Nearly four months after being announced at the Tower of London, and 35 training camps later, the UK Team were finally on their way to Toronto for the 2017 Invictus Games!
Spirits were high at Heathrow as they arrived, 114 days after they were last all together. With the competitors proudly wearing their team kit, there was a real sense of occasion at the airport as onlookers wished them the best of luck.
After a quick team photo, the 90-strong team – along with their three and a half tonnes of kit – were in the air and heading to Canada’s capital. As they touched down in Toronto seven hours later, a loud cheer erupted from the team. With the plane’s captain sending them off with his best wishes, the team arrived at the Games Village in a buoyant mood and ready for the week of competition.
Friday saw the team have their first training sessions, giving them their first chance to see the venues they would be competing in. Despite a day to go until the Games officially got underway, the excitement amongst the competitors and Toronto locals was evident. The city was draped in black and yellow, with spectators eager to get a glimpse of what was to come from the UK Team.
Saturday brought more glorious weather and the first event of the 2017 Invictus Games; the Jaguar Land Rover Challenge. A test of driving skill, teams of two from each nation took turns on obstacle and slalom-style courses.
Flying the flag for the UK were Gareth Paterson and Olaf Jones. With the challenge based on accuracy and precision, the two showed terrific composure and took home the team’s first medals of the Games, claiming silver.
“The Invictus Games shows you what you can achieve in life,” said Olaf after collecting his medal. The former RAF Sergeant – who lost his left arm – added, “To be back with other military guys and meeting all the other nations is brilliant. The camaraderie is like nothing else.”
Gareth, who serves as a Sergeant in the Army, was delighted to have helped claimed the UK Team’s first ever medal in the event. “It’s a great start and should really carry me through into my other sport, archery. The Invictus Games are giving me purpose again after being in a dark place."
Saturday was also a great start to the competition for the UK Team’s second Wheelchair Tennis pairing of Cornelia Oosthuizen and Kirk Hughes. The beautiful tennis venue is free to spectators so there was a real buzz amongst the large crowd. Playing against Australia, supportive chants were being knocked backwards as forwards amongst the Australian and UK supporters as quickly as the tennis ball!
Despite a nervy start, Cornelia and Kirk were soon in their element. They were too consistent for the Australian pair and experience ultimately showed. Some brilliant defensive play mixed with real attacking intent meant it was a closely fought set which lasted 45 minutes, with the UK Team eventually prevailing 6–5.
“It feels fantastic to be underway at the Games,” said Cornelia, a former Army Major. “After months of training hard, being out here with the amazing support from the UK Team, our friends and family, and the other nations has made it all worthwhile. It feels so special and I am looking forward to being out on court again soon.”
The day ended at the Air Canada Centre for the opening ceremony, officially starting the 2017 Invictus Games. Among the highlights was a speech from Canadian veteran Trevor Greene, who suffered a brain injury in Afghanistan back in 2006. Speaking of how he took the decision to “fight like a soldier” as he continues his recovery to this day, Trevor encapsulated the spirit of Invictus; unconquered and unbowed.
As the UK Team walked out to thunderous applause during the ceremony, they were led by Kirk Hughes – fresh from his tennis victory – who had been chosen to carry the union flag.
“Being chosen to carry the UK flag means so, so much,” said the former Navy Marine Engineer who suffers with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
“For other people to see how far I’ve come and how hard I’ve worked, and to recognise it with his huge honour is incredible. I can’t wait for the Invictus Games to get started and for the whole UK Team to show what we’re capable of.”