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Curtis McGrath / Paralympian / Gold Coast, Australia
My road is determination, whether at home or abroad, challenges are everywhere. Through determination
I overcome them. My road is determination, what’s your road?
On the 23rd of August 2012, soldier Curtis McGrath’s road deviated with a force no person should ever be required to contemplate. It is Rodd & Gunn’s great pleasure and privilege to speak to Curtis about his journey.
A Kiwi by birth, I enjoyed the adventurous childhood typical of those growing up in the Queenstown, Central Otago region of southern New Zealand.
Cricket and rugby featured prominently, as did activities like kayaking, hiking, and snowboarding.
By the end of school in late 2005, further academic pursuits held little appeal – my road demanded adventure.
Dual Australian – New Zealand citizenship provided the opportunity to enlist in the Australian army, which I duly did as a combat engineer.
A combat engineer’s role is to “provide mobility, and deny mobility”. It is a broad role and includes tasks like bridge construction, water purification and de-mining activities.
Early deployments - primarily humanitarian missions - included nine memorable months in East Timor.
I recall the operation with pride. The opportunity to help was real, and the people were pleased to have our input.
In 2011, I took unpaid leave for a reassessment of my journey, returning to New Zealand for a break which included the final of the Rugby World Cup!
On the first day of leave, I fielded a call from my Sergeant. The purpose of the conversation was to enquire about my interest in a deployment to Afghanistan.
Challenges like Afghanistan are the focus of our training; deployment would fulfil my working life’s purpose.
A combat engineer’s role in providing mobility in such an environment has land-mine clearance as one of its highest priorities. By any measure, it is dangerous work.
We were assigned to Multinational Base, Tarin Kot, in the Uruzgan Province, predominantly as mentors to the large contingent of Afghan soldiers on site.
Three months in we received word of a substantial clearance operation, with insurgents pushing local units off strategic points and restricting movement in a remote corner of Uruzgan.
On our first mission to re-establish an elevated checkpoint, it was clear we were moving into an extremely dangerous situation.
IEDs were a constant threat to all movement - blast craters and wreckage littered the access routes. Our job was to find the IEDs and restore safe passage.
Fatigue is an ever-present issue on such missions. We were working at 3500 metres above sea level, in baking heat, responding with extreme caution to numerous metal detector alerts as well as working with bomb disposal teams to neutralise confirmed IEDs.
Four days in, I made an error. Unintentionally straying slightly from the safe path, ‘my road’ turned dramatically.
I do not remember the blast. The first cognisant moment is laying on the ground in darkness - although it is 11 a.m. - with dust and debris falling all around.
I do remember the pain. Sitting up on my elbows, I could see the blast crater, that my legs were gone, all the blood. It felt like being crushed and burnt and stung and poisoned simultaneously.
I also remember what I said during the evacuation: “I’ll be alright guys; I’ll be going to the Paralympics. But it will not be in green & gold; it will be in black & white.
Black humour goes a long way in those situations and, as it turned out, I am immensely proud and honoured to have worn green & gold, but we will get to that.
A NEW ROAD
The immediate evacuation to Germany, and later to Brisbane, Australia to continue the healing process is a story for another day. For now, I will skip forward to preparation for physiotherapy.
Prior to beginning the physical treatments, a realisation moment struck while trying to manoeuvre off the bed and into a wheelchair. It was an unavoidable confrontation with the facts – I was now a disabled person.
The complexity I faced in conducting everyday tasks was difficult to swallow. I believed an adventurous life to be over.
The benefit of having quality people in support comes to the fore at these crossroads. In my case, Rachel (now my wife), my parents, the medical and physio teams all willed me to move forward with recovery – thankfully, I responded.
Goals, big and small, took on new importance. The first stake I drove in the ground was to walk and greet my team on their return from Afghanistan in three months.
The first session of physiotherapy lasted only three and a half minutes. By mid-August, sessions of eight to 10 hours were routine.
As the team arrived through Brisbane International Airport, I was there, standing, in the same uniform, still Curtis, still their mate.
PADDLING TOWARDS PODIUMS
At this point, I knew my time as a combat soldier was over. Through a lens of determination and positivity, a possible future as an athlete was coming into focus.
While non-competitive, my first taste was a ‘ridiculous’ sea-kayaking expedition from Sydney to Brisbane – around 880 kilometres - with the veterans’ initiative, Mates4Mates.
Completing the experience with my father proved a highlight. To reconnect with outdoor pursuits in that manner gave us both great joy and confidence in my future.
Although trialling several sports, I had a natural connection with paddling. Perhaps time spent in the white-water of New Zealand’s South Island as a youth seeded my enthusiasm for canoe sports.
Para-canoe was slated for debut at Rio in 2016. As goals go, the Paralympic Games is undoubtedly attractive.
Serious training began in 2014. The V1, which is an outrigger canoe referred to as a Va’a or Waka Ama, was my boat of choice at the time. I progressed quickly, even attending and winning my division of the World Championships in Russia in a world’s fastest time.
I returned to Australia with serious podium ambitions for Rio, only to face an immediate setback. The Paralympic Committee had removed the V1 outrigger canoe from the schedule in favour of the more challenging, sprint kayak.
Disheartened, and within two weeks of the national selection event, it wasn’t easy to see a realistic road to Rio.
Again, top people came to the fore. Undaunted, my coach’s view was that I had the ability to compete if we put in the effort. By the afternoon, we had completed the first session of the road to the Rio Paralympic Games.
My coach’s confidence aside, the sport kayak proved a massive and initially humbling challenge as I learned to apply power to a boat that wanted to throw me in the water. Four gruelling sessions per day saw strong progress while demonstrating the commitment demanded of elite sportspeople.
We succeeded at qualifications in Milan, and got a good look at the competition, including six-time world champion Austrian, Markus “Mendy’ Swoboda.
For the final stretch of the journey – the preparation for Rio – we were fortunate to train with the Australian women’s squad. Opportunities to observe high-performance teams in action are rare, and the contribution to my campaign was valued.
Four years earlier, I am lying in the Afghani dust surrounded by my personal destruction.
Here I was in Rio de Janeiro, under Christ the Redeemer’s statue, supported by close family and a team committed to my journey, preparing for another ‘race of my life’.
While the heat went well, we knew a significant step up in intensity would be needed for victory in the final.
The gate dropped, and Mendy sprang into the lead. We expected this; my strength had proven to be the latter stages of the race where we hoped my high lactate training regime would pay dividends.
And so it played out. I crossed the line of the 200m course, 1.536 seconds ahead of Mendy.
You expect such events to be emotional, yet ‘overwhelming relief’ proved most potent in my mind. Perhaps the pressure of stating the Paralympics as a goal in those crucial minutes following the blast stayed with me.
Later, the joy of achievement grew in proportion, especially when bestowed with the honour of carrying the Australian flag at the closing ceremony.
Although not the conclusion of my journey, those moments under the flag of the nation I had fought for will forever remain as a landmark of triumph in an unexpected road.
To read more about Curtis McGrath’s road, including the Invictus Games and upcoming events, visit CurtisMcGrath.com.au