RIS­ING FROM AD­VER­SITY

A LIFE-CHANG­ING BAT­TLE­FIELD IN­JURY SET THIS SOLDIER ON A PATH TO SPORT­ING GREAT­NESS

Central Telegraph - - READ - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

It takes some kind of met­tle to be think­ing about a tilt at the Par­a­lympics half an hour after get­ting your legs blown off. But as soldier Cur­tis McGrath was wait­ing for a mede­vac chop­per in Afghanistan, both legs gone and his life in the bal­ance, his part­ing words to his trau­ma­tised mates was that that’s where they’d be see­ing him.

“I don’t know why I was able to say that or what brought it up,” he says. “I sup­pose the Lon­don Olympics had been on.

“Ev­ery­one was go­ing through a trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. The chop­per came down and that’s when this com­ment just came out.”

How prophetic it was. Six years later, the Queens­land para­ca­noeist, now 30, has carved his name on his sport, tak­ing gold in the Men’s KL2 at the 2016 Rio Par­a­lympics and re­cently re­turn­ing from the World Cup in Hun­gary and World Cham­pi­onships in Por­tu­gal with four more golds.

While Cur­tis could be for­given for tak­ing a breather in the off-sea­son, his sched­ule is crammed with spon­sor­ship com­mit­ments, speak­ing en­gage­ments and am­bas­sado­rial du­ties for next month’s In­vic­tus Games in Syd­ney.

Para­ca­noe­ing isn’t on the pro­gram at the event that brings to­gether wounded, in­jured and sick ser­vice per­son­nel from around the globe to revel in the heal­ing power of sport, but Cur­tis is a past com­peti­tor and one of its loud­est cheer­lead­ers.

“The ad­ver­sity that ath­letes have been through just to get there, it makes it spe­cial.

“There’s an amaz­ing ca­ma­raderie. When you’re in the mil­i­tary, ev­ery­thing is team-ori­ented, ev­ery­thing is done as a group.

“When you come away from the mil­i­tary, it’s not like that. At the Games, we get ex­po­sure to that again and re­touch on that time. Ev­ery­one has pride in their ser­vice.”

As a post-ser­vice suc­cess story, Cur­tis is happy to share his jour­ney with oth­ers but un­der­stands every for­mer ser­vice man or woman needs to find their own path.

“It’s dif­fi­cult for me to put my­self in their shoes and ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent,” he says.

“Ev­ery­one has a bad day but I try to in­spire oth­ers to find a pur­pose or a rea­son to get up in the morn­ing and look for the best in the day.

“It’s im­por­tant to look back and learn, to bet­ter our­selves and im­prove on the day be­fore – whether that might not be do­ing too much or do­ing (far) too much.

“It’s find­ing that some­thing that peo­ple are in­spired by.”

That Cur­tis hit on his own pur­pose so soon after his life changed for­ever is in­spir­ing in it­self.

On Au­gust 23, 2012, three months into his de­ploy­ment to Afghanistan, he stepped on an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice in a re­mote area of Uruz­gan prov­ince.

As with all sto­ries of fate or ac­ci­dent, or some­thing of both, it be­gins many years ear­lier.

Cur­tis, who grew up in New Zealand, joined the Aus­tralian Army in 2006 at 18, keen to pur­sue his in­ter­est in avi­a­tion but he’d en­listed at a time when re­cruit­ment in that area was on hold.

He took on a com­bat engi­neer­ing role in­stead and “re­ally en­joyed it”.

After train­ing in Syd­ney, he was posted to Dar­win and had stints in East Ti­mor on a hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion and jun­gle train­ing in Malaysia. He was even­tu­ally posted to the Sixth Engi­neer­ing Sup­port Reg­i­ment at Enog­gera in Bris­bane.

“I was look­ing at a move to an avi­a­tion role or think­ing about leav­ing,” he says.

“But the unit was about to de­ploy to Afghanistan so six years to the day after join­ing the army, we moved out.”

He found him­self in a dry and des­o­late place where the sense of dan­ger was more a lurk­ing un­der­cur­rent than an overt threat.

“It was very arid but also very beau­ti­ful,” Cur­tis says. “There are in­cred­i­ble moun­tains and val­leys and rivers and that’s where the life is.

“The peo­ple were mostly friendly. I don’t think some peo­ple un­der­stood our mis­sion there, but they never gave us a sense of dan­ger. It was more hid­den.”

The unit worked long and hot hours dur­ing the days. A large part of their role was to per­form clear­ances of ar­eas that had been mined.

Cur­tis’ unit was sent to a re­mote cor­ner of the prov­ince mov­ing to­wards a check­point that had been un­der Tal­iban con­trol.

“We’d found a few IEDs on our way in, so we re­alised the dan­ger,” he says.

It was on the fourth day of a five-day pa­trol, Cur­tis was walk­ing on ground that had al­ready been searched when he stepped on a home­made de­vice.

“I didn’t hear a bang,” he says. “But I re­mem­ber open­ing my eyes and be­ing flat on my back and see­ing dust and de­bris fall­ing from the sky.”

He was one of the unit’s des­ig­nated first aiders and when he re­alised what had hap­pened, he be­gan ap­ply­ing his own tourni­quets, as trained, to the stumps of his legs be­fore his col­leagues took over. He re­mem­bers telling them what to do, how to ad­min­is­ter the mor­phine and fill out the ca­su­alty card.

“They did ev­ery­thing you were sup­posed to and they did it quickly. They saved my life.

