Curtis McGrath on Battling Against All Odds

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Jul 28, 2016

by JESSICA IRVINE, Associate Editor

Canoe sprint

Paralympian Curtis McGrath lost his legs serving in Afghanistan and now he’s rowing for glory at the Rio Olympics.

Curtis McGrath thinks for a moment when asked to nominate his favourite city. His mind soon settles on it: Berlin. “There’s a lot of history,” he says. “It’s a city that has changed itself multiple times and I think there’s a lot to be learned from it.” It’s tempting to draw parallels between McGrath’s own life and the strengths he sees in the German capital. At 28, the New Zealand-born, Gold Coast-based paracanoeist not only has a remarkable history, he has also navigated change time and again to get to where he is today: bound for Rio, with canoe making its Paralympic Games debut. (Then again, he also just really likes the German beer and sausages.)

McGrath heads into the Games a favourite in the KL2 class (for paddlers who have impaired range of motion in the lower limbs and trunk) just four years after stepping on an improvised explosive device while serving as a sapper in Afghanistan and becoming a bilateral amputee. It was, he says, the “power of sport” that assisted his rehabilitation and gave him a new focus. “There were definitely times when I thought, ‘I’m going to be stuck in a wheelchair.’ But I used the sport to have something to get up for every day. You get a taste of the competitiveness that you potentially could have lost.”

Less than a year after he entered the sport, he won gold at the 2014 ICF (International Canoe Federation) Canoe Sprint World Championships in Moscow. Six months later, the craft he competed in – the outrigger canoe – was ditched by the International Paralympic Committee in favour of the sprint kayak. “It was disappointing to have to go from a craft that I was a world champ in to one that I’d done no training in,” says McGrath, who juggles his training with work as an ambassador for Swisse. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard. I was doing up to four sessions a day on the water to try to get up to speed.” 

The effort paid off: at the ICF Paracanoe World Championships in Germany’s Duisburg in May, he won two gold medals. Not that he’s one to talk it up. “If people ask, ‘How did you go overseas?’, it’s like, ‘I went alright’,” he says, ducking his head. “Being there is more important than beating anyone or gloating. Being part of the group that represents Australia is bigger than winning.”

Do you have any superstitions or pre-race rituals?

I am a wee bit superstitious on race day when it comes to what I think about before the race: why do I do this? How can I use this opportunity to progress my personal development? And I think of the people who haven’t come home from Afghanistan. If they’d had an opportunity like mine, would they have done it? I’m sure they would.

What does your training schedule look like?

We train six days a week, two to three times a day. The majority of the time we’re on the water and three times a week we’re in the gym. I swim on the side and do some core work and Pilates. It is busy but you don’t make it to the Paralympics without having a heavy training schedule. 

Is there anything you need to be mindful of when flying? 

When I’m on a long-haul flight, I take off my legs. I’m the same as a person with legs in that I could get swelling but I need my legs to stay the same shape because otherwise I won’t get back into my prosthetics. I have to wear compression stockings.

Who is going to Rio to see you compete? 

There’s a rather large Curtis support crew of about 14 people going over. It’s a long way to go for a 40-second race [smiles]. I hope I live up to expectations.

When you’re not competing, where do you choose to travel?

I have a lot of friends in New Zealand so I go there. I would love to go to Japan to see what that’s like. Maybe I could get a ride there in 2020 [when the Paralympics are held in Tokyo].

If you had a leave pass from the village, where would you go?

I’d watch the other athletes! I’ve had the opportunity to go to Rio twice in the past couple of years so I’ve done the tourist stuff. I went to the Christ the Redeemer statue, I’ve stayed on Copacabana Beach and Ipanema. Sugarloaf Mountain would be cool to have a look at but spectating would be top of the list for me. 

Besides a medal, what do you want to bring home from Rio?

Experience. I’m going to learn a lot and I’ll come away with some good friends.

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