#20) Invictus Games/Debbie O’Connell


The power of sport never ceases to amaze.

It seems as though it can be used to help with any problem if you want it to, from helping to overcome mental illness to driving for society-wide gender equality.

And, as the Invictus Games have once again proved this week, sport is also a brilliant tool for helping injured and sick war veterans not only cope with the trauma they have suffered, but also achieving a happy and fulfilling life.

Each of the 500-or-so competitors taking part in the fourth instalment of the Games in Sydney has their own unique story surrounding their journey to the competition in the first place.

But the Invictus Games isn’t just a place for sharing extraordinary experiences; as these last few days have shown, this is somewhere even more are created.

Earlier in the week there was the story of wheelchair tennis athletes Paul Guest and Edwin Vermetten, who sang the Frozen song ‘Let It Go’ to help Guest – who has suffered from PTSD – after he became unsettled upon hearing a helicopter.

Then there was the incredible moment the Australian wheelchair rugby team passed the ball to tetraplegic New Zealand athlete George Nepata to score a try in the final, before swimmer Dean Knobel proposed to his girlfriend having just received his relay gold medal.

There has been plenty of canine love throughout the tournament as well, with 12 service dogs helping the athletes cope with the noise and excitement of the competition, including a Labrador called Tank who defied the rules to accompany powerlifter Ben Farinazzo onto the stage and calmed him to such an extent that he set a new personal best.

Being such a new competition, another huge positive about the Invictus Games is the high proportion of female athletes, especially considering they are still a minority in many Armed Forces – only this week have women been given the opportunity to apply for any British military combat role, including in the SAS.

It’s one of these women too who really caught my attention this week – Debbie O’Connell.

Just a year after joining the King’s Troops Royal Horse Artillery, O’Connell suffered a bad fall from her horse that broke her collarbone.

While this is an injury many have suffered and been able to recover fully, the former Army Reservist was incredibly unlucky as the bone broke in four places, with the damage so bad her left arm was paralysed.

It was the relatability of the mechanism behind the injury that really struck a chord – while the effects of catastrophic wounds caused by gunfire, bombs and mines are obviously devastating, it is a position very few of us will find ourselves in due to their relatively rare nature.

However falling off a horse is something many of us could do at anytime and really reinforces the message that injuries in the army don’t just happen on tours – they can quite easily happen at home too.

As O’Connell told Lincolnshire Live before the Games started, the fallout caused by the fall was not just severe physically, but mentally too.

“After my injury, I hit a time low,” she said.

“I had lost my job and my whole life changed. I went from riding horses and working as a fitness instructor to having to come to terms with not being able to use my left arm.

“You take your limbs for granted until you lose the use of them.

“It’s very daunting and simple tasks like turning on a tap and holding a pot or kettle underneath at the same time is impossible. Even brushing your hair becomes a challenge.”

Compare this with the interview she gave BBC Get Inspired earlier this week though and you can see not just how much sport has helped O’Connell deal with her situation, but how it has changed her life for the better.

The Lincoln Wellington AC athlete kicked off the tournament in superb fashion by winning two golds on the opening day in different sports, firstly on the bike and then in the 100m.

Such an achievement would be lauded if a full-time athlete had completed it – as Kadeena Cox experienced at Rio 2016 – but for someone who only started training for the event late last year it was just remarkable.

What was even more impressive though was the way she spoke in the BBC Get Inspired video shown after her successes proving that, no matter what happens in your life, there is always light at the end of the tunnel and that sport can help you get there.

“You think ‘No, this isn’t going to define me. This isn’t going to be who I am.’

“I’m still Debbie. I’m not Debbie with the broken arm.

“I’m going to show everybody else out there that just because my arm doesn’t work doesn’t mean that I have to give up my whole life, my ambitions, my goals and my aims.”

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