From 11th – 14th September 2014, various venues in London played host to the Invictus Games, a multi-sport event based on the annual Warrior Games for injured servicemen. Nine sports were featured: the archery event on Thursday had recurve and compound individuals in novice and open categories, as well as a team event. Invictus is Latin for ‘unconquered’, and the games take this name after the famous poem of the same name by William Henley, which features the final lines ‘I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.’
The archery finals were held in Here East in the Olympic Park, which was previously the media and broadcast centre for London 2012. Many of the athletes had not previously been involved in any of the contested sports, and have taken part in accelerated programs building up to this event. As Steven Gill, a recurve para-archer puts it: “Sport is a massive element of rehabilitation. If you can get that buzz, you’re doing a good thing”. How did you get involved? “I played wheelchair basketball and I was doing a school session with some kids, there was an archery have a go. I popped a few in the gold straightaway, so… Some of the most inspirational people aren’t here on stage, they’re the people who have managed to make the quarters or whatever, from absolutely nothing, after just three months.” Steven, who lost most of his legs and an eye to an IED in Belfast two decades ago, is actually right-handed, but has to shoot left-handed because of his injuries. Despite shooting for just eleven months, he manages to take bronze.
The recurve gold medal match was contested between Britons Gary Prout and David Hubber, with Hubber taking the gold. Afterwards, he exhorts a photographer to get his wheelchair wheels into a picture: “Yes, the other side says “I am the captain of my soul”.” Hubber was a corporal who got injured around 2002 playing ice hockey for the Army. Also involved in wheelchair basketball, he has been shooting for fourteen months, introduced to the sport by the Battle Back programme. “I honestly didn’t know it was this good!”. Ironically, David had learned a lot of what he knows about the sport from Gary Prout, whom he beat in the final. “To beat him was a bit humbling, really. I thought he’d wipe the floor with me, but he just didn’t have it on the day. In the final I was quite surprised how nervous I was. I deal with that by laughing at the situation. I was chuckling so hard, I had to take a breath to compose myself. ”
What does involvement in sport mean to you? “The whole point of the Invictus Games is to prove to servicemen that it can be done. I didn’t expect to make it this far. I didn’t expect to win. It’s not about the winning for me, it’s about proving to people that it can be done, because there are a lot of people out there doubting their own ability.”
Did you take anything from your Army career into the sport? “Well, archers call it shooting, the Army calls it firing, and never the two shall meet.” He was a serious rifle shooter. “I was lucky enough to turn down an opportunity to go to Bisley at one point. It’s quite a simple proposition if you think about the principles”. It turns out the British (and the U.S.) Army break down shooting into ‘four principles of marksmanship‘, many of which are directly transferable into archery. It is even recommended that the final trigger squeeze should ‘take you by surprise’, which has a direct parallel with the ‘surprise release’ recommended by many coaches.
Silver medallist Gary Prout is from Northern Ireland; he is a bombardier in the Royal Artillery. Awarded a CGC in Afghanistan, he was injured on a later tour there and further injured when training recruits in Scotland. He has been shooting on and off for over 20 years, and represented N.I. as a junior. His dream was to represent N.I. at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, but his injury put paid to that. “The Invictus Games has stepped in exactly where that was. The coaches have worked around my issues. We changed a lot of things with my technique, and I managed to get to a level where I was shooting competititvely with guys around me. I had my shoulder rebuilt in 2010, although it’s still not quite there. I don’t have quite enough mobility to finish off the shot.”
He also credits his return to the sport to Battle Back, a Help For Heroes initiative, and his experience meant he was made captain of the GBR recurve team. “You’ve got people injured from all over the place, people with psychological issues. It’s brought everyone together. It’s given us all a focus. I keep my fingers crossed and I pray that someone’s going to take this up and continue, and it’s going to be hosted by all the other nations. Everybody is overwhelmed by the reception we’ve had. Some of the guys on the archery team were suffering from PTSD, they weren’t leaving their houses, proper folded in on themselves. The first couple of times at the sessions, you could see them developing, coming out of that. We’re gonna try and keep the Invictus umbrella over the top of ourselves, keep it going, get some new talent in and develop that there. The response from the public has been absolutely brilliant.”
The archery programme has been very popular. Why do you think that is? “From a rehabilitation point of view, it’s a very inclusive sport. People in the armed forces love it; we love shooting, being accurate. There’s a lot of other things that people can get involved in, but the archery has appealed to so many. There’s a big span of ages and injuries. Injuries don’t come into it. You’ve got people shooting who don’t have arms, who are using their mouths. It reminds you how fortunate you are sometimes.”
He also uses his rifle experience in the sport. “I shoot small-bore for the army. I used to shoot operationally for the Royal Artillery. It’s all the same kind of principles. With rifle shooting it’s ‘position and hold’, ‘shot must be released and followed through’, so if you drop your forward arm, that’s it gone. ”
All the archers on the podium are hoping to go to Rio for Team GB. As Gary Prout says: If I get the mobility back in my shoulder I’ll go for it. At the moment I’ll get punished for my technique outdoors.” The final word comes from David Hubber: “I like the fact that it’s you and you alone. Even as a team, you are still an individual. You’ve got nobody to blame for failure. Whatever I’m achieving, at the other end of my shot, is all down to me. With the influence of guidance from others, but right there, it’s me. ”
Thanks to Chris Wells for getting me in and Jack Skelton for helping me out.