘Come on!’ to me, you know. And I was like, ‘You go!’ Just encouraging each other.”
Dudek also placed fourth in the men’s IHB2 criterium (31:48). But he finished in personal bests and went 2.8 mph faster than he’d ever ridden in the two cycling events. He also competed in swimming and track, earning a bronze medal in the men’s IT4 1,500 meters (5:04.11) and finishing with a handful of personal records.
Stars & Stripes
PVA Vaughan Chapter member Roosevelt “RJ” Anderson made quite an impression with his wardrobe in his third Invictus Games appearance. He went to some great lengths to deck himself out for Team USA’s Invictus Games wheelchair tennis doubles match with partner and PVA Central Florida Chapter member Sharona Young against Team Australia at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto. Besides his United States red-, white- and blue-striped uniform and blue U.S. hat with red letters, the Army veteran added a few other custom items to his wardrobe — buying some red-, white- and blue-striped and starred socks and red shoes from Eastbay and adding a red-, white- and blue-starred and striped arm sleeve and some blue athletic tape to one of his arms. Admittedly, he planned most of the outfit months ago.
“It’s my third go-around, so I just really wanted to, I guess, show up and show out. You know, we’re here and it’s a blessing to be here. So, you know, why not look good while you’re doing it?” says Anderson, who was injured after he sustained C7 and T4/5 SCIs in a motorcycle accident. “I needed tape, so he [our athletic trainer] just happened to have stars and stripes. So I said, ‘hey, let’s do it.’ I’m matching everywhere else, so let’s add to.”
Unfortunately, the colorful outfit didn’t spark a win. Team Australia defeated Anderson and Young, 6-0, in a round robin match, and the U.S. finished 0-3 overall, also falling to Team Canada (6-5 in a tiebreaker after rallying from a 4-1 deficit), New Zealand (6-0) and Team United Kingdom 2 (6-0). A Navy veteran who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013, Young admitted she sometimes felt overwhelmed by the people and the whole Invictus Games experience. She says Anderson helped her, telling her to just relax and enjoy the event. One of the Australian players even tried to help Young relax by telling her to take her time, making her laugh and offering her a little koala pin, which she put on her jersey.
“… They’ve all been really great, giving me tips, telling me some things to work on. Watch the ball — that’s the big one I’m getting,” says Young, who also competed in cycling. “Like keep your eye on the ball, watch the ball, don’t get overwhelmed with everything around, focus on the ball.”
It’s a spot to which Anderson can relate. Last year, he was the rookie. He had just started wheelchair tennis, and the Chicago resident played it at the Invictus Games after just two or three months of practice. A shoulder injury had just ended his wheelchair rugby career. He liked wheelchair tennis so much he decided to do it year-round and compete again this year. He worked with a local pro, Paul Moran, and practiced three days a week at a Chicago tennis facility so he could better prepare for this year. Anderson also competed in wheelchair basketball, helping the U.S. to a gold medal.
“It’s all about the camaraderie, sharing the agenda for the idea of hope and purpose,” he says.
That hope and purpose is to help others, veterans and civilians alike, around them. For some athletes and coaches, like Australia’s Dennis Ramsay, the Invictus Games are a way to give back — to fans and supporters and to an entire community of military supporters. Sitting in the stands watching an Australian wheelchair rugby preliminaries match, a child asked him to sign an autograph. So, he did. Then another. Then children started lining up, so he kept signing — for an hour and a half straight. He signed backpacks, papers, hats and shirts.
“And it also made them feel important as well. They came to me. I didn’t go chasing them, you know what I mean?” says Ramsay, who lives in Baranduda, Australia. “That’s what Invictus is all about, getting the community engaged, too. And that’s what we do.”
A 25-year Australian Army veteran, Ramsay served both the transport and engineering companies. He had both his legs amputated in 2008 because of three serious illnesses — group A streptococcus, toxic shock syndrome and multi-organ failure — and he now uses prosthetic legs. He’s attended all three Invictus Games so far — 2014 in London, 2016 in Orlando, Fla., and this year’s — participating as an athlete in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, sitting volleyball and seated discus and shot put in the first two and serving as Team Australia’s wheelchair rugby coach in this year’s Games. He medaled in 2014 in shot put and discus, as well. Now, he’s a coach only and also leads the Wodonga Albury wheelchair basketball team in Australia.
“Coaching is interesting and challenging, but playing the game is totally different because you’re actually on the field,” Ramsay says. “You can’t play for the players.”
Broken and Still Going
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