“When I was on the stretcher, I told them they’d see me at the Par­a­lympics, the chop­per came down and I didn’t see them again for an­other three months.”

Cur­tis had lost his right leg just above the knee and the left just below it. His left hand was badly dam­aged. He was taken to lo­cal hos­pi­tals be­fore be­ing air­lifted to a US Air Force base in Ger­many, where he was sta­bilised to make the long flight home.

He spent three months in Royal Bris­bane Hospi­tal, a re­mark­ably short pe­riod of heal­ing and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, be­fore be­ing fit­ted for his pros­thet­ics.

“I was able to re­cover quite well,” he says. “Sol­diers are pretty fit and that helps. It was all pretty good but there were hard times too with the pain and how fast your ex­pec­ta­tions are com­pared to how fast you re­cover.”

He’d been a keen sports­man and so it came as no sur­prise to any­one that Cur­tis used sport as his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. He took up swim­ming and ca­noe­ing.

In typ­i­cal elite sports­man fash­ion, he set goals to keep him­self fo­cused. He was the cap­tain of the Aus­tralian team at the first In­vic­tus Games in Lon­don in 2014, where he com­peted in swim­ming and archery.

He also be­gan com­pet­ing in out­rig­ger ca­noe­ing, win­ning his cat­e­gory in the V1 200m, 500m and 1000m events at the 2014 Aus­tralian and Ocea­nia ti­tles and qual­i­fy­ing for the Ca­noe Sprint World Cham­pi­onships in Mos­cow.

Less than two years after los­ing his legs, Cur­tis won World Cham­pi­onship gold in the V1 200m in record time. He was, as promised, well on his way to the Par­a­lympics.

But, as sports of­fi­cials are wont to do, in 2015, they changed the rules. With­out warn­ing, out­rig­ger ca­noe­ing was no longer a Par­a­lympic sport for Rio, with the craft chang­ing to kayak just months out from the 2015 World Cham­pi­onships.

“I’d done a fair bit of train­ing so that was a real kick in the guts,” Cur­tis says.

But he’d been through much worse so he did what came nat­u­rally – changed craft and kept his eye on his goal.

He made the Aus­tralian team for the world

ti­tles, where he was set to race against the for­mi­da­ble Aus­trian para­ca­noeist Markus Swo­boda, who’d dom­i­nated the kayak sprint event for the past five years.

In his first elite in­ter­na­tional event in a kayak, Cur­tis fin­ished se­cond to the sport’s leg­endary fig­ure. That he also won gold in the V1 out­rig­ger class was per­haps more a foot­note. His fo­cus was now on Rio.

The kayak is a faster craft than the out­rig­ger and, while he was a quick learner in mak­ing the swap, he was now aim­ing for per­fec­tion.

He ar­rived at the 2016 World Ca­noe­ing Cham­pi­onships in Ger­many after mak­ing a de­tour to com­pete in his se­cond In­vic­tus Games in the US on the way.

This time, he beat Swo­boda by a frac­tion of a se­cond. It tar­geted him as the man to beat a few months later in Rio.

“I think there’s a right time for ev­ery­thing. I went into Rio as one of the favourites. I’d had a good prepa­ra­tion and on the day of the fi­nal, the con­di­tions were very good.

“It was an amaz­ing race. It was just one of those races that was al­most per­fect.”

As at the World Cham­pi­onships, Swo­boda got off to a fly­ing start and Cur­tis had to chase him down in the last 50m to clinch gold in Par­a­lympic record time.

When he crossed the fin­ished line, me­dia re­ports sug­gested his re­ac­tion was no­tably un­der­stated. Cur­tis put it down to re­lief and ex­haus­tion but per­haps the sense of des­tiny wasn’t lost on him ei­ther.

His fo­cus is now on the Tokyo Par­a­lympics in 2020, where the out­rig­ger ca­noe has been added back to the pro­gram.

Two years out, things are look­ing pos­i­tive. His gold medals in both classes at the re­cent World Cup event and World Cham­pi­onships come on the back of an in­ter­rupted prepa­ra­tion, but Cur­tis is re­al­is­tic too.

“I’ll be 32 in 2020 so my phys­i­cal abil­ity to be com­pet­ing against younger com­peti­tors in a sprint sport will be a chal­lenge,” he says.

Not that he’s ever backed away from one be­fore.

He plans to get back to his dis­ci­plined train­ing sched­ule of 11–12 ses­sions a week and give it his best.

In the six years since his ac­ci­dent, Cur­tis has earned a string of ac­co­lades for his achieve­ments, in­clud­ing an Or­der of Aus­tralia medal and the 2017 Sports­man of the Year at the World Pad­dle Awards, the first para-ath­lete to win it.

It is not the life path he fore­saw but Cur­tis doesn’t spend too much time look­ing back.

“You get back on the horse and make the best of the sit­u­a­tion life has given you,” he says.

“I’ve come a long way. That’s the power of sport.”

MAIN PHOTO: RICHARD GOSLING; LEFT: DEAN MOUHTAROPOULOS/GETTY IM­AGES

RIGHT: Para­ca­noeist Cur­tis McGrath won gold in the Rio Par­a­lympics and is an am­bas­sador for the up­com­ing In­vic­tus Games in Syd­ney.LEFT (OP­PO­SITE PAGE): Cur­tis at the Eu­ro­pean Ca­noe Sprint Olympic Qual­i­fy­ing in 2016.

PHOTO: SUP­PLIED

Cur­tis McGrath be­fore he lost both his legs while serv­ing in the Mid­dle East.

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