The Invictus Games UK team trials tee'd off on Thursday with hopefuls chipping and putting at Bath Golf Club. It was the first sport of 11 that saw 306 hopefuls – more than ever before – vying for a place on the 90-strong UK team over four days. 212 of those are brand new to the event.
The golf set the precedent for competitors pushing past their injuries and illnesses that could hold them back.
Within the first minutes of arriving at the golf trial, one hopeful sought out a psychological wellbeing advisor, overwhelmed by the volume of people and the task ahead. An hour later he was fully engaged in conversation, enjoying the sunshine with others and prepared for the day ahead.
Another hopeful, former paratrooper Jim Holborn, suffered an injury during a parachute accident but it is the memory of that and a subsequent tour of Iraq that made his life so difficult. Jim is driven by sport. He used to be very active until his brother moved to Canada and he lost his training partner. If he is selected for Toronto 2017, he will see his brother for the first time in seven years. For Jim, he sees the trials as the chance to show others who may need support, but have not yet reached out, that there is light ahead.
“I want people to see that I’m in the same boat,” he said. “I’ve been in a far worse place than I am now but it does get better. I’ve not overcome my issues, but I’ve now got more tools in my bag to cope. Sport is a big part of that.”
On the cycling track at Odd Down, the pace of the competition stepped up a gear for the time trial and crit (a closed circuit race). Riders gritted their teeth and pushed on to the end, with cheers of encouragement from supporters which included hopefuls who had no need to attend but wanted to motivate their comrades.
An action-packed Friday commenced with athletics at the University of Bath’s Sports Training Village. HRH Prince Harry delivered words of encouragement to the hopefuls before moving on to the indoor rowing. Spectators commented about the sheer determination of the rowers who were driven by the thirst for a win by seeing competitors either side giving it their all. It is not all about winning though; the UK Team will be chosen on consideration of their commitment to the team and their personal recovery journeys, as well as performance ability.
In powerlifting, hopefuls lived up to the sport’s name and raised the bar with more weight each time they took to the bench. The nature of the set up at the University meant the Invictus crowd and student population had a bird’s eye view of the action.
The final event of Friday saw every court in the sports hall housing sitting volleyball. The first team sport of the trials, hopefuls who may have been competing against each other earlier in the day now found themselves working together. If the display of teamwork was a sign of things to come, the other team sports were set to be quite a spectacle.
After two days of trials in searing temperatures, and with Saturday promising more sweltering conditions, the wheelchair tennis hopefuls might’ve considered themselves a little lucky to be competing inside on the cool courts.
Many of those taking part and hoping to be selected for Toronto in wheelchair tennis were doing so for the first time. Among them were Cowan Botha and Cornelia Oosthuizen. Cowan, who competed at the two previous Invictus Games in indoor rowing and swimming, said he hoped to once again experience the extraordinary spirit unique to the Invictus Games.
“The camaraderie among the guys competing at the games is incredible. Even being here at the trials you can see how much of a difference it’s making to people already,” he said.
Cornelia, who hopes to use Invictus to help achieve her goal of competing at the 2020 Paralympics, commented on the sense of purpose and achievement the trials were giving her.
“It’s nice to realise there’s so much you can still do. Competing here gives me the chance to own my abilities while getting to enjoy myself and meet some great people.”
As the afternoon arrived, archery hopefuls emerged into the sun. Concerns the heat might make the arrows, as one competitor put it, “misbehave” proved unfounded, as the bullseye was hit regularly. You could hear a pin drop just before the arrows were released, such was the concentration.
The final event of the day saw a return to the sports hall, this time for wheelchair rugby. The specially reinforced chairs were needed as three hours of hard rugby delighted the crowd.
As ever, the competition was played in the right spirit and was perfectly encapsulated as the day’s trials reached their end. As two wheelchairs smashed into each other and sent one of the competitors crashing to the ground, he immediately began pushing himself back upright, helped by his teammates who all made sure to give him a big slap on the back. Unconquered and unbowed, they truly are the masters of their fate.
The final day of the trials saw a return to the sports hall, this time for wheelchair basketball. Hopefuls were put through their paces on the Sunday morning with a variety of drills, before finishing with matches. The skill on show made for a string of fast paced, end to end encounters.
Throughout the trials, competitors attended a media briefing. They were told what to expect from the Invictus Games if selected and how to be confident and assured around the media that will be present in Toronto. This was followed by a talk from a guest speaker. These included Dave Henson and JJ Chalmers, who both took part in the first Invictus Games. Dave has since gone on to win a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games, while JJ has moved into TV and was part of Channel 4’s presenting team at the Paralympics. Both of them have credited Invictus with being a key step on their recovery journey and relished passing on advice to this year’s trialists.
It was on to the indoor pool for swimming, the final event of the trials. The bleachers were packed, with many hopefuls who had finished days ago staying on to cheer on fellow competitors. One of them was Emma Burns who had trials in shot put, discus and rowing.
“Although many of us are doing different sports, we support each other as a whole,” she said.
And with that, as the final swimmer climbed out of the pool to the sound of thunderous applause, the 2017 Invictus Games trials were over. The UK Team will be announced on 30 May. Whatever the outcome for every person who took part, the trials have offered four days of competition, enjoyment and camaraderie, allowing them to take another step on their recovery journey.
For more great photos of the trials, click here
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