They were very intense two weeks. Filled with exercise, training, but also massages and rehabilitation treatments from early morning to late afternoon. Injured veterans met at the Training and Fitness Centre in Mrągowo, where they exercised under the professional supervision of coaches, who also train Polish paralympians. They played sitting volleyball, trained archery, practiced discus throwing and shot put, they rowed, swam and cycled. All that to prepare for the games that are going to take place in Sydney, Australia in the fall.
About 500 competitors from 18 countries are going to meet in October at Invictus Games, organized by the Royal Foundation, a charity established by the British Prince Harry. They are going to compete for medals in 11 sport disciplines. Polish injured servicemen will be joining the Games for the first time. Our representatives also include those most severely injured, who lost their arms or legs on missions, or are confined to a wheelchair. Most competitors will try their luck in several disciplines.
“Every year, representations of veterans from various countries take part in the Games, which aim at showing the tremendous power of sport and determination, and at inspiring other injured veteran soldiers to join the next edition of the Games,” reminds Col Leszek Stępień, the Director of the International Mission Veteran Centre, which organizes the trip of our representatives to Invictus Games.
During the training camp in Mrągowo, the veterans were visited by a representative of the Invictus Games foundation. He evaluated the preparations and helped to assign competitors to appropriate categories of disciplines. The factors taken into consideration were, i. a., the type and degree of their disability.
25 veterans took part in the training and fitness camp. 15 of them form the basic representation team, and 10 are substitutes. Everyone trained. Coaches emphasized that progress was visible from day to day. We came to watch their training for a couple of days.
Kings of the Road
Cyclists started training after breakfast. The roads of Masuria are good for them, due to light traffic. “Today we were doing strength and endurance training. We cycled 85 km in three hours, often uphill and against the wind. The trainer is teaching us the technique of cycling – how to accelerate and slow down, we also do exercises that strengthen leg muscles,” said Jakub Tynka, who chose road cycling as one of his disciplines in Sydney. He hopes that his 45 % of health damage (i. a. an injured shoulder plexus and a weaker left arm) will not stop him from achieving a good result. In Sydney, he plans to cover the distance of 2.5 km at top speed, i. e. with average speed of 35–38 km/h. He is also going to take part in swimming and running (100 m and 4x100 m relay).
A few minutes after 9 a.m. Marcin Chłopeniuk showed up at the area for discus throw and shot put. He came on a wheelchair, accompanied by his father. He is one of the most severely injured soldiers. Eight years ago in Afghanistan, during artillery attacks on his base, he was injured in the head. Doctors diagnosed him with hemiplegia. Due to the paralysis of the left side of the body, he was retired from service. In Sydney, he is going to compete in discus throw and shot put. “I’ve already got the hang of the technique by now, I’m making progress. I want to train more, but the coach is stopping me,” he said in between throws. “He’s a tough guy, he used to fight as a soldier, now he is fighting as a sportsman. But I have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t overstrain his good arm – we do 40 throws a day and that’s it,” explained the trainer, Aleksander Popławski.
Water Draws You In
The training at the swimming pool started at 10 a.m., but some of the competitors were there earlier. They warmed up by swimming for 200 m, and later covered the distance of 1.5-2 km, all that twice a day. “They have character, they are stubborn,” said Zbigniew Sajkiewicz, a trainer at the Integration Sports Club of the University of Physical Education in Warsaw. Initially, covering one length of the pool was a success. Towards the end of the camp, 200 meters are not a problem. “We aren’t planning to break world records, but I’m going to teach them the technique and how to breathe properly. Swimming is all about flexibility, you need high mobility in all your joints. The competitors have hidden injuries, all of which are clearly visible in the water. They are suffering, but they keep on swimming. And they are making progress,” he explained. Swimming the distance of 100 m in 1 minute and 30 seconds will be a good result. Zbigniew Sajkiewicz emphasized that they still need training, but he did not rule out a possibility of winning a medal in Sydney.
The Aim Is Archery
Some competitors have chosen disciplines that are completely new for them, such as archery. You have to hit a 40 cm target at the distance of 20 m. The target has a yellow circle in the middle, called the “Gold.”
“Do you want to shoot the bow like Rambo or like Robin Hood?” asked the coach during the first training session. The ones who chose the first option got recurve bows, and the rest got compound bows. Janek Koczar was one of the people who chose Robin Hood. Before he lost a leg in a mine explosion during a mission in the Balkans, he was a marksman in the 16th Airborne Battalion. “There is still a lot of work to be done, and many shots to take,” he says. He thinks that archery is not an easy discipline. “It is a sport requiring good technique. What counts most is repeatability and muscle memory. You need to turn off your thinking, and the trained body will do the work and make the arrows hit the target,” explained Ryszard Bukański, a trainer who normally prepares paralympians. He was very pleased with the progress of his charges. They take 60–70 shots during one training. They learn quickly. “At Sydney Games they are going to shoot 10 arrows for a maximum of 300 points. I’ll be happy if they get 250,” said Bukański.
Rowers Work up a Good Sweat
When rowers exercise at the sports hall, there is a lot of sweating involved. This is one of the harder trainings. One of the competitors who is going to take part in this discipline in Sydney is Dariusz Liszka, who lost his arm during the 7th rotation of the Polish Military Contingent in Afghanistan, when their Rosomak drove onto an IED. Darek started his day with swimming (this is his second discipline), covering a distance of about 2 km. He went rowing in the afternoon.
“Rowing is an endurance sport. You need to be quick, strong, determined, and – which is very important – distribute your strength and energy well and keep up the pace,” explained trainer Michał Sadowski, a Polish representative in this discipline from the Sports Club for the Disabled in Szczecin.
“The first time I sat on an ergometer, which is another name for an indoor rowing machine, was in May. As it turned out, I was pretty good at it. I covered over 300 m in a minute. In the second competition, which is 4 minutes long, I covered about one kilometer,” said Darek Liszka. He plans to improve these results and fight for a place on the podium in October.
Struggling with a Net
The day finished with sitting volleyball training. It began with easy exercises, such as returning a ball thrown by the coach, but softly and not too high, because that increases chances of making a mistake. Another exercise was to quickly move (slide) around the court. Combining these two moves is not as easy as one might think. “You must always turn to the side from which the ball is coming,” explained Bożydar Abadżijew, the coach of the Polish representation in sitting volleyball. After the warm-up, the team (six players and three substitutes) played a game. Today it is too early to say who will play in Sydney. “We are going there to fight. I am sure that we will be playing for a medal,” emphasized the coach.
Łukasz Wojciechowski, who is going to play sitting volleyball in Sydney (and also compete in archery, rowing, and swimming), hopes for silver. If they succeed in winning a medal, he is going to dedicate it to his daughter, Gaja, who was born in August.
Challenge for the Center
For commandant Lt Col Wojciech Choiński, the fact that the Military Training and Fitness Center in Mrągowo has been chosen to prepare the Polish representation for Invictus Games is an honor, but also a challenge. The Center has been equipped with everything that the competitors need to exercise, i. a. bows, ergometers and discuses.
Surrounded by the waters of lake Czos and located at the Four Winds’ Peninsula, the Center has been thoroughly modernized within the last few years – there is a new gym, a swimming and a diving pool, as well as new wellness and rehabilitation facilities. What is important is that the infrastructure is adjusted to the needs of disabled people. Injured veterans know this place very well, because they come here for readaptation and fitness camps.
“We hope that after the amendment of the law on war veterans these camps will become a new pillar of our activity. The Warsaw Garrison Command does its best to ensure that the conditions we offer are of the highest standard,” says Lt Col Wojciech Choiński.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz