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Emotions Abound

Reprinted from SNS September 2018

The 2018 Invictus Games head to the Land Down Under, and athletes are both nervous and excited about the new experience

Mixed emotions surround Ryan Pinney as he heads into his third Invictus Games this month in Sydney. For the first time, the 37-year-old Air Force veteran won’t have his partner in crime, his wife, Megan, cheering him on.

She’s expecting their first child in November and doctors have ruled her out for this cross-continent trip. That causes some conflicted emotions for Ryan, who sustained a T10-T12 spinal-cord injury (SCI) in 2012 during a national BMX bike race in Las Vegas. The Phoenix resident loves competing in the Games and what they stand for, but not having Megan by his side will be tough.

“It was incredible getting the announcement and was beyond my emotions. It’s an amazing thing to be asked to represent your country, represent your service, because not everybody gets to do this,” says Ryan. “But at the same time, my mind goes to my wife because she’s a vital part of my recovery, a vital part of my military career. She’s been a huge part of my recovery. To be able to include family in this experience is an amazing recognition. To have my family members recognized for the role they’ve played is an amazing feeling. I never want to leave her out of anything.”

Invictus History

For Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and service members like Ryan, the Invictus Games mean plenty. 

Created in 2014 by Britain’s Prince Harry, the Invictus Games are an international sporting event for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and servicewomen, active duty and veteran alike, to help showcase their spirit, drive, perseverance and the power of sport on their journey to recovery. This marks the Games’ fourth year, with previous stops in London (2014), Orlando, Fla. (2016) and Toronto (2017). 

Site venues will have history as well, with events being staged throughout Sydney, including at Sydney Olympic Park, a state-of-the-art entertainment complex in Western Sydney that held the 2000 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and on and around Sydney Harbour. 

More than 500 athletes are expected to compete in 11 sports: archery, track and field, indoor rowing, a Jaguar Land Rover Driving Challenge, powerlifting, road cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and a new addition, sailing. 

A PVA Florida Gulf Coast Chapter member and Army veteran, Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano can’t wait to compete in his second Invictus Games. He’s spent more time in the hospital recovering from bowel surgery this year than training, but he plans on being ready to compete. He’ll be the one wearing the bandana and American flag on his chair, as usual. 

Ryan Pinney, in wheelchair, his wife, Meagan, and brother, Jason Pinney, pose with Britain's Prince Harry, right.

“I’ve never had to deal with it like this,” he says. “…. I’m really looking forward to the experience of the whole event, most of all the competition and just the competition, the fighting for first place, the camaraderie amongst other athletes and other military folks, more of the networking, as far as just talking to other people and realizing some things from them and learning some things from them.”

A PVA Arizona Chapter member, Ryan competed in seated discus, seated shot put and handcycling in the 2014 and 2016 Invictus Games, winning gold in seated shot put and seated discus in 2014 and gold in cycling in 2016. This year, he’s competing in those three events and even added wheelchair basketball. 

“I enjoy the sport. They need help. I’m a good teammate,” Ryan jokes.

Tuimalealiifano will also compete in seated shot put and discus, along with wheelchair rugby, his favorite sport, just like he did at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando. He helped lead the United States’ wheelchair rugby team to a gold medal that year, and they’ll try to make it three straight in that event in 2018.

However, Tuimalealiifano is really looking forward to the sailing event. 

Sailing’s New Pull

The 39-year-old has practiced sailing the past three years, including with the Warrior Sailing Program in St. Petersburg, Fla., and will finally have a chance to showcase his skills.

He’ll be a tiller, which means he’ll steer the boat, while his other two or three teammates will work the sails and the ropes. Athletes are assigned to a position based on their injury level and what abilities they have. Tuimalealiifano says they’ll try you out at different positions to see what you can and can’t do. He likes the tiller position best. 

“You have to read the waters, read the sails, read the sail monitors,” says Tuimalealiifano, a Tampa, Fla., resident. “It’s pretty interesting knowing what and how far the boat can turn, keel, you know, winds and reading waves.”

Growing up in Hawaii, Tuimalealiifano loved being in and playing in the water. After sustaining a C5/6 SCI during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2007, returning to the water was more difficult than he thought. Then, he found sailing. 

“I missed it, but I didn’t want to get back into it because I was having a hard time with the swimming part, with just having my shoulders to use. But the water is always nice and peaceful, you know, nice and calming, lot of adventures as well. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do related to the injury, but there’s also other things I can do. Sailing was, come to find out, was something I can do,” says Tuimalealiifano. “It’s pretty interesting, learning waves, learning everything about the boat itself, you know, and the differences, how it operates, how it works. The manpower it takes to keep it going for us is a three- to four-man team.”

Long Trip

One other test Ryan and Tuimalealiifano will have is how to stay mentally ready despite an exceptionally long flight across the Pacific Ocean. They both acknowledged the long trip shouldn’t get to them, especially because of their meditation practices.

Tuimalealiifano says he’s prepared for the 21-plus hour trip from Florida. He’ll take his trusty Eagle cushion that electronically changes the air pressure to help prevent pressure sores, and he’ll also listen to calming music to help him meditate. 

“Just listening to music and calming myself down and trying to focus on what it is I am doing and what I should be doing, focus on my work as far as training and everything else,” he says. “I’ll listen to anything from common rain, waterfall, beach sounds or whatnot, waves, but I’ll also listen to more instrumentals than anything.”

Ryan is used to long flights. In the last five years, he’s taken four cross-country trips, going from Phoenix to Belgium in 2018 to compete in a cycling World Cup race, from Phoenix to Mumbai, India, to watch his sister, Aimee Ved, get married, from Phoenix to Maniago, Italy, for another cycling World Cup race and from Phoenix to London for the 2014 Invictus Games. 

He just occupies his mind. Since it’s another long flight (nearly 18 hours), he plans to sleep, watch movies and meditate to keep his mind busy. 

Ryan enters this year’s event with a different mindset. The focus isn’t on himself, his best times or winning medals. This year, he’s honed in on helping everybody else. 

“I want to see as many people as I’m around succeed,” Ryan says. “This year, I don’t want to just take gold but to see Team USA cyclists podium and goal as many times as we can, even more than we expected. I want to encourage those around me to push further and show people what is possible even more than what we thought. I want my teammates to feel encouraged by my presence the entire time and know that I’m going to encourage and push them in a positive way.”


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