Family & Friends. They are the closest thing to the Invictus Games competitors. Saw them at their worst moments, gave the push when it was needed, and listened or stimulated. Just what was needed. When the Invictus Games are held in The Hague in April, they will also be there to support their loved ones. We made a series with Invictus Games competitors and one or more of their Family & Friends. In this episode: Vanessa Broughill and her husband Craig.
By Edward Swier
It’s the middle of summer in Australia as Vanessa and Craig Broughill sit down for their online interview. On television are The Ashes, the famous cricket clash between Australia and England. Cricket? It is one of the few sports Vanessa does not have on her list for the Invictus Games. She has trained in the last few years to compete in swimming, indoor rowing, powerlifting, cycling, athletics and sitting volleyball. Even during the difficult past months, in which almost all competitors were faced with repeated lockdowns. “In the part of Australia where we live, an hour above Adelaide in South Australia, we have had very few lockdowns. But it is a real shame that we were not able to train with the complete Invictus team, if at all,” says Vanessa. “In addition, of course, the uncertainty was annoying. I had the feeling pretty soon after the pandemic started that we would not be able to come to Europe for the time being, but it was still a disappointment every time there was a postponement.”
She is looking forward to the event in The Hague partly because she also experienced the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney. “It was amazing. Because the event was in my home country then, a lot of family members and friends naturally came. That was a huge help, it’s great when you feel supported. Although it was a bit overwhelming at times. I wanted to give everyone attention, but I also had to finish my matches. Son Zachary was 7 at the time, Avyanna and Hamish were younger. They stayed at home and watched TV. Again, Zachary will travel with them, as will husband Craig. “And maybe the two youngest will come too, although it remains to be seen how much chaos that will cause. They are still a bit young for such a long, distant journey.”
Vanessa and Craig are happily on the sofa together this Australian summer day, but they say they have journeyed a long way. Vanessa struggled with mental health issues and panic attacks for years. “There were times when I wouldn’t leave the house, go to work or go to the shops. I had come a long way before I could participate in the 2018 Invictus Games at all.” The mental coaching did her good, but the physical training also provided an eye-opener.” The more I started training, the better I started feeling. I became physically and mentally healthier. This continued even after Sydney. I have lost a lot of weight since then, I am fitter, stronger, healthier, both physically and in my head. That has really changed the relationship with those close to me. Craig and I understand each other better and I can also cope more as a mother now. I’m clearly on the right track.”
The relationship was previously under pressure, she admits without hesitation. Vanessa was also not always honest. “When my mental problems were first diagnosed in 2016, I was really confused that I didn’t even tell my husband what was going on. He could probably see it in me, noticed something was wrong, but I didn’t tell him anything about my panic attacks and depression. I was terribly ashamed and I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about it. It wasn’t until we were talking about someone at work and my husband was talking about how he could help that person with his issues that I thought, why don’t I tell my story. I took a good breath and told him about my problems. That changed my life. There was finally someone I didn’t have to hide from, who I didn’t have to pretend to be. Until then, I had always put up a wall, I had always hidden.
Suddenly, Vanessa could admit that she had feelings and emotions. “And that was okay.” She was put on medication, visited psychologists and psychiatrists, and – after discussions with the social workers – joined the Australian selection for the Invictus Games. “Since then, things have been getting better and better. I have a reason to get out the door, to go train.”
Of course, every now and then she has a bad day. Sport helps her get over it. “If I go to the gym on a difficult day, I quickly manage to reset myself. Then I get my thoughts back in order. My body always responds well to training. If I am suffering from my injuries – Vanessa has chronic shoulder complaints, among others – I can often train better. My body suffers more when I don’t move than when I train. You have to keep busy. “She is happy that she is also stimulated to exercise at home.” I never have to feel guilty if I get back from training a bit late and Craig took care of the children. He helps me a lot with that.”
Craig, like Vanessa now a reservist, is pleased with the positive changes. “It has changed our whole family life for the better. It’s great to see her stronger and happier. It’s also good for the children and for me. These changes are hugely positive, it is good that she is setting goals – even outside of the Invictus Games. Sport is an important part of that. That helps her, not only in the short term, but also in the long term.”
For his part, Craig doesn’t want to elaborate on his own role. “I didn’t really do that much. You do what you can do, support someone. I went to the programs with her, encouraged her to train. I was involved, tried to make sure she was happy, that she could function. But it also made kind of sense.”
Vanessa is very happy with her husband’s role. “Craig understands everything very well, partly because, like me, he is a veteran. Craig left the Navy in 2013, I left in 2019. We are now reservists, still have our shoes in the hallway. So we know how it works, unfortunately both have physical problems from it. Coincidentally, we both have shoulder injuries. Bit by bit, together, with the whole family, we are getting better. With three children, I can assure you, there is never a dull moment. We have our hands full. But today we are a happy, well-functioning family.”
The children are proud of their mother’s participation in the Invictus Games. “They also get something positive from it, seeing their mother persevere despite her shoulder problems. For them it is also very normal to recognize that not everyone looks the same, they are not surprised by someone in a wheelchair. Or if someone is missing an arm or a leg. They know my teammates, they know what the Invictus Games are all about.”
Vanessa laughs: “I just have to explain to them that not everyone who is in a wheelchair and who we meet on the street is also on my Invictus Games team.”
Vanessa ends with an appeal to others, to tell their stories as she did. “Talking about it helps. Absolutely. In the family circle. But also outside. Do you know that during the first four training camps with the Invictus team I never talked about myself. And if it was about my problems, I would mention the physical problems, my shoulder injury for example. I always hid behind that. That changed when I had a short interview with the media team of the Australian Invictus Games selection, for a Defence magazine. Somehow I felt the need to tell my whole story. It brought tears to my eyes and other teammates asked why I was so upset. That was the moment I also spoke out to them about my mental problems. About my dark thoughts. This did not only help me, but it also gave others the strength to speak out, I noticed. By being tough and speaking out, and accepting my own troubles, I also gave others the encouragement to be strong. There were even people who were actually completely not aware of their mental problems at all, but through my story were shown a mirror. Suddenly they knew why they were not feeling well. They then took brave steps and sought help. That’s why I talk openly about it now. At the end of the day, if I’ve helped one person by telling my story, it’s been worth it.