“I knew that my legs were missing and weren’t coming back. I knew the extent of my injuries,” says Curtis McGrath of the split second moment in 2012 that would alter the course of his life forever.
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In the seconds after the 24-year old detonated an improvised explosive device and as his fellow troops raced him towards a helicopter in the high pressure whirl of a war zone in Afghanistan the combat engineer hatched a plan.
“I saw the opportunity as soon as it happened. I was on a stretcher getting carried away to the chopper and I said ‘you guys will see me at the Paralympics.’ I don’t know where that stemmed from or how I had the foresight to say that,” says the ambassador for October’s Invictus Games in Sydney.
McGrath lost his right leg above the knee and also his left leg below the knee in the war-time explosion. In its place now are German prosthetics – the futuristic pod on his right side boasts the same processing power as a computer but it’s not that technology that’s propelled the soldier into an elite athlete – it’s his mental and physical grit.
“It was a big spanner in the works in terms of career progression,” says the Army veteran, “a lot of people look back on that moment as a real negative but there are a lot of good things that have come from it.”
That isn’t to say there haven’t been enormous moments of uncertainty and frustration for Curtis, who faced obstacles in his rehabilitation. Challenges he insists he wouldn’t have been able to overcome alone.
“For me to have a good support network around me helped me get through those tough times,” says the now 30-year old who directed his aspirations towards competing in the Paralympic games following his double amputation, where one of the greatest tests was presented a year out from the Rio Games.
After combat retirement Curtis had excelled in sport and had already been crowned world champion in canoeing when he discovered that the sport’s governing body was going to swap the class for the Games and suddenly it would be a kayak that the athletes would have to qualify in.
“It was a tough pill to swallow. I put a good amount of work to become world champion,” recalls Curtis, “for them to change from the canoe to the kayak was probably the lowest point of my sporting time leading up to Rio. The morning after I got the phone call was pretty rough. I just wanted to get out of my boat, smash my paddle and go home but I knew I had some natural ability and was able to commit to the task at hand.”
Looking back Curtis remembers he wasn’t a plan-oriented person prior to his injury but needed to formulate short term goals to overcome his latest roadblock. To get his balance and power to a world conquering level Curtis devised a strategy – train four sessions a day in the lead up to the Games and work furiously hard.
“Goals don’t always go to plan so you have to make sure you have in your pocket the ability and motivation to see around the trouble and to see what that goal will feel like when you achieve it,” reflects the 30-year old – who happily did achieve his milestone – a glorious gold medal in Brazil.
“When I crossed the line I was expecting a huge amount of excitement and celebration and cheers,” remembers McGrath, “I got a very mild sense of that but what I did get huge amounts of was relief. I set the goal, put in the work, told people that’s what I was going to do and when I achieved that it was a huge wave of relief.”
“As athletes sometimes you go into events wanting to achieve gold medals and sometimes that’s a great goal to have - and don’t get me wrong we should all aspire to be the best that we can - but sometimes that might be a personal best, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. If we can go out and achieve personal bests every time we race we are definitely going to get better and we are going to achieve everything we put our mind to. Achieving personal bests over golds is something we can all be proud of.”
The World and Paralympic champion will continue to set lofty personal milestones as he eyes of another gold medal this time at the Tokyo Games, “Being able to be a Paralympian and travel the world and compete for my country is something I don’t take for granted, it is something I am really thankful for.”
More immediately Curtis McGrath is looking forward to his role as an ambassador for the upcoming Invictus Games – an international sporting event for wounded, injured and ill servicemen and women.
“The games use the power of sport to aid rehabilitation and recovery and not to mention recognise the services of the men and women and their friends and family who help these veterans through the hard times.”