Team Canada's athletes had the times of their lives at twice-postponed Invictus Games 2020 in The Hague – and have also had the honour of meeting Prince Harry and Meghan Markle!
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HELLO! Canada caught up with three excited participants to chat about royal encounters and the thrill of the Games for ill, wounded and injured servicemen and servicewomen.
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Founded by the Duke of Sussex in 2014, the Invictus Games is an international sports event modelled after the Olympic Games that sees wounded and injured current and former service personnel coming together to compete. But it's not about who takes home medals – the goal is to use the incredible power of sport to help the athletes recover.
Chris Zizek, 41
From: Campbell River, British Columbia
Military roles: Sergeant (retired) – Vehicle Technician, deployed to Afghanistan from 2005-2006
Sports: Seated volleyball, swimming, rowing, Land Rover Driver Challenge
Chris – who is at Meghan's left in the photo above – was among the Canadians who got the opportunity to chat with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on April 17. Photo: © Chris Jackson/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Chris's time with Harry and Meghan was brief – "They were very polite and re-expressed the importance of these Games," he says – yet a photo of him standing beside the duchess at a meet-and-greet went around the world. But it was the Games' lively atmosphere and the support of his fellow athletes that Chris will never forget.
"I didn't achieve any personal bests or medals during my events," reflects the father of two. "Instead, I find myself reflecting on my purpose going forward. I knew I was a good leader and coach when I served but I struggled bringing that to the table at home for many years.
"So today I strive to be a better husband, an inspiration to my boys and, most importantly, making a better me. I can finally say I believe these words. And I will continue to be there for my family as they have always support me through my struggles."
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Having served his country proudly for years, doing so as an Invictus athlete was particularly humbling.
"Between learning more of the history of the Canada-Netherlands relationship following the liberation during the Second World War and having Team Ukraine able to be here despite the conflict they are currently going through, it's just amazing to wear the Maple Leaf and flag proudly," he says.
Chris is seen in competition in rowing and seated volleyball during the 2020 Invictus Games. Photos: © Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)
It has also created a world of possibilities. Says Chris: "This experience has only opened my eyes more to those with disabilities – and showed me the power these Games have on proving to the world, and to ourselves, that no matter the limitations we have, we can adapt in some way to accomplish the mission!"
Joanne "Jo" Bradley, 49
Military role: Retired Warrant Officer, Canadian Armed Forces
Sports: Track, swimming, wheelchair basketball
Jo (wearing jersey number 2) is seen during wheelchair basketball competition against the Netherlands during the 2020 Invictus Games in The Hague. Photo: © Joern Pollex/Getty Images for Invictus Games The Hague 2020
Jo Bradley wasn't going to let multiple sclerosis stop her from learning to swim for her first Invictus Games. Nor would a little perspiration stop her from meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex!
The mom of two had been asked to represent Team Canada at the Invictus Games Foundation reception, but ran late after attending a post-competition medal ceremony. So rather than clean herself up, she threw a jacket over her "probably stinky" team uniform and sprinted to the reception just in time for the couple's walkabout.
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"Prince Harry came across as very genuine," recalls Jo. "This is his Games and he's really here for the athletes. He said to enjoy every minute. Then along came Meghan, and she saw the medal around my neck and asked what it was for. She just gave me this great big hug! She was in a beautiful dress, cream-coloured and just didn't care – she came in for the smelliest and sweatiest hug possible! It was fantastic."
Jo is seen in competition on the track at the 2020 Invictus Games in The Hague. Photo: © Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)
The Invictus experience has been life-changing for Jo, due mainly to the support the athletes give one another. Competitions are "festive and very welcoming," she says, with people cheering and "a lot of crying, tears and hugs." It's not about who comes in first, she adds.
"I know go back to regular life shortly," says Jo. "But I'll continue to swim – I was afraid of water prior to my Invictus journey! I really want to be a mentor for the next Team Canada in 2023. And if the Invictus Games chooses Canada for 2025, I'll do everything to be there in any way. Who knows, maybe there will be a snowshoe race discipline!"
Mike Burt, 51
Military role: Royal Air Force Captain, Intelligence Office
Sports: Discus throw, wheelchair basketball, cycling, 50-metre swimming (individual and relay)
Mike can be seen in the lower lane as he competes in one of the swimming events at the Games. Photo: © Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)
Mike was overjoyed to have two of his biggest fans – wife Carol and younger child Isabella, 21 – by his side while competing in his first Invictus Games.
A diagnosis of late-stage cancer has been difficult on the former runner and his family. Yet rather than sit around waiting for his next physician or therapy appointment, the exuberant father of two decided it was time to push himself to the max.
"I wanted to challenge myself," explains Mike of learning brand new sports. "I wanted to do as much as I could and maximize my Invictus experience."
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And what a ride it was!
"Outside of the birth of my children, this has been one of the best experiences of my life," he says. "I've been in the Canadian Air Force Transition Unit since January 2020, so this is a good way to end my career.
Mike's family was proud to support him at the Games. Photo: © Lyndon Goveas, CFMWS (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)
"I've met a lot of people from around the world, I’ve met a lot of friends, I’ve traded a lot of pins. This has helped with my morale, to put a positive face forward. It makes me realize that even though I'm sick, it's not the end of it."He's also grateful his beloved wife had a chance to get up close and personal with Harry, creating quite the emotional scene.
"He hugged her, she cried, lots of other people cried!" recalls Mike. "She was very humbled to meet him.
"Carol has been my primary caregiver and this has been a very tough road for her, so having her here has been a very nice way to recognize her efforts that have been paramount in helping me deal with the cancer."
Wearing his national colours was another bonus.
"This will probably be my last time I do something with the Armed Forces before I transition to become a veteran, so it's a pretty good way to end it," he says. "Having the privilege to represent my country at the Invictus Games is pretty special."