Curtis McGrath: Soldiering on through sport

  • By Hindu
  • | Thursday | 7th December, 2017

That was the day it all changed for Curtis McGrath. Each session lasts 2-3 hours,” says McGrath who works with multiple coaches on his fitness and game. The unofficial medic of the patrol, he had to walk his mates through the First Aid Treatment he needed. “You commit so much time to a sport to get to the Paralympics so you really want to do something you enjoy,” he says. Winning the goldIt is the sport that keeps him going through his darkest days.


August 23, 2012. That was the day it all changed for Curtis McGrath. A combat engineer with the Australian army who had been deployed to Afghanistan a couple of months earlier, McGrath stepped on an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while patrolling the Taliban-infested region. It detonated, taking both his legs with it.

“I don’t remember the blast but I remember everything after,” says the Australian para-canoeist, gold medallist at the 2016 Rio Paralympics who is here in the city as part of the Australian High Commission’s Development 4All, a disability-awareness campaign. “I got up and noticed both my legs were gone. That is when the pain hit me; excruciating pain all over my body,” says McGrath, a shadow flitting across his cheerful, handsome face as he remembers the horrific incident and its aftermath.

The unofficial medic of the patrol, he had to walk his mates through the First Aid Treatment he needed. When they had finished and put him on a stretcher to wait for the rescue chopper, he told them, “You will see me in the Paralympics.”

It was partly because memories of the London Olympics were still fresh in his mind, laughs McGrath. “Advertisements for the paralympics used to be flashed a lot back then. We would come back from patrol, watch the Olympics and see the ads on TV,” he says. But more importantly, it was to keep the morale of his patrol up. “The incident wasn’t just traumatic for me, it was traumatic for everyone who witnessed it. Telling them that I had a goal, and I would be okay would help them as well, I thought.”

Back on track

An inherent athleticism and outdoorsiness clings to McGrath, even in the hushed, air-conditioned lobby of the Taj Club House in Chennai, where we meet. He loops towards us, offering a firm handshake and smile, sun-kissed skin crinkling around his eyes as he does. His stride is long and steady, in his Ottobock prosthetics that are, “top of the line. They’re nicknamed the ferrari of prosthetics,” he grins.

He was standing upright in them, three months after the injury. “I was up standing when my friends who were serving with me in Afghanistan got home,” says McGrath, who agrees that it was a good achievement.

But that was not enough, of course. He had lost a lot of weight and strength and needed to work on that. He spent the next year in physio and rehab. “A big part of that was just walking: getting used to my prosthetics and gaining confidence,” he says, adding that he also added in strength training and core work as he needed to be able to stand and stabilise himself. He also swam a lot for general fitness and to restore his mental health.

He began trying different sports by the end of 2013, as many as he could, he says. “I have always been an outdoors person and played a bunch of sports including rugby, cricket and netball before my accident,” he says. He had dabbled in canoeing back at high school and remembers enjoying it very much. So he decided to take it up professionally.

“You commit so much time to a sport to get to the Paralympics so you really want to do something you enjoy,” he says.

Winning the gold

It is the sport that keeps him going through his darkest days. He remembers the lowest point of his life, immediately after the accident. “The physio came and said I was to start therapy so they transferred me to a wheelchair. That is when I realised that I was actually a disabled person, I hadn't till that point.” But he takes it in his stride, adding with a shrug of his densely-muscled shoulder, “Everyone has bad days and my bad days are worse than some. I just try to keep busy and focussed.” He works very hard at maintaining his core and upper body, training six days a week, twice a day with Sunday off. One session a day is definitely in water, sometimes two, and he also lifts weights at the gym. “It is a busy schedule. Each session lasts 2-3 hours,” says McGrath who works with multiple coaches on his fitness and game.

His hard work has certainly paid off. By the end of 2013, he was participating in paracanoe championships, winning medals at a number of tournaments including the 2014 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championship in Moscow, the 2015 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championship in Milan and the multi-sport Invictus Games, started by Prince Harry for wounded or injured army personnel.

In 2016, he won the Men’s KL2 200 m at the 2016 Rio Paralympics, the first Australian to win a gold at paracanoe. K, stands for kayak which has a double-blade paddle unlike the other paracanoe boat, the va’as that has a support float and a single-blade paddle. L indicates the level. “I fall in the middle category, the trunks and arms one that indicates that while my trunks and arms are good, my legs are not,” he explains. (L1 paddlers have no trunk function, only shoulder while L3 contestants can use both trunk, arms and legs)

Tokyo 2020 now beckons and he is now working towards that, he says. “Everyone is now after you and your medal and I have to work twice as hard to defend it. But the opportunity to stand on the podium again will be great; I have to find the motivation to do it again.” Stay updated with all the Chennai Latest News headlines here. For more exclusive & live news updates from all around India, stay connected with NYOOOZ.

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