I’m very lucky to have been involved with and invited to some awe-inspiring events and on the weekend of the 5-8th April, I attended the 2018 UK Invictus Team Trials held at the University of Bath, where Prince Harry and his fiancé Meghan Markle came to meet and support the athletes taking part in the trial.
If you have never heard of these games, then you should check them out as they televise them this October from Sydney Australia. The Invictus Games is an international adaptive multi-sport event, created by His Royal Highness Prince Harry, in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans take part in sports including wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, and indoor rowing.
The games are aimed at those that have been injured while serving in the military either physically or mentally. Most of us will never know the full horrors of combat. Many servicemen and women suffer life-changing injuries, visible or otherwise, whilst serving their country. So how do these men and women find the motivation to move on and not be defined by their injuries?
On a trip to the Warrior Games in the USA in 2013, Prince Harry saw first-hand how the power of sport can help physically, psychologically and socially those suffering from injuries and illness. He was inspired by his visit and the Invictus Games was born.
The word ‘Invictus’ means ‘unconquered’. It embodies the fighting spirit of wounded, injured and sick service personnel and personifies what these tenacious men and women can achieve post injury. The Games harness the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for those who serve their country.
Generations have drawn on the words of William Ernest Henley’s poem for strength during times of adversity. Henley was himself an amputee and the poem reflects his long battle with illness. The title means “unconquered” and the 16 short lines of the poem encapsulate the indefatigable human spirit, which is at the heart of the Invictus Games.
by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The Invictus Games is about much more than just sport – it captures hearts, challenges minds and changes lives.
My husband served in the Royal Air Force for 16 years and was medically discharged in 2006. Due to his injuries, it was becoming extremely hard for him to take part in sporting activities where once he was playing football, volleyball and tennis at a high standard for the forces. He was a very competitive, driven and highly spirited character who was very well known and loved in each camp he went to.
When he was medically discharged, however, things changed. His final air force base closed, so all of his military friends left and his secure environment had been taken away. He now faced the overwhelming job of ‘fitting in’ to civilian life along with injuries that over time were only going to get worse.
After the birth of our son in 2010, he was starting to show signs of anxiety and depression. He struggled to hold down a job, not that he wasn’t any good at them or didn’t work hard but just because felt he didn’t fit in anywhere. He got in to teaching and again found he had a real passion for it and was well suited to the role. The students thought he was great as he treated them all like they were part of a team and he managed to bring the best out of them, even the troublesome characters. He enjoyed it but still things in his mind were not working so well. Certain people and situations frustrated him, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it. He eventually was diagnosed with depression and went on medication. This did help as it reorganised the imbalances of chemicals and thoughts. He became calmer and, as he put it, ‘could think straight’. This was a way of not just highlighting that there was an issue but an opportunity to start getting himself back. We had to figure out what it was that was missing.
His injuries didn’t help. Copious operations, a new medication every time he visited the doctors… I personally hated this. I’m not slating GP’s in any way, but they never had answers, except to try a new tablet which sometimes didn’t mix well with what he was already taking. It took 4 doctors and different specialists to eventually diagnose degenerative disc disease in 8 places in his spine, root nerve damage in upper lumbar of his spine, which has caused restless leg syndrome. He has had 6 operations on his shoulder for various reasons and is now riddled with arthritis from his shoulder down to his elbow and has limited cartilage at the back of his shoulder. He has also been diagnosed with prinzmetal angina and a few more… it’s a long list! He certainly isn’t the worst when it comes to injuries or conditions, but the pain was and still is, excruciating. The sleepless nights, the weight gain from the medication, the endless operations, not knowing that it would actually make a long-term difference.
When you have been extremely fit and at the top of your sporting game, and when sport and being a part of a team means everything to you and now you can barely move or hardly ever sleep, how do you keep yourself motivated? It was tough, on all of us. Some friends and family backed away and I don’t blame them really.
