I have had the good fortune to be around a lot of elite athletes during my professional career. They all share some common denominators. They are focused. They work extremely hard. And they love what they do.
Lately, I have come across three athletes who add an element of courage to the story. They are retired military veterans who use sport, along with the love and support of their families, to deal with the emotional turbulence caused by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And they find a way to victory, despite the odds stacked against them.
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Tanner Wilson served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He got through two tours of duty in Afghanistan. It was hard, dirty, dangerous work. He went on to serve three years in the navy before coming home. Military service left its mark on him when he came home to his family. Sport is one of the conduits he’s used to re-adjust to civilian life. It was some years after he returned to Canada that he found himself dealing with PTSD.
“Sport is a team exercise,” he told me. “In the military, I was part of a team. I missed that aspect when I returned home. Sport has helped me deal with the emotional illness. It has brought a focus to my life and it has given my family a chance to love me and to support me as I embark on the next chapter.”
Cavell Simmonds served more than 30 years as a military nurse.
“When I retired, I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she confided. “I was really at a low point emotionally. Sport helped me find my way out of those depths. Now I feel much better about myself and I am able to continue working with cancer patients in Calgary.”
Rob Dolson’s story isn’t much different. He too served with the PPCLI. He too found himself dealing with the emotional disturbance of PTSD. And he too used the love and support of his family and a life-long love of sport to aid in his recovery.
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All three of these people will be part of a contingent of forty Canadians taking part in the next Invictus Games, to be staged in Sydney, Australia in October. The Games were inspired by Prince Harry – himself a military veteran – who has spoken out of late about the debilitating effects of mental illness.
“The wonderful thing about this event is that we are competing with people who have been through what we have been through,” said Dolson. “I used to play soccer in Edmonton before I joined the military. Now, sport provides me a chance to do something I love and can still do. It’s made a big difference in my emotional recovery from my time in the service.”
“We’re all looking forward to getting to Sydney, to competing in our sports, and to find the fellowship among athletes from all countries who share the kinds of experience each of us has had.”
I’ve often thought that courage is the least appreciated mindset in sport. These athletes demonstrate that for them, courage to try is maybe the most important aspect. And the rewards for trying go far beyond any medal.