What an absolutely incredible week of sport we have seen at Invictus Games in Orlando and what a delight it has been to bear witness to the journeys these men and women are on, where they have come from and where they are heading. Well done to everyone involved and have safe flight home to what can only be described as a Hero's welcome!
The UK duo served up a great victory against an experienced New Zealand pair to win another gold medal for the UK team.
It was the pinnacle of their sporting careers for Andy McErlean and Alex Krol. Playing in front of a near-packed Centre Court, they brushed aside what was, on paper, very difficult opposition to win the match 6-1. Afterwards, with shiny gold medals hanging round their necks, presented to them by Prince Harry, they were grinning from ear to ear as they paraded around the court to the applause of British supporters and their families.
Andy, now 46, was only 19 when just a year after joining the Army, he was seriously injured as the car he was in turned over on the way back from a rugby trial. He was paralysed from the waist down but said he would not allow his injury to affect his love of sport. In London 2014, he won a gold medal with the Wheelchair Basketball team, but tennis is his preferred sport and he said it was a “surreal” moment to win gold.
“I’ve always been into a huge variety of sports and I wasn’t going to let that stop when I got injured,” he explained. “Wearing the UK team top and playing in front of so many supporters, makes you feel really proud. It means a great deal to both of us to be here competing and now we’ve won gold it’s just incredible, the icing on the cake.”
In the match itself, UK dominated from the very start, racing to a 3-0 start, breaking the Kiwi’s serve twice.
Some poor serving by Andy in game four allowed the Kiwi’s a sniff of a chance but long, entertaining rallies all went in favour of the Brits and with just half hour on the clock, they had set up match point. The pressure told and the Kiwi’s double faulted to hand the gold to UK. Andy and Alex threw their rackets into the air and embraced one another before turning to the crowd, dominated by flag-waving Brits, to show their appreciation for their support.
“The crowd felt electric today,” said Alex. “When you win, it’s just an amazing feeling. I’ve gone from never winning anything before to winning gold in an international competition. We’ve trained hard for months together and it’s been a real team effort with all of the squad to get us here."
“We struggled in our opening match against USA but played better and better since then. We were both nervous this morning but knew we had to embrace the moment and take our chance. We did that and we couldn’t be happier.
When you get injured, you become so determined not to let that setback define the pathway for your life that you actually open yourself up to so many incredible opportunities. The Invictus Games is one of those opportunities and coming away with gold is simply awesome!"
Semi-Final vs Denmark
As the final team sport to be played of Invictus Games 2016, the wheelchair basketball team gathered in the changing rooms before their semi-final against Denmark with a sharpened focus, better understanding of the crowd and a ruthlessness to defend their 2014 title.
Fresh from his gold medal at the wheelchair tennis final Andy McErlean joined the team and huge applause was given in his honour before they rolled out; perhaps a catalyst for what was to come along with a hugely emotional team talk by coach Scott Wallace.
The team were greeted by an awesome crowd and hit the court ready to put in the performance they had trained for. The whistle blew and the UK won the tip off leading in to two successive quick scores by captain Simon Gibbs in his first ever Invictus Games. An early lead calmed any nerves on court and the team looked strong, confident and in the zone. Denmark struggled to get out of their own half with some fantastic defensive play from the UK. The points kept coming in for the UK with Lee Matthews and Michael Hutchinson adding their names to the score sheet. It was 14-0 by the tenth minute before the Danes hit an awesome three pointer. The score was 18-4 by the end of the first half.
Denmark got the second half underway but encountered a brick wall by the name of Simon Gibbs making sure no pass was going to hand time and time again; an inevitable frustration crept into the fray for the opposition. A few changes were rung by the UK team making way for Lt Kirsty Wallace and Nerys Pearce who both had an immediate impact shutting down any momentum the Danes may have had. Lt Wallace nailed a couple of free throws for a foul to bring the score to a whopping 27-10 backed up by the play of the day from Adam Nixon carving through the defence for a jaw dropping solo goal. Final score 29-10 and the UK went through to face the USA in the gold medal match. Were they hungry for it? Just a bit…
Gold medal match vs. USA
The UK hit the court for the final being the only unbeaten team in the Invictus Games 2016; a record they were fired up to defend in the USA’s back yard. The USA took an early lead from the tip off with a cheeky two pointer followed by a hail mary over the top giving the USA a confidence boost. Captain and talisman Simon Gibbs gave the UK fans something to shout about with a beautiful swish and lay up equalling the scores at 4-4.
From here on the USA activated a devastating game plan, cancelling key playmakers in the UK team out and neutralising any threat. They were deadly with an excellent conversion rate on attacks racking up a big lead of 12-4 without the UK scoring.
A tactical time out called by UK meant for a quick realignment of positional play leading to a nice two pointer by Simon Gibbs. The Americans really worked hard at their defence and turned it into a punishing attack forcing the score through to 25-9 by the half time buzzer. They completely dictated the first half and left a mountain to climb for the UK team.
Unfortunately it was more of the same in the second half; the UK team outclassed by a clinical USA team who seemed to have so much time on the ball showing unreal skills. A few nice points from Charlie Walker and Adam Nixon before the final buzzer raised a huge cheer from the crowd but nothing could hold back the USA’s scoring talent.
The Invictus Games 2016 were brought to a close with a final score of 46-13 giving the UK team a silver medal; still a herculean effort by all involved to get this far and they had nothing to beat themselves up about. A beautiful reception and respect by both teams was clear to see and it was high fives all round to top an amazing four days off.
All that remained was the task of bringing the Invictus Games Orlando 2016 to a close, much the same way as the Games opened just four days ago.
Medallions were presented to all athletes, with Prince Harry presenting the UK team with theirs. Then followed a closing concert including the likes of US acts Rachel Platten, Rascal Flatts and headliner Flo Rida.
Inspirational words were offered up by US team captain, Captain Will Reynolds, Jill Biden, US Second Lady, and Prince Harry.
The evening drew to a close with the handing over of the IAM flag from Orlando to Toronto, where the Invictus Games will be held in 2017. A great end to an extraordinary week where recovery journeys of our wounded have progressed so far, where memories have been made, and where dreams have become reality.
To quote Prince Harry: “See you in Toronto!”