After moving back to Kent and changing doctors, they looked at him with a different view and eventually found the root of the problem. Medication was altered, and weight started to reduce. A couple more operations and visiting some fantastic specialists, alternative treatment was administered, and there was the beginnings of a better outlook.. Starting his own business gave him a new focus but the real change was in 2016 when he read about the Invictus Games.
He emailed them to see if he was eligible to enter and was pleasantly surprised when the answer was ‘yes’. Anyone in the services who has been injured during their time working in the military is able to apply. This makes it so inclusive and it isn’t just for those that had been injured on the front line. As a fireman, he had served in many different countries supporting those on the front line. His body was put under considerable strain from equipment and heavy workload needed to respond to those in need. Carrying the breathing apparatus became crippling and this was the start of losing his position and having to come away from a job he so loved. Leaving the fire service was not his choice.
He attended the 2017 Invictus trials and this was the start of his return. Meeting up with likeminded military people who had overcome similar or much worse obstacles really allowed him to turn a corner and, more importantly, didn’t feel alone.
Because the games are adapted for the injured, he was able to play competitively and like he did before… he could shine.
He is now part of the GB development squad for sitting volleyball, plays monthly for Help 4 Heroes at Sitting Volleyball and has made many new friends. Although he doesn’t get to see them all the time, it ignited a passion for sport again. This in turn gave him purpose which showed in his business and his ‘get up and go’ attitude.
Although he didn’t make the 2017 Invictus Games, he was invited to compete in the Warrior Games in Chicago, representing the United Kingdom. This was exactly again the focus he needed and he was able to pick up new skills by trying out for new sports. At the Warrior Games, he won 3 Silver medals and ultimately a Gold in Discus. After the games, he got himself a coach and has been training hard for almost a year to improve his throwing skills and improve his playing techniques for sitting volleyball. We will find out on the 8th May if he has made it in to this years’ Invictus Team but what has happened is he is on a road to recovery.
Meeting other athletes and learning their stories really gives you an insight about how the games have really changed their lives.
When you see a veteran soldier with no legs and only one arm getting strapped to a wooden stool and still gives it his all to throw a shot put and throws himself around a court in sitting volleyball, it really gives the real essence of heroes.
I spoke to Lamin who lost 3 limbs after he went over an IED and he simply said. ‘I wake up looking for that next challenge. I love sport and you can adapt anything. You have to enjoy everything you do. None of this matters, (pointing to his missing limbs), you just have to enjoy yourself and get involved’. Lamin and all the other athletes are extremely inspiring. Nothing holds them back, not now they have the games. Once the games have taken them in, anything again is possible. It’s like a huge family that will always be there to support and will never push you away. It really is something incredible.
To make these games possible and allow the injured to rehabilitate and engage in their positive journey, top coaches are approached to assist at workshops and the trials. These coaches are highly experienced and work so well within the military field.
One of the coaches is Alison Rodger, who is part of the Athletic coaching team and concentrates on the throwing section of the games. Alison has been in the athletics world since a child and has trained to a high standard in a variety of sports and ultimately represented Scotland at the Common Wealth Games for Shot Put. She is a force to be reckoned with standing at 6 feet tall and with a presence to go with it! After retiring from her sport, she turned to coaching and was asked to coach military veterans as well as get involved with the Invictus Games. When at the trials, I noticed a limited number of female coaches which is a real shame considering the amazing relationship and respect shown to her from the athletes.
Interview with Alison Rodger
I spoke with Alison to find out how it was to be an athlete, then moving into the coaching world, working with military folk and why there should be more female coaches and role models.
Mel: Thank you for taking the time as I know you are busy with preparation of the games. Firstly, what are your memories of competing at shot put? What encouraged you to take up that particular sport?
Alison: I started in Athletics aged 8. I went along to the local club with my older brother but was too young to participate until I turned 9. I tried all events until the age of 14 where I started to focus on the high jump, until I injured my ankle. After this, I asked to compete in the shot put for my club in competition to get points and ended up winning the event. I decided to focus on shot from then on. I loved the variety of training for throws, weightlifting, plyometrics, sprinting, conditioning and mobility. It was so vast, I never got bored and always enjoyed training, which is a massive bonus. For me, I liked to prove people wrong. I was told I’d never make a shot putter as I was not heavy or strong enough but this just motivated me to train harder and prove to the doubters I could do it.
