To our regret, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Invictus Games cannot take place in 2021 either. But we will be back! In 2022, the Invictus Games will still be held. And until then, we will make the most of it together. The competitors of the participating countries who are facing postponement of the event will, with the support of all of us, continue to train for their favorite sports. In the coming months, we will continue to highlight a sport here each time, based on interviews with Invictus participants. For episode 7, which is about wheelchair basketball, we spoke with James Saville (Australia), Jeffrey Vroegop (Netherlands) and Jessica Garneau (Canada).
By Edward Swier
Of all the sports played at the Invictus Games, wheelchair basketball may be the most logical. After all, wheelchair basketball was invented by veterans! In the United States, a group of soldiers returning from World War II decided to take up an old hobby – basketball – again. However, many had been injured and could no longer participate. Thereupon, it was decided that all of them would play in wheelchairs. As a result, wheelchair basketball is the only sport in which, thanks to a points system, competitors with and without disabilities form a team at the Paralympics.
Of the participants in the Invictus Games, there are also those who do not move around in a wheelchair in everyday life. Especially for this category of competitors, it is still quite difficult to master the fast-paced game. It is not only about accuracy under the basket, but also about clever driving: on offense as fast as possible, and on defense as tactically as possible.
Of the three Invictus Games competitors we spoke to, two already had a history with basketball. Jeffrey Vroegop played from the age of six until he was sixteen. Not long after, he joined the Airborne Brigade. During a deployment to Afghanistan he was injured in his head and both legs and put sports out of his mind for a long time.
James Saville also had, as he describes it, “a little experience” already. He played on a number of teams in Australia. “I followed the sport my whole life but wheelchair basketball I had never played. When I came to the trials for the Australian Invictus Games team, I was introduced to it for the first time, that made me very happy. Especially because I realised that despite my injuries, which I sustained during the extremely physical work as a clearance diver in the Navy, I could still continue to play basketball.”
Jeffrey had participated in a game of wheelchair basketball before. “At the club where I played, wheelchair basketball players often came to practice after our training. They were sometimes short of people, so I was introduced to it. I never played it at a competitive level, though. But it was true that, when I applied for the Dutch selection for the Invictus Games, my heart started beating faster for wheelchair basketball.”
Jessica Garneau, on the other hand, had no basketball background. The Canadian entered the military at 17, but quickly contracted PTSD and depression. Nevertheless, she completed her education at military college. “I also always did a lot of sports, but mostly individual sports: like fencing and running. I also participated in some Ironman triathlons, I was most attracted to those, partly because I considered myself an introvert. A team sport, however, is good for me, I love the teamwork and communicating with all of them to get the best out of it. Wheelchair basketball also helps me work on my fears, including social anxiety. I’m getting more and more confident from it, precisely because I’m getting to know the sport and getting better at it. Do you know that I honestly didn’t even know wheelchair basketball existed. I am truly grateful to have been able to discover this amazing sport, it’s challenging, but also rewarding.”
The sport’s meaning
Garneau is clearly feeling better since she signed up for the Canadian Invictus Games team and started exercising even more. “Sports have always played a big role in my life, I loved meeting new people and discovering new places. Playing sports also really plays an important role in my recovery process, I notice that it helps me manage my fears. It also makes me happier, I get more confidence, in my body as well, which is changing thanks to the training.
For Jeffrey Vroegop, sport also plays an important role in his life. “After I did the nurse training within defense, and I started working as a doctor’s assistant, I got to know physiotherapist Rahmon Zondervan. He had gone to the Invictus Games in Toronto and persuaded me to take a look too, and to accept that I was part of the target group, which is important. Just like it’s important to promote my recovery process through wheelchair basketball. I have to ask myself the question: why do you play wheelchair basketball? And answer that question too. At first glance, you don’t see anything about me. As you get to know me better, you may notice some things, but you don’t see them. Because of wheelchair basketball I now learn to talk about them. Sometimes I have to explain things. That helps me with acceptance.”
Challenges of the sport
All three are still busy improving their basketball skills, this is especially a tough job for the men who previously played ‘regular’ basketball. Jessica considers herself fortunate to have met, in her own words, “the best and most patient coach ever. “He taught our team, which consists of all players who had never practiced the sport before, to work well together. Not a pair of long legs, but communication is the strongest weapon. Moreover, he teaches you to develop individually, I now train both on driving the wheelchair and shooting. It’s not so bad and it’s a lot of fun”.
James Saville says he is concentrating mainly on wheelchair riding. “I love that it requires so much coordination. Maneuvering the wheelchair and playing basketball in the meantime, it’s a huge challenge all together. Because I have a basketball background, I take less time shooting and passing, I just have to work on my chair skills. And especially on combining both the game and the driving. It’s hard to unlearn old habits. For example, you defend differently, where you used to look the attacker in the face, now you actually have your back to him.”
Jeffrey notices that shooting from the wheelchair is a lot harder. “If you’ve always played able-bodied basketball, a lot of power comes out of your legs, you jump and make a lot of movements at once. Now you’re missing that power. Almost all the power comes from your arms, you steer, drive, make maneuvers and shoot. To get the hang of this, you have to invest a lot of time and effort, you actually have to learn everything all over again. In the beginning I always noticed that I threw the ball under the net, while I was hitting the mark standing up. Meanwhile, my muscles have adapted to the new situation, if I stand up now, I often shoot too hard.”
Vroegop participated in the Invictus Games before, in Sydney. “The fact that thousands of people in the stands accept you as you are, and cheer for you when you get on the starting block at the swimming event, has helped me tremendously in my recovery process,” said Jeffrey, who by the way now also plays in the Dutch premier league wheelchair basketball. “I play there with several players from the Dutch team, and a number of ex-professionals. Because of the pandemic, the league is unfortunately at a standstill.”
Covid-19 also provides challenges for Garneau and Saville. Jessica has not seen her teammates since a final training camp, in February 2020 in California. “It’s a challenging time, also for me personally. I tend to isolate myself when things get tough, which is not good, so I have sought help from others which has led to a lot of healthier living. I now train with weights at the same time as family members and friends. We then have contact via facetime, this way I have social contact and physical training at the same time! After Covid-19 I hope to continue this as well actually.”
Saville was lucky when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its worst in Australia. “I was on a remote naval base at the time, where we had a basketball court, so I could train almost undisturbed during the lockdown. Later, I moved to another place where Covid-19 had had little impact, and where I could even play with the local team on Saturdays. However, all Invictus Games squad activities were cancelled, so we had long since stopped meeting as a team. However, I consider it like any other obstacle in life. You have to adapt and learn to deal with it.”
By the way, the trio is very excited about moving the Invictus Games to 2022. The disappointment of the 2020 postponement and the uncertainty of 2021 have given way to determination. Jeffrey Vroegop: “I am honestly enormously relieved that we are waiting, it is very important to me that the Family and Friends program can continue. They are very important to me, without them I would never have been where I am now.”
James Saville heard early on that Team Australia would not travel to The Hague in 2021. “Now that the Games have been postponed, hopefully we can still come next year. It would be great if we could all get together again next year.”
Like Saville, Jessica Garneau is also very much looking forward to still coming to the Netherlands in 2022. “I was glad that the event was postponed, because I think we should all strictly adhere to the measures and travel as little as possible. When Covid-19 is soon behind us, we can meet again. Until then, I’ll keep in touch with my teammates online as much as possible and hope to still meet participants from other countries that way.”