RISING FROM ADVERSITY
A LIFE-CHANGING BATTLEFIELD INJURY SET THIS SOLDIER ON A PATH TO SPORTING GREATNESS
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.”
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.
Curtis McGrath before he lost both his legs while serving in the Middle East.