Since its creation by Prince Harry, the Invictus Games has championed the sporting prowess of wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel and their associated veterans in an international adaptive multi-sport event.
In the lead up to the Games, which this year runs from 20–27 October, athlete Andrew Wilkinson who will be competing in a total of eight events across cycling, swimming and running, will share how his journey, which saw him injured in his first race as a professional triathlete, has seen him become involved with the Invictus Games, and discuss the process of selection.
In this edition of 'On Point', Wilkinson will unpack his service history and the team culture that he experienced as a part of the Invictus Games camp and what is next for him as an athlete following the games.
Phil Tarrant: We are just a couple of weeks away from the Invictus Games here in Sydney, where we're recording from. Everyone's getting pretty excited and pretty pumped, I've got in my calendar both the opening and closing ceremonies locked away, so I'm looking forward to attending it and participating in it. As you know, Defence Connect has got right behind the Invictus Games to support this initiative, both within Sydney but also Australia.
Today, I've got one of the athletes in the studio, who is just about to go into camp actually with the rest of the team to get ready. As I said, it's only a couple of weeks away, and I think it's 14 days today until the games kick off, thereabouts. The 20th to the 27th of October. If you're not yet involved, go and do so, just Google Invictus Games, you go to the corporate website and there's lot of tickets and stuff you can get there. We'll be participating in a lot of these things and I look forward to getting into some of the sports.
In the studio, Andrew Wilkinson, he's into swimming and cycling I believe. Andrew, how you going, mate?
Andrew Wilkinson: Yeah, going on times from last year or thereabouts for all three events, all three disciplines. I've got eight events through all three disciplines, but yeah, I'm pretty confident.
Phil Tarrant: So, why the Invictus Games for you? What's the backstory?
Andrew Wilkinson: For me, I've been in sport since I was five, essentially. I started swimming when I was five, competitive swimming when I was six. And then when I moved to Australia in '86 we started triathlons, my dad started triathlons '87, I started '88. My first triathlon was 12. So from then it's just been sport after sport. I've finally reached my goal as a professional triathlete when I was 30-ish. Took a while, but I got there.
And then after that, my first professional race I blew my back out, squashed my discs, squashed my sciatic nerve, leg pains, leg drop, and then once the professional side of things had left, and I couldn't compete at that level anymore, I was kinda left in limbo. I tried for the Para, as a paratriathlete, I wasn't quite injured enough to be part of that. But because of my military background I was then able to compete into the Invictus Games, which was kinda nice.
Phil Tarrant: What was the process like to actually make this Australian team?
Andrew Wilkinson: It was pretty full on, to be honest. The team is made up of 72 people across 10 sports. 182, I think it was, 180-ish people applied for 72 spots. So all 182 people got to go to the first camp to meet the coaches, to meet everyone, and then from there it got dwindled away. Each coach and the coaches of the sports, obviously they're picking athletes who were good at the sport, but not necessarily the best at the sport. They wanted to pick people who they could see that this journey's gonna encourage them and give them a better life after the games.
From a coaching point of view I can understand that it's hard, but it's pretty tricky to get through, pretty involved, and you have to keep up your training, and make sure that when you go into camps in individual sports and in the main camps you are seen to be progressing as well. The onus was on yourself to progress.
Phil Tarrant: So there is an expectation, I guess being part of the Australian team, upon yourself to go out there and try and improve and self-better, and that's a real motivator behind Invictus Games, right?
Andrew Wilkinson: Oh, absolutely. Realistically you have to treat this, being in the Invictus team, as being in any professional sporting team representing your country. You have to put yourself out there, you have to train obviously to the best of your abilities. Depending on your injuries you don't wanna go too far and blow yourself out too soon, otherwise then you're not gonna be able to compete at the highest level.
Obviously with sport it's definitely a rehabilitation provider, it gets you back out in the community, and you just feel better by doing sport. And then as you get fitter you find that the injuries are a lot easier to handle.
The pain becomes less and less because you're not actually thinking about the physical pain that your body's putting you through, more about the pain that you've just put yourself through while training, so it kinda flicks one switch off and then flicks on another. And the more you do it, the easier it is to flick that switch off and concentrate on the training and not concentrate or dwell on the physical problems.
