Rachel and her Family & Friends

Family & Friends. They are the closest thing to the Invictus Games participants. Saw them at their worst moments, gave the push when it was needed and listened, or stimulated. Just what was needed. We made a series with Invictus Games participants and one or more of their Family & Friends. In this episode: Rachel Williamson of Team UK and her father Alan.

Rachel Williamson is the first female team captain of the UK squad for the Invictus Games. “Quite an honor. I think it’s the crowning glory of everything. It gives me a lot of confidence, not only on the sports field, but also in everyday life”, she said earlier. The task came with a lot of extra work in the past two years, during the pandemic she kept in touch with her teammates and staff as much as possible.

She found the past period in which everyone was more and more on their own, quite nice. “Maybe it’s strange, because you also hear about people who became isolated and obviously had a hard time with it, but I found it quite nice now and then. It allowed me to take stock of the past years, to see where I had come from. I don’t live that far from my parents; I intensified the contact – within the rules of the time – with them. Of course, part of that was also digital. Logically, that didn’t always go smoothly and naturally, they are not very computer literate. But overall, we think we have become closer again, you speak to each other remarkably more often.”

Williamson’s work – as an administrative officer at DMRC Stanford Hall, a rehabilitation centre where she herself was cared for after her injury – continued as usual. “We continued to receive patients, as well as we could. Of course, I kept in touch with the people on my Invictus Games team as much as possible. For some, it was a tough time; if you have mental problems, these are not the best years. You do run the risk of things being triggered. We did set up special activities for our team, such as digital courses and seminars on nutrition and mental health. It was especially important not to put anyone under pressure; everyone had to find their own pace, their own rhythm during the pandemic. All in all, I did get a good feeling from all those contacts. Now we are training together again for the various events, and of course it is great to see each other again, but even without those meetings I knew we were a good team.”

She is looking forward to the Invictus Games in The Hague with Team UK. And to the ‘stroopwafels’, a typical Dutch delicacy. “I’ve also been warned to always look carefully left and right when crossing, there seem to be so many people cycling in the Netherlands. You can’t hear them coming.”

She obviously knows what to expect from the Invictus Games themselves. “I was there in Sydney so I can tell others about it. That makes it more exciting for them. The support from the public, the commitment of the volunteers, the camaraderie with teammates and opponents; it will again be an indescribable experience.”

“I think it is good that in the run-up to the event, you are also devoting a lot of attention to the Family &Friends programmed of the Invictus Games. Family and friends are even more important than you can imagine. They are the ones who have seen you in your good moments and your bad, they know the journey you have travelled, and they have been affected by it too. Because it is not only me who has been injured, my parents as well. They too have been affected by the things that happened to me and they too have had to recover from them. Moreover, they were in the firing line when I was ranting and raving. As I say, they have seen it all.”

Williamson experienced, she doesn’t mince words, many dark days in the period from say 2014 to 2018. And that had an impact on her contact with her family. They felt they were unable to reach her, and Williamson herself still has a hard time dealing with that. After she encountered the Invictus Games, however, and received help in her process of recovery, everything changed for the better. “Now I talk to my parents more than ever,” she said.

She has previously told this site about her sports dreams. As a young swimmer, she trained for years for that one goal: reaching the Olympic Games. In the trials for the Beijing Games in 2008, she narrowly missed out on a ticket. She was left out of the team and lost her interest in sport for a while. But, after a transfer to the army, she enthusiastically took up rugby. However, an unfortunate incident changed Williamson’s life in 2014. She sprained her thumb, landing on it unluckily. It turned out to be the beginning of a miserable period. “Not much later I started suffering from my fingers, later my whole hand and now it’s in my shoulder as well. I can no longer use my whole right arm.

It was the reason she was ‘medically discharged’ by the RAF. “It became very dark around me at that time, I hated myself.” Rachel couldn’t accept that she couldn’t do everything anymore. “There was a lot of self-pity. And anger.”

Thanks to the Invictus Games, however, she regained her purpose after a few years, regained the fun in sports. In Sydney, Williamson won two golden medals in rowing and three zilver medals and a bronze medal in swimming. Now she is competing in The Hague in the discus throw, among other things. “I had to learn a lot of things all over again. Like swimming with one arm and two legs. I have found myself again, thanks to sport. As a result, I am the person I used to be again.”

Her father Alan is keen to say that he is still very impressed by what he experienced in Sydney. “We as a family really had a great time there. Not just because the volunteers did so much for you, and because we enjoyed the Invictus Games themselves. Because we saw what the camaraderie between veterans does to them. It was great to see what that changed about Rachel as well.”

Her parents used to drive her to the pool almost every day. An hour there and an hour back. Alan: “We drove an approximate total of 80,000 kilometers a year, including all the races.” It was no effort. At least, the family was willing to do it.

Rachel: “But after I stopped swimming in 2008, they thought they would never see me in a pool again. So, it was very emotional for all of us that I took part in Sydney. Despite my physical disability. That was also the moment that we all realized: it’s good again. I can now tell them without a doubt: you can look at me when I’m doing sports again. I didn’t want that for a while.”

“That we expressed it like that there in Sydney, that they said they were proud of me, and I told them I loved them, was important. For them, for me. Of course, I knew they loved me, and they knew that about me too. But we had not expressed that to each other for years.”

Williamson says she can still vividly remember the moment when she touched down in the pool at the finish line and her gaze crossed that of her parents in the stands. “We didn’t need a lot of words; we all knew it was right between us again.”

Her father: “We didn’t talk about things for a long time, if at all, after her 2014 accident until her participation in Sydney. It was like we were in different prisons. When we expressed in Sydney how proud we were of her, and she felt that again herself, she became a completely different person. I can’t thank the Invictus Games family enough for that.”

Her father even dares to put it this way. “Thanks to the Invictus Games, I also have my life back. The Invictus Games made Rachel’s life bearable again, she had a reason to get up again. And that made it a lot easier for us as a family as well.”

Team UK is delivered to The Hague by Invictus UK; a partnership comprising Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion and the Ministry of Defence.

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