A week of sporting challenges from wheelchair rugby to dog sled racing united wounded, injured and sick veterans and Serving personnel from around the country.
It was the first time Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, had hosted Help for Heroes’ annual Winter Games which welcomed competitors from each of the charity’s four recovery centres as well as a team representing the pride of Wales for the first time.
Dog sled racing was the opening event and proved to be one of the highlights of the week thanks to the 25 furry Alaskan Malamute dogs which pulled opponents along a track with boundless energy.
Other sports included new age curling, archery, stand-up paddle boarding and a trip to Silksworth Ski Slope in Sunderland to do snow-tubing. All the challenges were designed so that every participant could compete on an equal basis, regardless of injury or ability.
Phoenix House had already organised five successful Summer Games before hosting this year’s Winter Games which have previously been held at Tedworth House Recovery Centre in Wiltshire.
Mark Airey, Physical Development Coach at Phoenix House, said: “These Games are all part of our sports recovery programme, which does what it says on the tin. It’s all about using sport to bond with teams again, make friends and compete – all with a competitive edge to it. It’s good to see the teams grow and develop throughout the week.”
After signing up to the Army as a 16-year-old, John Schmidt spent most of his birthdays serving in warzones from Kosovo to Iraq and Afghanistan in continuity intelligence. He was still enjoying military banter when he turned 46 but this year it was as an integral member of Team Catterick.
“It’s very hard for me to find a buzz after the adrenalin rush of conflict but I’ve found it again through sports,” said John who has suffered from PTSD and is now a mental health support worker.
“Power-lifting is my time in the gym and I really enjoy sailing so I’m aiming to compete in the 2020 Invictus Games. And that’s all because of Help for Heroes.”
The results weren’t revealed until the gala dinner on the last night which saw Colchester announced as the overall trophy winning team, Royal Marine veteran Brian Kilgannon from Team Plymouth was presented with the Best Shot trophy in the archery event and the Most Courageous Competitor was awarded to RAF veteran Gaz Hennis from Team Catterick.
Colchester was announced as the overall trophy winning team which rounded off an enjoyable and rewarding week, said team captain, Paul Barnsley. “Winning was great but making new friends and just taking part was what made it for me.”
His Colchester teammate, Darren Sach, added: “It’s been very easy to settle in with everybody here and meeting new people has been amazing. My highlight was seeing Gaz win the individual trophy because of what he’s done on his journey.”
Former Royal Navy sailor and full-time Territorial Army reservist Paul Stocker from Team Plymouth said taking part in the Help for Heroes Summer Games at Phoenix House two years ago was the start of his recovery.
As well as having PTSD from his time in the first Gulf War, he was physically injured during a training exercise when he fell awkwardly out of a helicopter, leading eventually to the loss of most of his right arm.
“To cope I would self-medicate with alcohol by drinking 17 cans of cider and half a bottle of gin a day until my family gave me the wake-up call I needed by telling me I was drinking myself to death.”
Now he’s not only aiming to compete in the 2020 Paralympic and Invictus Games in archery but he’s also got a thriving acting career. He has already filmed scenes for EastEnders in which he plays a veteran with PTSD which will be screened later this year.
“The Phoenix Winter Games has been brilliant, it’s given me a massive sense of achievement. It does not matter what Service you were in, the banter is there. I’ve felt like I’ve had two arms again this week,” he said.
Kirsty Hanson from Team Wales had never tried Wheelchair Rugby before taking part in the event but is now determined to seek out a club back home in Swansea. The former Royal Marines medic who suffers from physical disabilities including fibromyalgia is now a full-time mum to her 11-year-old son, Ieuan, who has autism.
She said: “This is the first time I’ve ever apart from him to do something for myself and I’ve absolutely loved it. When I phoned him up to tell him about all the activities I’ve been competing in, he said ‘Mum, I’m proud of you’.”