In Prince Harry's Invictus Games, sport is soldiers' weapon of choice
From the battlefield to the sports field - wounded soldiers find outlet in international competition
The 30 athletes training for the second Invictus Games at a Toronto sports complex earlier this week were still a month from competition, but all had already managed to overcome incredible odds.
Each is a veteran or current member of the Canadian Armed Forces who was wounded while serving or is suffering from an illness as a result of their military service. They are set to compete in Orlando, Fla., in May against other soldiers from around the world in a multi-sport competition founded by Prince Harry three years ago.
Capt. Simon Mailloux, an officer with the Royal 22nd Regiment in Quebec City, is one of them. The 32-year-old lost his left leg at the knee after stepping on an improvised explosive device during a 2007 mission in Afghanistan.
He turned to adaptive sports as part of his rehabilitation. Now, he competes in several track and field events.
"I got injured in Afghanistan, and I re-deployed to Afghanistan two years later," he said while training at the Pan Am Sports Centre in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. "Sports helped me out. Now, whatever [training] I did over those years, I get to test on the track and field at Invictus."
Athletes selected to represent Canada at the Invictus Games train in their local communities with volunteer coaches and meet about twice a year for joint training sessions. Their costs are covered by the Invictus Foundation and Soldier On, a Canadian Armed Forces program for veterans and members of the military suffering from a physical or mental illness.
'For us, [Prince Harry is] the best patron. He's also a brother in arms.- Capt. Simon Mailloux
Mailloux says the Invictus Games are all the more meaningful to soldiers like him because they were founded by Prince Harry, the youngest son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana and himself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The prince served 10 years in the British Armed Forces and completed two tours in Afghanistan.
"For us, he's the best patron," he said. "He's also a brother in arms. He's been there with us. He understands what we've been through."
Prince Harry launched the games in 2013 after seeing a similar event for U.S. veterans put on by the Wounded Warriors organization. He named the event after the Latin word for "unconquered."
The first Invictus Games were held in 2014 in London. Canada's team consisted of just 11 members. This year, it's more than double that, and organizers hope to recruit even more competitors next year, when the games will take place in Toronto.
Retired Master Cpl. Natacha Dupuis of Ottawa made this year's team just last month. The power lifter is already thinking about making the 2017 team. Dupuis has battled post-traumatic stress disorder since watching two of her fellow soldiers die in an explosion during her second tour in Afghanistan.
"Sports helped me regain confidence [in] myself developing new abilities," she said. "I'm 36 years old, and, yes, I have PTSD, but life is surely not over."
Retired Cpl. Christine Gauthier also turned to sports to pull herself out of a dark period. A training accident in 1989 injured her back and knees. She now has to use a wheelchair. The 45-year-old from Montreal says discovering a love for kayaking helped her overcome depression and isolation.
Now, Gauthier is a five-time world champion in paracanoe. She's vying for a spot on Canada's Paralympic team heading to Rio this summer. But first, the Invictus Games.
"It's giving me the extra opportunity to service my country again, and I'm very proud of that," said Gauthier.
This year's competition will include 10 sporting events and 500 athletes from 15 countries, and Gauthier says she expects the games will only grow — in attendance, stature and popularity.
"Don't forget that the Paralympic Games started like these: in honour of wounded soldiers," she said. "So, who knows where [Invictus] will go."
The 2016 Invictus Games will be held May 8 to May 12.