“You will see me at the Paralympics.” Not quite the words the Australian soldiers expected to hear as they stretchered Curt McGrath onto an emergency helicopter.
Twenty minutes earlier, McGrath – an Australian soldier deployed in Afghanistan – was on a routine clearance patrol when he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
Lying on his back and surrounded by debris, McGrath somehow managed to lift himself on his elbows, but as he looked down he would immediately realise that the blast had taken away both his legs. At 24, McGrath’s life had changed forever.
Growing up, McGrath had always dreamed of playing competitive sport at an elite level. Perhaps it was that vision that led him to tell his fellow soldiers that they will see him compete at the Paralympic Games.
Four years later, McGrath had fulfilled the promise he made on the stretcher, winning the gold medal in the men’s kayak KL2 at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
But McGrath is not totally satisfied. He wants to conquer again at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
“I’m excited that the VL2 event has been added,” said McGrath. “It has been something I have been doing since I started and it would be a thrill participating in both events [the kayak and the va’a].
“It will be nice to win two gold medals, but at the same time, I will be content with two podium finishes.”
McGrath is training harder than ever before, but in the early days after his accident, his first priority was regaining his independence.
“Once I got released from hospital after by rehabilitation, it was frustrating getting a cab or relying on someone to drive you to a place. Bu luckily my sponsors helped me out and I was able to get a hand-operated car. That motivated me to continue my rehab, which in turn, led to me believing that I can be a competitive athlete.”
Given how far McGrath has come, it would be fair to assume that his gold medal from Rio is sitting pretty in a cabinet at home on QLD’s Gold Coast – instead:
“I’ve donated it to the Australian War Memorial. The medal was just collecting dust and I wasn’t giving it justice. A lot of people ask me about it, and I say, ‘You can see it at the Memorial.’ It was a way for everyone to see it and hear about my story, and I’m grateful that everyone can see it.”
Now fully focussed on Tokyo, McGrath had the luxury of visiting the race track last September.
“It is slightly different to Rio, in the sense the course is in a slightly remote location and it can get tricky if the wind picks up,” he said.
“My strength is definitely in my finish. I often come from behind, and as much as it stresses people out, I know where my strengths are and it’s important I run my own race and not get caught up with other people’s races. If I can do that, then hopefully I can be on the podium again.”
By Gaurav Joshi, International Paralympic Committee