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An Unconquered Spirit


An Unconquered Spirit
Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News August 2016

PVA members were among the almost 500 servicemen and women who pushed themselves to the limit at the Invictus Games' first visit to the United States

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The battle cry, “I Am — the master of my fate, the captain of my soul!” — echoed throughout the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., as almost 500 disabled, wounded and ill veterans competed at the second Invictus Games in May.

From the epic opening ceremonies to the four days of competition, there was something magical happening during the Invictus Games, and perhaps it was fate that this gathering of nations was taking place just minutes from Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

Quite Remarkable

For a few Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) members, the event was nothing short of spectacular, says PVA Arizona Chapter member Ryan Pinney. 

“This is a beautiful venue here in Orlando, and it was just exciting to be part of this competition,” Pinney says. “There are so many tremendous competitors from many different countries and in all different classes. I wanted to give my all and do as best as I can.”

Pinney, a U.S. Air Force veteran, took gold in both the cycling time trials and criterion race early on at Invictus.

The word invictus means unconquered, and the Games are an opportunity for veterans to be recognized for their service, sacrifice and fighting spirit. Representing 14 nations, the Invictus Games allow active duty and veteran servicemen and women the opportunity to come together to push the envelope of their limits through accessible sports.

And push the envelope they did. It was an event fit for a king, or in this case, a prince, but it was the warriors and their families who were treated as royalty. Prince Harry, while a key figure and very popular among the public, made every effort to cast the glory, attention and credit to the men and women for whom he helped create the event.


Wheelchair Rugby Team USA celebrates victory. Photo by Audrey Nissen

“Being part of something like this, whether you have physical injuries or physiological injuries, being part of a team again, being able to wear a flag on your left chest or your left arm is so important for these guys,” says Prince Harry. “It means so, so much, and to be appreciated, as well. But then you hear their stories of where they’ve come from and where they are now and it’s quite remarkable.”

For many veterans, this gathering was the first time they’ve reunited in force since serving as members of their military. And while the field of engagement has changed, the sense of teamwork remains constant. 

Truly A Blessing

For U.S. Army veteran Roosevelt “RJ” Anderson, teamwork is a philosophy that transcends his life’s mission. This marked the PVA Vaughan Chapter member’s second Invictus Games and just one more platform he uses to challenge himself.

Prior to a motorcycle accident in 2012, Anderson was responsible for the maintenance of a fleet of helicopters. Since his injury, he has not looked back and never lost his resolve to pursue a passion that drew him into the military in the first place. He found that passion in sports.

“It’s been amazing. This is my second go since the inaugural Invictus Games [in 2014]. Everything has been beautiful and everyone wonderful,” says Anderson. “Representing PVA and the U.S. is just a blessing, to be out here and to be able to recover and race and play tennis. It truly is a blessing how far God has brought me. I’m just going to keep pushing and never quit.”

Anderson won his first medals of the Games during the 100-meter track event where he took silver and later earned bronze in the 1,200. He also medaled in wheelchair rugby, taking home the gold.

First-time Invictus Games athlete Jesse Graham started planning for the event while he was still in rehabilitation. The PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter member and U.S. Air Force veteran was injured during a snowmobile accident but was back in sports four months later, and went on to compete in a paratriathlon.

Graham and his brother, Chris, ultimately started their own indoor cycling studio called Applied Fitness Cycle to help introduce and encourage other veterans into the world of adaptive sports.

“Invictus has been an amazing experience,” says Graham. “It’s an honor to compete alongside my brothers and sisters from all across the world.” 

Graham’s love of sports translated into gold in wheelchair rugby, a silver in shot put and bronze medals in the 100, 400 and discus events.

Lasting Consequences

The main platform for this year’s Invictus was the “unseen” injury, and in the wake of so many servicemen and women suicides, Invictus was the perfect place to advocate for changes in the way nations treat their wounded veterans.

Heading a panel on invisible injuries, former United States President George W. Bush was joined by Prince Harry and openly discussed the important role accessible sports have on disabled, injured or ill veterans, including those men and women with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The important thing for the citizens of the United States to understand is when you send people to war, there are consequences, and those consequences oftentimes last long beyond the war, and we as a country have to be prepared to care for our veterans who have fought that war,” says Robert McDonald, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “We have a lot of VA representatives here to make sure the American veterans are getting the care they’ve earned, or that they’re signed up for their benefits. We’ve met with the foreign countries where they don’t have as developed ‘VA’ and worked to help them understand what we’re trying to do to transform the VA to provide better service … just very, 
very inspiring.”

Athletes competed in 10 events ranging from sitting volleyball to cycling to wheelchair rugby in teams or individually. Some of the events were grueling given the Florida heat and humidity, but it wasn’t the medals that were the forefront of the Games. In fact, Invictus didn’t keep an official tally of medals just for this reason — though you can find the results on their website (invictusgames2016.org).

A Privilege & Honor

For the men and women at Invictus, it was about conquering personal goals and showing the world the true meaning of teamwork and camaraderie that is second nature to those in the military.

Of course, the competitive spirit is strong, so being presented with a medal can justify the countless hours of work and training that led to this point, and the sense of accomplishment and pride was clear when Price Harry presented them with a medal.

“It’s a privilege and honor for me to hand out a medal to anybody and you can see it on their faces. It isn’t about winning; it’s about taking part,” says Prince Harry. “For a lot of these individuals, it’s just getting to the start line and being able to be cheered on from an audience from all over the world — especially an American audience  — cheering them the whole way.” 

Invictus Games has already started planning its next event to take place in Toronto and plans to add ice sledge hockey and golf as events.   

 

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An Unconquered Spirit

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