In Toronto for the first time, the 2017 Invictus Games provided athletes with uplifting, rewarding and awe-inspiring moments
By John Groth & Brittany Martin
What Team USA member and active duty Army nurse Kelly Elmlinger will remember about the 2017 Invictus Games won’t be her six gold medals. Nor will it be the opportunity to achieve personal-best times or even participating in the Games’ Toronto debut.
Instead, it’s the stories from other athletes — and what it took for them to get there — to remind her of the power and the meaning behind adaptive sports.
“It’s just one of those things where you think you can’t be motivated, inspired and humbled a little more, you know, there’s always something that touches you and does. That’s why I enjoy coming here,” says the 38-year-old Elmlinger. “And I love competing, but the main reason is not for competing and competition and medals, it’s about coming and being around people that make you feel normal, that embrace your injuries, quirks, physical limitations and for what, you know, 10 or 12 days, you know, you really feel like normal.”
Started in 2014 by Prince Harry, the Invictus Games are an international sporting event for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and women, active duty and veteran alike, that help showcase their spirit, drive, perseverance and the power of sport on their journey to recovery.
From Sept. 23–30, more than 550 athletes from 17 countries competed in 12 sports, including archery, track and field, cycling, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, indoor rowing, a Jaguar Land Rover driving challenge, wheelchair tennis, swimming, powerlifting, sitting volleyball and the newest addition, golf.
And there were plenty of surprises, emotions and obstacles that were overcome.
“I told you to be ready to see lives change in front of your eyes. But I didn’t tell you that some of those lives would be your own,” Prince Harry said in the closing ceremonies at the Air Canada Centre. “I told you that anything is possible if you have the will … I told you you would be inspired. But I didn’t say these Games might leave you questioning if you are living up to your own true potential.”
That’s what these Games did for the athletes involved, left them humbled but ready to conquer more — including Elmlinger, a below-the-knee amputee. In March 2013, Elmlinger was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue tumor in her left leg. For more than three years, she tried limb salvage but made the tough call to amputate in August 2016. Now taking part in her third Invictus Games, Elmlinger won four gold medals in women’s track and field (the women’s IT4 100-, 200-, 400- and 1,500-meter races) and two in women’s road cycling (the women’s IRB1/IRB time trial and IRB2 criterium).
During last year’s Games, Elmlinger was inspired by Ulfat Al-Zwiri, who became the first Jordanian woman to compete. Elmlinger recorded the video coverage on ESPN last year and this year she re-watched that digital video recording of it. That uplifted her. Then, when Elmlinger found out another Jordanian woman, Amany Abdel Rahman, was competing this year, she was overcome with emotion.
After her 400-meter race, Elmlinger spoke to the medal presenter, a member of the Jordanian government. She told him she appreciated him bringing females each of the last two years.
“For her to even say, ‘I’m going to come and I’m going to show up to a race, and I’m gonna start and complete that race,’ you know, that’s something that I don’t know that I could say I could do if I were in her shoes,” says Elmlinger. “So having a conversation with him yesterday and just telling him how inspiring that was and how a touching moment that was, even last year it’s still touching, and now seeing them bring two females, it’s an amazing story.”
Amazing — that’s how Ryan Major felt after his first Invictus Games swimming event in Toronto at the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. The Team USA member and Army veteran hadn’t expected such a loud ovation as he swam the last 25 meters of his opening men’s ISA 50-meter backstroke race.
For a minute-and-a-half, fans stood, clapped, cheered and whistled to add to his motivation to reach the end of the pool, finishing fifth out of five athletes in 3:07.13. Still, it’s a moment he’ll never forget.
“It was incredible. It actually gave me that extra jolt of energy push to keep going, and I heard them. I heard them all. And it’s just so amazing to have so many people have my back, other veterans like myself,” says the 32-year-old Major, as he choked up. “I have no other words. It’s awesome.”
Major admits swimming isn’t one of his best events. In fact, he wasn’t sure he’d even compete in the event until June, after he participated in swimming at the Warrior Games in Chicago. A bilateral amputee, he sustained a right-leg injury from an improvised explosive device (IED) on Nov. 10, 2006, in Ramadi, Iraq. He later lost his left leg as well and had to amputate his left ring and pinkie fingers because of a fungus that doctors didn’t catch in time.
“I wasn’t a sports swimming person growing up. But I did love being in the pool and leisurely swimming, not competitively,” says Major, who also finished sixth in the 50 breaststroke (2:20.61). “And after I got injured, the water was part of my recovery and it helped me out a lot — get through some dark, really dark times in my recovery — and water and water sports is very therapeutic.”
