“You’re so lucky!” my disbelieving friends told me when I explained I was off to Orlando, Forida not for a holiday, but to cover the Invictus Games for the BBC.
The event, which first took place in London in 2014, gives ex-servicemen and women with physical and mental injuries the chance to compete for their country, amongst others like them. Set up by HRH Prince Harry, it’s a massive event, attended by 14 nations – with more likely to join for the third event in Toronto in 2017.
I produced a live blog for each programme, filming extra video interviews and reports from ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, in order to expand the story of the games and get the audience closer to the athletes.
I might not have managed the time to visit any of the Disney theme parks proper, but there was a magical thing that did happen out in the searing heat – the inner Londoner in me, quick to grimace at the sound of tinny headphones, elbowing back aggressive businessmen and occasionally ignorant of my own fortune – disintegrated. Suddenly I could talk to anyone. Byron in the Veteran Services van, spectators, a Dutch tennis coach, athletes I’d read about but never met in person before.
A personal highlight was hosting my first Facebook Live with Invictus host (and Channel 4 and BBC pundit) JJ Chalmers and the People’s Strictly Come Dancing champion Cassidy Little. We spoke about Cassidy’s experiences of learning to walk on his first prosthetic leg and how he and JJ were “blown up” together back in 2011. The two former Royal Commandos were happy to talk about anything and were brilliant, charismatic interviewees.
And yet, surviving my first live presenting gig for the BBC couldn’t come close to the feeling of being at the Invictus Games itself, and the amazing people I met there (JJ and Cassidy included). From the Aussie sitting volleyball captain Brendan Dover and his squad, including Wade Roberts and Dani Moffitt, to Frenchman Franck Gibot, who told me openly and honestly about how Invictus had helped him and his fellow athletes in learning to cope with crippling PTSD.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget archer Martin Clapton, who had just been awarded a special trophy in recognition of his inspirational abilities – releasing arrows with a mouth tab, telling me in this video how he’d tried to take his own life merely a year ago, but how his sport of choice, and the archery squad had brought him back from a brink. As his team captain Chris MacFayden (pictured below with vice-captain Gareth Patterson) turned and told him – they’re “a family”.
There were also early Paralympic promises in the performances of double above-knee amputee 20om sprinter Dave Henson and lightweight powerlifter Micky Yule. In total, the UK brought home 131 medals – you can find more details on the last Invictus live page I produced.
Prince Harry spoke at the opening ceremony of the need to address the hidden injuries – the PSTD suffered by many in attendance – and I was amazed at the willingness for people to talk, both to me and each other. It was a triumph of the human spirit. And every time I feel an irritation on the tube, or at work, or even walking down the street, I shall remember; Invictus!