If ever there was someone who deserved to get a medal at the Warrior Games, Gemma Dacey would be one of those at the top of the list. Royal Navy Leading Hand Gemma, who is serving with Hasler Rehabilitation Unit in Plymouth, suffers from back and leg pain as a result of complex regional pain syndrome, which developed from an ankle injury. She is in constant pain, has mobility problems and has been using a wheelchair, lent by a teammate, for the last few days after the pain left her barely able to walk. But her physical wounds, while more obvious, are the lesser of the things she has had to overcome on this trip.
Since arriving in Virginia, Gemma has been facing a daily battle against a hidden wound; anxiety. Struggling to cope with the crowds and volume of noise at the competition, she will regularly excuse herself from a venue, going outside to get some space and fresh air. Her saving grace is that she can recognise when she is feeling unsure and can put into place coping strategies that she has been taught, including guided meditation with an audio track.
Sport has proved to be the ultimate distraction. The minute Gemma is on her way to a training session, she is in the zone, concentrating on what she is there to do, happy that she has a focus. At those times, we glimpse the real Gemma; a cheerful and determined 26-year-old with a great sense of humour. When asked her age for this blog, she replied: “26 and awesome!” And that’s how the rest of the team see her. The other day, one of her teammates commented: “Gemma, you’re great. You’re so quiet but when you do speak what comes out of your mouth is brilliant.”
Gemma fought nerves to compete in the archery event earlier this week. She was doing exceptionally well, with medal prospects looking good. Then disaster struck; her bow broke. She had climbed a mountain to be here, only to fall back down at the peak.
After picking herself up again over the last couple of days, Gemma entered the shooting competition on Friday (26th June) with renewed enthusiasm. Still suffering from anxiety and nerves, the ear defenders provided to protect competitors from the noise of the air rifles, and the excitable crowd, were the perfect solution. She was able to focus on the task in hand.
At the end of the heats, Gemma had placed eighth, securing a spot in the final. With that she was happy. She considered her job to be done and went into the final knowing that whatever the outcome, she had succeeded. What she didn’t expect was the outcome she actually achieved.
Oblivious to the noise from her teammates and supporters behind her, thanks to the ear defenders, Gemma had no idea she had the second highest point score, winning a silver medal. When she was told, disbelief followed and then the tears came. The reaction spread to her teammates, the Help for Heroes support team and other athletes, and supporters, with even the strongest men reduced to tears by the smile on the face of a girl who had just realised what she was capable of. Gemma had more than succeeded; she had soared.
In her own words
“I had no idea I’d have a chance of getting a medal for shooting. I didn’t think of any other sport before I came to the Warrior Games other than archery,” said Gemma. “I knew how archery made me feel. I feel at home when I’m at the archery range, it’s just different.
“It’s like an escape, it’s the only time I feel like me. It’s strange. It requires so much mental concentration and you have a process you’ve got to go through. So many parts of your body you have to rely on to get the shot. I don’t feel awkward when I’m there, I just feel normal. It’s nice to finally have something to concentrate on after being told you can’t do the sports you used to do and you used to love. It’s a chance to get back into it.
“I used to play football and netball, I was a massive squash player, I used to do anything, especially team sports, I was a good team player. I would have liked to do sitting volleyball but I couldn’t do it this time because of my back. I hadn’t really thought of doing shooting before now.
“This morning I was a mess. I didn’t feel nervous last night, this morning I was in that much pain that when the lads said to me you’ll beast it, I just thought I’d get in, get out and that was it. I came back in from getting some air after the heats and they said I was in the final. I couldn’t believe it. I was already beaming when I got a 10.9 as that’s a personal best but I was so pleased to make the final.
“I’d describe my anxiety as feeling like I’ve got pins and needles in my brain, everything goes fuzzy. From there I know I’m going to drop. My breathing changes and the slightest touch from anywhere, even a blade of grass, will send me into uncontrollable twitches. I become really sensitive to everything in my environment; touch, noises; my body registers it 100 times more than what I’d feel normally.
“When I know I’m getting anxious I normally take myself out the situation. I need to be alone, I use guided meditation. It helps you recognise what’s going on so you can control it rather than changing what you’re doing.
“The rest of the guys here have really helped me find a piece of me. Before I came here I used to talk to a select group of people but without the support of the Help for Heroes guys and the team I don’t think I’d have got through today. Everybody is so supportive and understanding, you know everyone’s there for you, you haven’t got to fight on your own anymore.
“I don’t really like to think of next steps, I’m just going to ride it out and see how it goes. I want to concentrate on my archery. The next Invictus Games is a goal to work towards. I find social situations awkward which isn’t very nice sometimes so I have struggled here but I’d like to get there. The main thing is feeling a part of something and meeting some really inspirational people who have so many great stories to tell. It makes you think that things aren’t that bad.”
As well as Gemma’s triumph, teammate Paul Vice claimed a bronze medal in a different category. Frank Skinner was proud to have made the final, finishing seventh overall.
Pitched against a strong US Marine team who are used to winning, the British Armed Forces sitting volleyballers put their all into their playoff match with victory in mind. Despite some very vocal support from the crowd, and two very special ladies, for the British team, the Marines quite quickly took the lead. Our team did their best to catch up, but the Marines edged out and took the first set.
The second set produced an exceptional show from the British team. They were up on the Marines for some time, before an equaliser came at 14-14. Scoring was level right the way up to 22-22 when the Marines decided they needed to play their A game and managed to steal the three points needed to win the set and the match.
The sitting volleyball competition may be over, but the relatively new team have really come together over the last few days, taking a lot on board and learning for the future. In that respect, you can’t really call it a loss, more a taster of things to come.
The team had not one but two VIP visits during the shooting competition today. US Secretary of Defense Robert O Work spent time talking to Emma Pack and Frank Skinner, while former NFL star Herschel Walker was given a team shirt by the guys he spoke to and happily posed for a photo.