Phil Tarrant: And you were in the Navy for quite some times, discharged 2014? Eleven years, how was your service? Yeah, and were you always gonna join the Navy? Never even thought about it, just happened, just was?
Andrew Wilkinson: I did enjoy it, to be honest I'd still be in it if I could. I'd go back yesterday. I was third generation Navy, my granddad World War II stoker, my dad, he was RN, my dad was Merchant Navy chief engineer. That was my dad's side. My mum's side, her dad and his brother were shipbuilders for World War II, and I think their dad was in the army as well. Pretty full on.
Yeah, I think, whether I wanna admit it or not, I think I was always gonna be in there. From when I was born to when I was six years old, me and my sister were travelling around the world on container ships with my dad and my mum, so I'd always been at sea, for quite a while. And then I did actually apply when I was 18, and all I had to do was go back to the interview stage, and I kinda bailed.
Phil Tarrant: Does being part of the Invictus team for Australia sort of emulate a little bit the camaraderie and the culture of service? Everyone obviously comes out of service, or currently in service, is that still part of the team, being part of the team there?
Andrew Wilkinson: Oh, massively. Absolutely, it's like a big family reunion. You rock up ... I think I knew four people out of the whole team on the first camps, and then by the end of the camp you know pretty much everyone. It's like seeing your great-aunt that you haven't seen in 20 years, it feels natural. You're back in your own environment, the language comes back pretty quick, and everyone knows what you're talking about and gets you. It's a nice environment to be back.
Phil Tarrant: And how's your fitness ... You mentioned beforehand that you are a professional triathlete. I know what it takes for triathletes to be at that peak, you're committed to the sport and you're training all the time. But your level of fitness now compared to how it was back then, how would you rate it?
Has that been an organic thing, or has it been a deliberate tempering of your brain at yourself all the time, or through training has it just sort of softened naturally?
Andrew Wilkinson: Level of fitness wise I reckon I'm back on par. Speed wise I'm a little bit off in the pool, so for a 750 swim, when I was racing professionally I was 10 minutes, easy 10 minutes, now I'm nudging the 11s. I should, for my next ... I've actually got a NSW state tri champs two weeks after the games. So it doesn't stop, it just keeps on rolling.
And now, having to commit and put that commitment towards this team, towards the Invictus team, the brain has actually settled down but it's funny, the body's actually started to step up. So it's actually allowed me to train to where I used to be, and now I know that I can do this training, and I think it's all part of being in that team. You don't wanna let your teammates down, you wanna do the best that you can, prove that you've earned the spot in the team.
It's just dulled the mental side of things, and it's allowed the body to train and prove to myself that I can actually do the work, which is good leading into more races afterwards.
I think it's a bit of both. It did take a while for the brain to settle down, to give myself a break. But then, as you do start to train, I think the brain changes with your body, as you're getting fitter the brain changes. "OK, well I can do this." There's a line, a definite line in the sand. If you cross that line, then your body's gone. You do find where that line is, and now how much you can push it, but once you find that line, you can push it all day as long as you don't jump over that line.
And I think that's when the brain goes, “I can go this far, and I can do these many sessions, I can do 14, I can do 15, 16 hours a week”. I know when I'm gonna have a break I'll go back to 10 hours a week, but I know I can go harder, which is good, and then everything settles down. You still get a bit crabby because you're not training, or you get crabby because you're tired, or the kids are annoying you, but that's all part of life.
You can listen to the full podcast with Andrew Wilkinson here.
The Invictus Games Sydney 2018 will feature 500 competitors from 18 participating nations. The Invictus Games are open to competitors from all branches of the regular or reserve armed forces of participating nations who have become wounded, injured or ill during, or as a direct consequence of, their service.
Eligible nations are invited to participate through their respective Ministry of Defence and each participating nation is allocated a maximum number of competitor places.
Entry is restricted to competitors who register to compete through their nation’s official Invictus Games team representative and are then selected for their nation. Competitors who have participated in a Paralympic Games, World Championships or other international events, as a past or present national team member, are eligible to participate in the Invictus Games in any sport.
Participants are allowed to compete in as many individual and team sports as they wish, and in as many events as they desire, provided the competition schedule and individual sport program allow for it and they are selected by their nation. Every attempt has been made to create a competition schedule that will permit competitors to participate in as many sports as possible.