Mel: You represented Scotland in the Commonwealth Games in 2014. What was your driving force to succeed and how did you ensure you were both physically and psychologically ready?
Alison: I badly injured my right knee at a warm weather training camp in 2012, which had serious impacts on my training/competitions. I was told by the doctor to stop throwing to prevent permanent damage to the tendons and ligaments but I knew that the Commonwealth Games were in my home city and so I decided to take the risk and keep going to qualify for the games and retire in Glasgow. From 2012, to the games I was literally doing minimal training, lots of physio and receiving cortisone injections to help with the pain. Being in pain every day is not easy, but I believe it builds character. It made me more motivated to make the team in Glasgow and prove to myself I was good enough, even with an injury. I qualified by 5cm and on the day I finished 10th in the final.
Mel: Once your throwing career was coming to an end, how did you approach coaching? How did you become involved with military veterans?
Alison: One of my training partners, Emma Burns was a member of the military charity called BEWSA, British Ex Services Wheelchair Sports Association and she had a last minute cancellation for a helper to go to the competition in USA and asked if I would like to go along. It was the best decision I made… I met so many inspiring veterans and I had a fantastic time helping out with some throwing techniques and it was a massive learning curve for me as a young new coach. I learnt about different injuries, how they were sustained and how all the athletes overcame their issues – it was so inspiring. I felt so lucky to be involved with such a brilliant group of athletes. As soon as I got home I signed up with England Athletics to complete my coaching qualifications. I became the throws coach for the charity where we had training camps at RAF Cosford.
Mel: What is your role now within the Invictus Games?
Alison: I am one of the throw coaches working with British Athletics, working alongside my coach Jim Edwards and Shelley Hollroyd.
Mel: As a female coach, do you feel that more female coaches should get involved? How do you think they can make an impact? Why do you think there is a low number of female coaches within the sport?
Alison: Yes, we need more female coaches. I think there is a stigma around coaching, especially for throws where it is seen by a minority as a ‘man’s sport’, therefore men should be the coaches. This is not the case, and in my experience, gender makes no difference. It is about having the knowledge and confidence in your own ability to deliver advice and guidance to the athlete. If you know your stuff, people will listen. I think time is a key factor in fewer women being coaches across all sports, mainly due to work, family life etc, as majority of coaching is voluntary. It can be difficult to get childcare, for example.
Mel: What advice would you give to female coaches that wanted to work with either military veterans who are injured or other para-athletes?
Alison: Go for it! It is seriously one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Looking back on my own career, I was lucky enough to train alongside multiple Paralympic athletes, with varying injuries and disabilities. Coaching is challenging and a constant learning curve but that’s what makes it exciting. Every athlete is different and it is our job as coaches to figure out how the athletes ‘tick’ to bring out the best in them, and make them realise their potential, regardless of injury. To other female coaches I’d say get involved, be confident in your own ability and enjoy it! Military veterans are amazing to work with and such a good laugh to be around. Constant fun and hard work…perfect combo!
Mel: What are your future plans within coaching?
Alison: I have been coaching officially for 4 years, so I am learning every day. I want to continue to develop my technical knowledge by tapping in to other throw coaches who have a vast range of knowledge and experience. Also, I would like to go for my weightlifting qualification in the next couple of years, to broaden my knowledge and help the athletes more.
To talk to a fellow female coach who also works with disabled athletes made it clear that working with these amazing people was truly inspirational and also facing the everyday challenges, creating adapted movement to build their control, stability and ultimately their strength is an amazing feeling and true job satisfaction.
If you are thinking of becoming a coach in any capacity then truly believe in your own abilities and step forwards in to your chosen destination. No one is there to stop you except you!
The Invictus Games will be live from Sydney, Australia October 20-27th 2018.
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