RIS­ING FROM AD­VER­SITY

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

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE / BIG 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

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