Driving Challenge Rush

Veterans put their driving skills to the test at the 2017 Invictus Games

By John Groth

U.S. Marine veteran Mark Mann (left) and U.S. Navy veteran Will Wilson chat about the Landrover/Jaguar Driving Challenge during the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

After his first Jaguar Land Rover driving challenge event at the 2017 Invictus Games, U.S. Navy veteran Will Wilson was amped up.

All that adrenaline was pumping after successfully completing a tricky and eye-opening obstacle course in Toronto.

Consider the 58-year-old U.S. Team member and Invictus Games rookie hooked.

“This is great, a fantastic experience,” says Wilson, a below-the-knee amputee who was injured onboard the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier May 8, 2003. “I was heavily involved in the Warrior Games. I started out in Warrior Games 1 and coached two, three and four for the Navy and I heard of Invictus, but I never really thought that it was my thing. But once I got into it, it kind of brought back the spark as an athlete and made me realize that I’ve still got potential. Even though I’m old, I can still mix it up with the 20-somethings.”

The Waffle simulated a rocky riverbed, with drivers having to drive over a slippery, bumpy and rocky surface and keep their vehicle between gates. (Photo by Christopher Di Virgilio).

One of 550 athletes from 17 nations competing in the 2017 Invictus Games, which kicked off Saturday and run through Sept. 31, in Toronto, Wilson had a fun and wild opening day.

Athletes are competing in 12 events, including the Jaguar Land Rover driving challenge and wheelchair tennis, which both started Saturday, and will also compete in athletics, archery, indoor rowing, powerlifting, cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby and golf. Results were still being updated as of Saturday night.

In the Jaguar Land Rover driving challenge, each nation had two of its athletes drive on two courses – the Jaguar course and the Land Rover discovery course. The Jaguar course tested athletes on their speed and precision, focusing on their handling of the vehicles, while the Land Rover course tested balance, dexterity and control.

Athletes had eight minutes to complete each course. While points were awarded for the ability to complete the course quickly, points were deducted from a driver’s score for any fouls committed during his or her driving run. So drivers were competing more against themselves than each other.

On the Jaguar course, drivers had to drive in between and navigate a series of blue and green light-up smart cones. An expert sat with the drivers but only urged them to slow down if speeds were out of hand. Drivers could start the course wherever they wanted, but the course changed for every driver so no one could memorize it.

The Land Rover Discovery Course featured four obstacles – the Toblerone, the Straddler, the Waffle and the Waggler. Each presented its own unique challenge for drivers.

The Waffle simulated a rocky riverbed, with drivers having to drive over a slippery, bumpy and rocky surface and keep their vehicle between gates and on track. With the Waggler, drivers had to keep their tires balanced and sit the vehicle on three wheels at their highest point on two ramps. Drivers could drive between four targets, or sets of posts, in either direction and hit targets accurately. The Scrambler tested precision and balance with drivers having to move backwards off a platform without the aid of a camera or without falling off.

Wilson thought the Waffle was the hardest obstacle by far.

“Just because of the lack of stability and the lack of grip on your tires,” says Wilson, a Redondo Beach, Calif., resident. “You get caught in a certain space and you’ve got to go forward, go back and hope you don’t hit the cones in the interim. So once I got through that the others weren’t too bad. [It’s] just a matter of trying to psychologically stay within that given square.”

First-time Invictus Games participant and United States team member Mark Mann agreed. Mann breezed through his first three obstacles –  the Straddler, Toblerone and Waggler – before struggling with the Waffle.

“It kicked my butt,” said Mann, a Marine Corps veteran who injured in 2013 when he sustained a traumatic brain injury along with a broken jaw and right foot, a shattered right arm and a neck injury. “It was so slippery. Then I was backing up to go to the red cones. I got too close to the edge and you go forward and backward and I ended up just falling off unfortunately.”

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