It was with laughter and in good humour that 30 wounded soldiers, veterans and civilians of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces underwent their last training session today at the National Centre for Defence Sports (CNSD) in Fontainebleau
(60km south of Paris) before flying out to Toronto tomorrow for the 3rd Invictus Games from 23-30 September.
For six of them this will be their third participation in these Games.
Alain Akakpo, 33, a civilian defence agent, is one of those. But he also competed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games where he placed 4th in the long jump. And at the 2015 Military World Summer Games from which he returned as the double gold medalist in the 100m and 200m sprint event. He is thus in a good position to compare the different events. “Paralympic Games are the Holy Grail
but training for them is much more intense and the spirit is different. I have very good memories of the first Invictus Games, maybe even better ones than of the Paralympics, because that’s where I set my personal records. There is a better atmosphere, partying, sharing.”
And, unlike teams with many athletes, such as Britain with more than 100, or Canada with a strong force of about 80, each of whom only take part in one sport, the 30 French athletes practice versatility, so Akakpo is not just a sprinter but also a volleyball player.
Just like Djamel Mastouri, who is now a civilian defence agent but was formerly a member of the top-level military handisport team and was in 1992 the 10,000m (able-bodied) French vice-champion, who will not only participate in the 1,500m and 400m races, but also in seated volleyball.
Mastouri, whose right arm has always been useless but who hid it so well that he began his military service before his superiors found out and suggested he dedicate himself to sport, says that “I owe the army my medals.” And what medals: 800m bronze at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, 1,500m gold at the 2015 Summer Military World Games and 2016 Invictus Games where he also won the 400m silver. Ah yes, I forgot: he’s 45 years old!
Sergeant Francesca Rocca was only 23 when her mission to clear an improvised explosive device in Mali went horribly wrong in 2015 leaving her with foot injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her injuries meant she had to give up the combat sports she’d been
practicing since childhood and turn to strength and power sports instead. She’ll thus be taking part in power lifting (the difference with the able-bodied being that everyone has to fully lie on the bench: nobody can put their feet on the ground) where she raises up to 65kg; the shotput, where the put weighs 3kg; but also sprint, rowing and volleyball. “I‘ve always loved sport” this diminutive, woman tells me whilst recounting with a laugh what life is like for the very few women, who like her, are assigned to the 6th Engineer Regiment of Angers. But that’s a whole other story!
Rémy Boulle, a 29-year-old former corporal and parachute commando, has been paraplegic since the day in 2014 when his parachutes tangled. Less than a year after he left hospital he was in Rome in 2016 for the European kayak championships where he won the silver medal, and he followed that performance with a 5th place at the Paralympic Rio in the 200m kayak. “Our discipline is different from the able bodied
who paddle in rivers with rapids; we are more like rowing, paddling in a straight line on a stable body of water,” he tells me. But since there is no kayaking at the Invictus Games, he will participate in the indoor rowing where you have to row as far as you can in 1 minute and 4 minutes.
Colonel Hervé Piccirillo, commander of the CNSD, assures me that the objective of the Invictus Games is not really to bring back as many medals as possible. “It’s more of a life project than a medal-winning one. The goal for these athletes is to find personal fulfillment, to regain some stability in their lives.” And as proof of the team’s “total and disinterested commitment,” it temporarily adopted Sarah Watson, an Australian Army veteran whose mission
in Iraq left her with PTSD. This young mother, who’s always been sporty, is currently living in the south of France having followed her husband who works there and so it is with the French team that she will travel to Toronto to join her Australian teammates and take part in the 1,500m, swimming and cycling events. “It’s just amazing that I could spend a few days training here,” she says.
The military aircraft that will carry the team will make a detour tomorrow via Germany to pick the German team up. Aboard, conversation is unlikely to centre on injuries or the circumstances that led to them but rather of sports, camaraderie and fun. That’s the spirit of the Invictus Games.