She still has a lot of homework to do. Rachel Williamson is team captain of the UK team for the Invictus Games. With 65 participants, including 59 newcomers, Rachel still has to learn a lot of new faces and names. “From what I understand, they will forgive me if I am wrong the first time.”
By Edward Swier
Rachel Williamson is the first female team captain of the UK team for the Invictus Games. “I am really proud about this. Of course, it had to happen once, the first woman, but I think it is an enormous honor that it’s me. It really touched me; I think it’s the crown on everything. It gives me a lot of confidence, not only on the sports field, but also in my daily life.”
As a young swimmer, Williamson dreamed of reaching the Olympic Games. During the trials for the 2008 Beijing Games, she just missed her ticket in. This experience took the fun out of the sport for her a bit. Hereafter, once she joined the army, she switched to rugby. “It’s also because I was kind of done with always smelling like chlorine,” Williamson said in one of the recent newspaper articles about her.
An unfortunate incident
An unfortunate incident changed Williamson’s life in 2014. “I sprained my thumb. I landed awkwardly on it and it clapped back. Initially though, I didn’t pay much attention to it, I even played another game the next day.” However, the damage turned out to be greater than perceived. “Not much later my fingers started bothering me a lot, then came my whole hand and now it’s also affected my shoulder. I can no longer use my entire right arm.”
Williamson was a corporal and “medic” in the RAF when she got her injury in 2014. Two years ago, she found that she could no longer continue serving in the army and as a result, was medically discharged. That hit her hard. “I was at the deepest point in early 2018, I hated myself. I was in a very dark place.” The Invictus Games however gave her a new goal in life. In Sydney, Williamson won gold twice with rowing and three silvers and one bronze in the pool.
Learning how to do everything again
Due to the serious effect to her nervous system, she can no longer use her right arm. “I am learning how to do everything again, such as writing for example. I have learned to do many things on my own. I also learned to ask for and accept help. Because opening a door with a cup of coffee in my hand just doesn’t work.”
“At first I thought: what on earth am I supposed to do in the swimming pool. All I was doing was turning in circles in the pool, I felt like Nemo. However, I have now come to the realization that I still have one arm and two legs, and I have learned to use them properly. This was a big accomplishment. I found myself again, thanks to the exercise. It is not the medals that are important to me, but that I am swimming again. I had to convince myself again that sports are really enjoyable and good for you. Now I am the person I used to be again.”
However now she is suddenly a person who is constantly in the spotlight. The Invictus Games are big in the UK, as a team captain she has already made it on many newspapers and news broadcasts. “That just comes with it and am already getting used to it. It is especially nice that every time I can help strengthen awareness for the Invictus Games and for wounded soldiers. We cannot let the fire go out. Life is not over when you have sustained an injury, not for the person concerned, not for the family, and not for their surroundings.”
From the beginning of the Invictus Games in 2014, even though the UK was able to send a large delegation then, the atmosphere and feel of it will not differ in The Hague. Rachel Williamson is coming to The Netherlands with no fewer than 64 teammates. They are looking forward to it. “I am one of the six competitors in our team who has previously participated already and am therefore very busy preparing others for what they can expect. The assistance of the public, the incredible
dedication of the volunteers, the camaraderie with teammates and opponents; that will once again be an indescribable experience for everyone.”
She admitted to having received one secret tip from Prince Harry. He said, “go look for stroopwafels in The Netherlands. Those cookies seem to be really tasty, is that true? Yes really? Oh beautiful. That only makes me more curious.”
Keep being me
At the time she was chosen as team captain and the presentation of the UK team, a meeting and a hug with the same prince Harry, the founding father of the Invictus Games, came as a bonus. Rachel admires him. “He is so incredibly involved in the event. He also comes to our training camps, often participates. It is wonderful that he is there so often. For us, he is not the person you sometimes see or read about, but someone who actually comes along, talks to us and participates. He told me, after I was chosen as captain, that I had to keep being me. I don’t need to copy anyone else or behave differently because I am team captain now. He told me that it would undoubtedly give me confidence.”
Williamson has in the meantime become used to meeting celebrities. She has already been on various TV shows, met David Beckham (Quote in a British newspaper: “He smelled really good”) and, by the edge of the swimming pool in Sydney, Australian swimming phenomenon Ian Thorpe.
That meant a lot to Williamson, as a former swimmer with an Olympic dream. “Growing up, I don’t think I ever thought of a future other than an Olympic one. That was really my dream.” She just didn’t qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games, after which she opted for a military career instead. Whether, after getting to know the Invictus Games, she also thinks about participating in the Paralympic Games? “You know, I’ve already checked the rules once, but I haven’t come to a decision yet. For now, I just want to concentrate on the Invictus Games. It is not wise to set goals other than these now, it is nonsense to create extra pressure. The main thing is to have fun and to enjoy the event in May.”
Look at it in a positive light
In The Hague she is not only participating in rowing and swimming, but she will also be active on the athletics track. “I will have to go through a lot of training for this, but I’m really looking forward to it. We do not know exactly how my condition will develop. The signals between my arm and brain do not get through properly, it seems that the arm is completely paralyzed. But I continue to look at it in a positive light.”
Friends for life
She is looking forward to the trip to The Netherlands, because the memories she has of Sydney 2018 are so beautiful. “You make friends for life during the Invictus Games. Two years later, I am still in contact with a few girls I competed against there. There is no such thing as a language barrier. I still have contact with some via Facebook, we also support each other at times when things are going a bit rough. We all have our sport, our stories. We share our past and recover thanks to sports. It is really wonderful to experience that.”
Photo credits: Rachel Williamson & Help for Heroes