The Invictus Games will still be held next year, from May 29th until June 5th, in The Hague. The athletes of the participating countries are now in full preparation, they have almost had a year longer to prepare for our beautiful event. Every participant has his or her favourite sport. In the upcoming months we will be highlighting one sport each time on this spot, based on conversations with Invictus participants. For episode 4, which is about swimming, we talked with Yulia Payevska (Ukraine), Jesper Smollerup (Denmark) and Raphaël Legros (Belgium).
By Edward Swier
Swimming is, after running and cycling, probably the most practiced sporting activity worldwide. In large parts of the world, swimming lessons are part of the upbringing, and otherwise you would have learned through play during your childhood. The fact that the sport is so ‘friendly’ to the body means that many people with an injury – and therefore also injured soldiers – swim during their recovery. The movements in the water are beneficial as you gain a lot of strength. That’s why swimming is always one of the most popular sports among Invictus Games participants.
Learning how to swim again
Yulia learned to swim as a small child in Ukraine, but actually had to learn it again after she was injured. “Modern swimming, with breast crawl, differs a lot from what I learned in my childhood. But the essence remains the same, of course. However, due to age and due to my injuries, my body has also changed. In fact, I had to learn it again. Because I already had the basic knowledge and knew the movements, it went in the right direction quickly, of course. And I must say, I have a lot of fun in it”.
Payevska had also experienced that Swimming is good for the body. As a field doctor she injured her hip while rescuing a wounded fellow soldier, suffered a shoulder wound and some concussions. She was also hit by shrapnel. The asthma she has had for a year can also be traced back to her involvement in the war. Swimming helps her to recover physically.
“Thanks to swimming you develop your whole body. It is an ideal sport when you are recovering from injuries and operations. It is the perfect workout for your ‘locomotor apparatus’, your entire musculoskeletal system. It also helps me to deal with my asthma”.
By the way, swimming is not the easiest sport, even if it sometimes looks simple. “Well, if you want good results, you have to have a good technique. Swimming is a combination of complex, coordinated movements and proper breathing. It’s pretty tricky actually.” Nevertheless, the sport has had a lot of positive influence. “I see and feel that my body is performing better and better, with every workout I get better. And it even seems like there’s no limit to that. That inspires me a lot of course. Swimming, but that’s actually true for sports in general, has allowed me to get back into action and get back to the front”.
Less training due to Covid-19
Yulia, currently stationed in the combat zone, could train less for that very reason in recent months. And of course, the situation with Covid-19 also gave her fewer possibilities. “I have halved my total training time, I think. I did have the opportunity to stay in shape where I was stationed, but the swimming pools were closed. However, our base is on the Sea of Azov. Of course, swimming in the sea is not the same as training in a swimming pool, but at least I could work on my technique,” says Yulia. She is also a qualified aikido instructor, owns the ‘black belt fifth dan’ and also does archery and power elevators. “I’ve got my arch with me, the target is installed along the coast. I can train if there is time. For my powerlifting training I go to nearby Mariupol, where I can train in a gym with good coaches”.
Raphaël Legros also had to learn to swim ‘again’. “I had also learned it in elementary school, but actually only started again three years ago. It was never and never will be my favourite sport but, I do triathlons. Swimming, in addition to cycling and running, is of course part of that”, says the Belgian, who usually has one hour of swimming training twice a week, but because of corona, has reduced it to zero.
“In Belgium, too, the swimming pool has been closed by Covid-19. However, I do train by biking and running. I rode 430 kilometres in October and ran at least 50 kilometres”.
The special thing about Raphaell’s story is that he also obtained his ‘injury’ in a swimming pool, in August 2014. One morning, Legros, who was based in Spa, went swimming. At one point, however, he was no longer in control of his body. He found it difficult to talk, and could only get out of the pool with great difficulty. Raphael appeared to have had a stroke. “When I came out of my artificial coma after four days, I could no longer do anything. I had to be helped with everything.” After two months, and many medical treatments, Legros saw the first improvements. “I was able to walk a little again, said goodbye to my wheelchair. After two years he carefully picked up swimming again, after three years he was allowed to work half days again and since April 2018 Raphaël “started talking about sports again when I moved. It really started to look like something again”.
As a matter of fact, he asserted himself on his bike – he rode Liège-Bastogne-Liège, for example – and competed in triathlons. Moreover, with his selection for the Belgian team for the Invictus Games, he got an extra goal to train for.
Because of his physical immobility, Legros, who can’t use an arm and leg well, really had to do his best to learn to swim well. “It was harder than I thought. A large part of my body didn’t react and so I really had to adjust in the pool”.
But he succeeded. He benefits a lot from it, for his physical condition swimming is a more-than-welcome form of training. “Swimming is of course a ‘friendly’ sport, for your muscles for example. Unlike running, where the impact is much greater. Even if you’re not physically capable of everything, you can still swim very well. Moreover, you learn to breathe well, it requires synchronization of your movements and your muscles really learn something”.
“In Denmark, children learn to swim in elementary school. And we also have a real tradition in that sport. I can list a whole row of well-known swimmers who have performed strongly at the Olympics and World Championships: Susanne Nielsen, Mette Jakobsen and more recently Lotte Friis and Jeanette Ottesen. But I didn’t actually take up swimming again until I was elected to the team for the Invictus Games”.
Jesper Smollerup can remember that day very well. “I arrived at the first training camp and had only just recovered from a shoulder injury. And the swim coach said, “Jump in and do the best you can. I dove in thinking I would give it a try, but when I was at the end of the pool, there was one big smile on my face”.
He was stationed in Croatia in 1994 and 1995, after which he worked hard in civil society. “I have always worked, never really listened to myself.” Unprocessed memories of his time in Croatia make him feel uncomfortable. It is only recently that he was diagnosed with PTSD. “I find it difficult to be in large groups, sleep badly and have trouble concentrating. Moreover, I am quickly agitated. Until recently he would only work all the time, now he takes a little more time for himself. “To obtain the energy to do more with my life.”
In the swimming pool he can deal with his feelings. Since the Covid-19 regulations he has been allowed a bit more access to it than a few months before. “It is wonderful to get rid of your frustrations while swimming. Also, the pool suits me, every pool is the same. That way I don’t get distracted and I can go for it fully. I focus on my body, my breathing, the technique; it’s almost like meditating”. He gets the same feeling with archery, a sport full of routines. “Both sports help me a lot.”
Jesper can, he says, learn quite a bit in the pool. “Swimming is a technical sport. I work on my technique and try to improve my turning points. I really try my best, I like to have a goal in sight. Literally, with the other side of the pool in sight. And figuratively. I am very aware that I am not only working on my recovery, but also preparing for the Invictus Games. There, I want to be at my best of my abilities”.