Over the past week, 500 women and men from 18 countries competed in a range of adaptive sports from wheelchair rugby to sitting volleyball, swimming and athletics at the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney.
It’s incredibly moving to think that every single Invictus Games competitor has served their country in the army, navy or air force. Now, having already given so much and though they have been all been wounded, injured or become ill in the line of duty, these men and women have once again represented their countries with pride.
Nelson Mandela was sustained during his long years of imprisonment by William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, which reads in part:
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed. . .
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
This is the spirit of the Invictus Games. It is also the spirit I saw as Prime Minister, when I visited soldiers wounded in the war in Afghanistan. Some had suffered profound physical injuries, some were living with major post traumatic stress disorder. Many had both.
As a nation we had asked so much of them. During their deployment, they had lived and worked in the most trying conditions, which were both physically demanding and mentally challenging. Family and friends were on the other side of the world, so our troops were away from all the things that would usually bring them joy and comfort.
Then a catastrophic event, often the ominous power of an improvised explosive device, had thrown them into a world of pain. In addition to bearing their own scars, many had witnessed the death of their mates, which generated haunting questions of why they lived when others died.
I remember seeing the sadness, the stress, the anxiety of loved ones as I met with the wounded. But what I remember the most is the resilience and camaraderie among the troops. The sheer determination to recover and to support each other as they healed.
There was something very special, indeed unique, about the way they supported each other. That same resilience and camaraderie can be found in the Invictus Games community.
For many competing in the games, the healing power of sport has propelled their recovery both physically and mentally.
There is a lesson in that for all of us, though in our lives we have not had to face the incredible challenges of the Invictus athletes.
For every one, from all walks of life, we cannot underestimate the benefits of sport and exercise in maintaining good mental health.
Keeping fit and active is essential for physical health but it also plays a vital role in people’s wellbeing. Training or competing in sport, no matter at what level, gives people the opportunity to focus their mind on something new.
Setting small goals – achieving a personal best running time, joining the local cricket team, entering that first competition – working toward those goals and celebrating the achievements that follow, provides an incredible boost in confidence and to wellbeing.
And, there are always new goals to set.
For people recovering from a physical injury or mental health problem, these goals can provide a new motivation; it can give people new purpose, drive, stability and control. Not to mention the significant social benefits of meeting new team mates, training with like-minded people, encouraged forward by a coach.
None of us can really imagine the trauma and pain that many of this year’s Invictus Games competitors have experienced, but we know that every one of them has pushed themselves, to the limit and beyond, to overcome their physical and mental health challenges.
I have no doubt the journey has been long, and not without its enormous hardships. There are probably just as many bad days as good ones and perhaps some pains never fade. But it’s their mental resilience that keeps these athletes moving forward, and that has brought them here to the global stage to compete against the best in the world.
They are unconquered. They have defined what it is to be resilient, despite all the physical and emotional set-backs they’ve experienced.
The Invictus competitors have shown recovery is possible. And in doing so, they have set an example for all of us. I urge you to get behind this community of strong and talented athletes.
Let’s support the 2018 Invictus Games and all competitors taking part.