Dr. Andrew Burtch, Historian, post-1945, Canadian War Museum
The 40-degree heat was oppressive, unrelenting, and there was no relief from the noon sun as Major Simon Mailloux, who still serves with the Royal 22nd Regiment, pushed himself to finish the last 100 meters of a 1500 metre race at York University’s Lions Stadium. On every other step, Mailloux’s carbon-fibre spring running leg met the red race track, propelling him just a bit further toward the finish line. Though Mailloux was in last place, the crowd, seeing his determination (and the Canada flag on his jersey), rose to their feet to cheer him on. Waiting for him at the finish line were his three competitors, Technical Sergeant (Ret’d) Adam Popp, USAF; Captain (Ret’d) Scott Meenagh, British Army; and Captain (Ret’d) William Reynolds, U.S. Army. Each of them had crossed the finish line moments earlier. As Mailloux finished the race, he sank to one knee, exhausted and no doubt relieved, and rose to his feet to meet the enthusiastic embrace of his three competitors, all brothers-in-arms.
All four men had suffered traumatic injury and amputation in the course of their service – Mailloux in November 2007 to an improvised explosive device (IED) in Kandahar; Popp lost his right leg in Afghanistan a month later; Meenagh lost both legs to an IED in Helmand in 2011; and Reynolds endured nearly a decade of surgeries following an IED strike before his left leg was finally amputated. Like Mailloux, all had pushed their way through rehabilitation and taken advantage of an adaptive sports program designed to help them realize their potential. Their service and their determination led them to the pinnacle of the adaptive military sports world, the Invictus Games.
The Games are named after William Ernest Henry’s poem Invictus, which in Latin means “unconquered”:
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.
Henley published the poem in 1875 at the end of a 20-month stay in an Edinburgh infirmary following the amputation of his foot and multiple surgeries on his legs owing to complications from tuberculosis. The poem’s message of fortitude through adversity reverberated through every element of the 2017 Toronto Invictus Games. As stated in the Games’ official program: “Invictus Games competitors are men and women who have come face to face with the reality of making a sacrifice for their countries. … They have been tested and challenged, but they have not been overcome.”
Canada won the hosting rights for the Invictus Games as a result of lobbying from charitable organizations, in combination with provincial and federal support, to bring the adaptive sports event to Canada as part of sesquicentennial activities. The two previous iterations of the Games were hosted by London, United Kingdom and Orlando, Florida. Drawn together through the patronage of Prince Harry, who himself served in Afghanistan in 2009/2010, as well as the Invictus Games Foundation, 550 athletes representing 17 countries, attended the games from 23 to 30 September 2017. The premier event was heavily promoted beforehand and drew tens of thousands of spectators, including me.
I had an interest in the Invictus Games over the past few years owing to my own work documenting Canada’s contribution to the Afghanistan mission for Canadian War Museum exhibitions, as well as from working on the 2011 temporary exhibition War and Medicine, which tracked the sorts of medical developments that made the wonders of modern prosthetics and adaptive sports more accessible. I had also met Mailloux through my work as we co-chaired a virtual classroom on the National Film Board’s feature The Van Doos in Afghanistan. So, when I learned that the Invictus Games were coming to Canada and that Mailloux was the co-captain of Team Canada (with Corporal (Ret’d) Natacha Dupuis, who had won three medals at the 2016 games in Orlando), I was intent on attending this once-in-a-lifetime event on Canadian soil.
Happily, the opportunity arose when the Canadian War Museum loaned a display of the Kandahar Airfield ball hockey rink boards to the Invictus Games, to be presented in the participant meal hall in the Sheraton Downtown Centre, the Games’ hub in downtown Toronto. There, I was able to meet members of the Canadian team, including retired Corporal Phil Badanai, whose bullet-pocked Iltis from his service in Croatia is on display at the Museum, and who was Team Canada’s flag-bearer during the star-studded opening ceremonies the night before. The Minister of National Defence and Chief of the Defence Staff attended the brief unveiling of the Museum display, and in the interim, I had a chance for brief discussions with the members of the team and got an impression of the intensive training each of them had undertaken to represent their country at the Games.
At each of the events I observed, the spirit of fierce competition and close bonds of shared experience were repeated again and again – in wheelchair races where winners lapped back to help lagging racers rally to the finish line; at bicycle races where friends and family lined the roads of High Park, screaming their encouragement as a racer stopped to gulp air or adjust their prosthetic’s seating on the pedal; at the medal stand when competitors collapsed into each other with relief at overcoming the various injuries, physical, moral, and psychological, which stood in their way. Their collective accomplishments at the Games underlined what the injured can achieve with sufficient support, and simultaneously highlighted the challenges wounded veterans and serving personnel face in all 17 countries that contributed teams to the competition.
On a personal note, it was among the most inspirational things I have had the opportunity to witness, and surely one of the most memorable events to emerge out of Canada’s 2017 sesquicentennial year. Congratulations are due to the 2017 Invictus Games Organizing Committee and the more than 1500 volunteers who oversaw the event and made it work at a half-dozen sites across Ontario’s capital city; through their efforts, they have set the bar for the 2018 Games in Sydney, Australia to surpass. Game On Down Under!
Team Canada members pose with the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, in front of the Museum’s display of ball hockey boards from Kandahar.
Jessica Rose, Team Canada, pauses by the stands to show off her Gold Medal earned in the IF4 Shotput Final. (Photo: Andrew Burtch)
Simon Mailloux, Team Canada, rounds the corner, following closely behind Adam Popp, Team USA.
Kevin Nanson, Team Canada, converses with Dave Watson, Team UK, prior to the Discus Final. Watson won Gold, Nanson Bronze in the competition.
Corporal Mireille “Mimi” Poulin, Team Canada, celebrates after her Gold Medal win during the cycling time trials in High Park. Poulin won four Golds in all, three in swimming, and two Silver medals.
Melissa Smith, Team Canada (left), dedicates her Silver Medal win in the Women’s Novice Recurve Final to the fallen. Smith, a former medical technician, braved severe PTSD to compete in archery and powerlifting.
Retired General Rick Hillier congratulates Kelly Scanlan, Team Canada, on her Gold Medal win in the 50 metre breaststroke final.
Rob Sanders, Team Canada, takes a deep breath during the Team Novice Recurve Final. Sanders and his team went on to win Gold.