This is Major’s second Invictus Games after competing last year in Orlando, Fla. Besides his swimming moment, he earned a silver medal in the men’s IT5 100 meters (22.48 seconds) in track and a bronze in the men’s IF7 shot put (6.27 meters) and the men’s IR1 1-minute sprint in indoor rowing (265 points). He also played on Team USA’s bronze-medal winning wheelchair rugby team and competed in cycling. There’s a simple reason why he returns — to help other veterans support and lift each other.
“And everybody wins when we’re all competing together and sharing stories and actually helping each other out with tips on how we could improve each event,” Major says.
Anthony McDaniel had his share of moments, too. The last of which came in the Games’ final event — wheelchair basketball.
A former Marine Corps artillery sergeant, the 29-year-old McDaniel hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 42 seconds left, and he and teammate Anthony Pone made three of four free throws to lead Team USA to a 55-51 victory over the Netherlands in the gold-medal game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre. It gave the U.S. its third wheelchair basketball gold medal and left McDaniel smiling.
But he grinned even wider during the medal ceremony when he got to meet former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden again, just like last year. The two spoke for a moment before Biden put a gold medal around McDaniel’s neck.
“Well, he was just telling me that I was just born to do this, just telling me that I was the man and, you know, just those were the few words,” says McDaniel, a double above-the-knee and left-wrist amputee who was injured in Kajaki, Afghanistan, on Aug. 31, 2010, in an IED blast. “This was not our first time meeting. You know, just seeing him again, that was an automatic smile situation on itself.”
McDaniel had plenty to be happy about. Besides winning a gold medal, he also was part of the United States’ bronze medal-winning wheelchair rugby team, complete with some high-flying acrobatic tries, and earned bronze medals in the men’s IT4 100 (18.27 seconds), men’s IT4 200 (34.48 seconds) and men’s IT4 400 (1:04.53) in track.
Even with all that, for McDaniel, he says the Invictus Games are about family.
“It’s not just about the competition, you know. Like, you got so many different countries here with their families. Everybody’s trying to enjoy the atmosphere, have a good time, see all the events that they can. So, for everybody to be out here at the same time, you know, and supporting each other having a good time, I think that’s the main thing,” says McDaniel, who was later joined by his aunt and Toronto resident Lisa Evans. “It’s a good family rehabilitation. The sports just bring another level of excitement to it. But even without the sports, it would be a good time.”
Meeting A Prince
Added excitement also came with a new sport for athletes this year: golf. The par-71 St. George’s Golf and Country Club in Toronto hosted 34 golfers, including two who took on the rolling hills and fast greens in ParaGolfer mobility golf carts.
One of those golfers was Team USA’s Michael Nicholson, a retired Marine Corps sergeant from Tampa, Fla., and triple amputee. Nicholson was injured when a roadside bomb exploded in Kajaki, Afghanistan, in 2011.
For Nicholson, who’s played golf since about age 8, competing at this year’s event was a chance to showcase all of his hard work and talent. He’d only played for about a year with the ParaGolfer before picking up his clubs and heading to Toronto. With a 27 handicap, he finished with a score of 11 points on the Stableford scoring system.
“It’s a great way to showcase and just see that golf’s an international sport and showcase that veterans can play it,” Nicholson says. “It’s great. It’s absolutely wonderful therapy for guys, coming out here for four or five hours, outside, moving around. You can’t pay enough for that.”
Nicholson says the front nine was harder for him. He just tried to keep his head down and stay focused on each shot. Later, he launched an impressive 200-yard drive on hole No. 7, but he says his highlight came on hole 16.
“Well, [on] 16, I knocked it on the green in front of Prince Harry, so that’s not bad,” Nicholson says. “I’ll take that. He’s a very likable person, he’s very easy to talk to. He’s a really nice guy. We just talked about the game, what other sports I was playing, lot of small talk.”
Nicholson earned four individual medals in swimming — one gold (men’s ISA 50 backstroke, 1:23.26), two silvers (men’s ISA 50 freestyle in 53.46 seconds and men’s ISA 100 freestyle in 2:03.41) and a bronze (men’s ISA 50 breaststroke in 1:13.40) — and a gold in wheelchair basketball. He also competed in track and field.
Nicholson had plenty of support from spectators, his wife, Katie, 12-year-old daughter, Callie, and 7-month-old son, Sawyer, as well as his mother, father and brother.
“Making sure they don’t see me quit and making sure I give my kids the lesson that you don’t give up no matter how bad a situation is or how crappy you’re playing, you just keep at it, you keep going,” Nicholson says. “I was just trying to play the best game I could and represent the U.S. as best as I could. That was my goal. Just come out here and put up a good round and show people that people in wheelchairs can still come out here and play golf.”