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Have you met - Curtis McGrath?

12 June 2017

QAS Peter Lacey Award for Sporting Excellence winner for 2016, Curtis McGrath.

QAS Peter Lacey Award for Sporting Excellence winner for 2016, Curtis McGrath.

Curtis McGrath is one of the most resilient and accomplished yet humble men donning the QAS’s maroon, white and blue; a man all Australian’s can learn from and aspire to be like.

One of the most impressive things about Curtis when you first meet him is his unassuming nature, however, looming below the surface is the story of one of Australia’s most incredible athletes.

Curtis hadn’t always planned to be an athlete. In 2006, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Australian Army. His focus immediately turned to Combat Engineering, a role that’s main aim is to “Provide mobility whilst denying the enemy mobility”. Duties range from building structures and converting seawater into drinking water for both the Army and the local communities, to destroying bridges, clearing mines and other forms of hidden traps.

The 23rd of August, 2012 is a day Curtis will remember forever. It is the day his life changed when the decorated Sapper, who was two months into a tour of Taliban-rife areas of Afghanistan, stepped on an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) immediately losing both legs.

However, to his absolute credit and with the will power to fight on, Australia didn’t lose this serviceman. Curtis went from serving his country in the Army to representing it just four years later at the World’s most elite sporting event, the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.

The 2012 London Olympics were being televised while Curtis was serving in Afghanistan. He and his mates would watch what they could around their patrol commitments and McGrath was exposed to the hype and promotion in the lead up to the Paralympics which would start a couple of weeks later.

“I was injured in the time between the London Olympics finishing and the Paralympics starting,” Curtis said.

“When I was injured, I lost both legs instantly. I knew they were gone and they weren’t coming back so I tried to make light of the situation because everyone was going through that traumatic experience, it wasn’t just me.”

“So I said to them, you guys will see me in the next Paralympics.”

At the time, Curtis wasn’t sure how he was going to make it happen or even what sport he would choose. He wasn’t sure if it was possible at all as he may have gone downhill and never make it home.

But watching the Paralympic athletes on TV and seeing what they were able to achieve, planted a seed in his mind and heart. As soon as he was well enough, he started to enquire into different sports, eventually settling on canoeing.

The challenges didn’t stop there. In the lead up to the 2016 Paralympic Games, after Curtis had spent countless hours training in the V1, the International Paralympic Committee decided not to run the va’a (or outrigger canoe) events at the upcoming Games, forcing Curtis to make the switch to kayak less than a year out from the opening ceremony.

Taking this next challenge in his stride, Curtis sat down with his coach and they devised a plan for how they would tackle the kayak because he had done no training in it at all, especially sprint kayak. They figured out he’d have to do three sessions a day to perfect his technique, as unlike the canoe, the kayak is very unforgiving and any slight mistake can send you into the water.

“The V1 is a single blade paddle, whereas the kayak is a double blade and is quite symmetrical in its power. In the kayak, if you do one wrong stroke and your balance isn’t in the right spot, it’ll tip you out straight away, whereas the V1 will keep you upright,” Curtis explains.

With only two-and-a-half weeks from the time he decided to make the switch to the first kayak selection event, Curtis put his heart and soul into his craft. With just enough training under his belt, Curtis won the first round of competition, earning him selection on the national team heading to Milan later that year.

Curtis said this selection gave him a bit of breathing space in terms of his training and perfecting his technique which he did eventually master and not surprisingly was selected in the 2016 Australian Paralympic Team and went on to win Gold in the KL2 (200m sprint) on debut in Rio.

Since then Curtis has been a very busy man picking up an impressive list of international awards including being the first ever Para-athlete to win the “Sportsman of the Year” Award at the World Paddle Awards, the one Curtis is most proud of.

“I’m the first Paralympic or Para-canoe athlete to win the award and was against high profile athletes from all over the world who have achieved a lot. It’s been a very humbling time post Games, and there has been a lot of recognition for what I have achieved. But I’m just going out there and enjoying myself on the water, so to be recognised is really cool.”

After a whirlwind past five years for Curtis, he is taking some time this year to focus on his career away from the water, including public speaking, some work in the media, and after captaining Australia at the inaugural Invictus Games in 2014 and competing again the following year, Curtis has been named as an ambassador for the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney. Amongst all these commitments away from the water, he is still managing to find time to train so he can defend his World Championship title in the Czech Republic in August.

“I definitely want to go to Tokyo and defend my title there but Olympic and Paralympic cycles are quite long so you have to make sure the body doesn’t break and you’re doing things that will help as you get closer.”

There is also talk of Curtis doing something very few athletes have done before him and that is to potentially compete in both kayak and rowing in Tokyo.

“When I finished in Rio, I got out of my boat and people asked me what was next? I felt like I could have done more after the Games because you train so much to get yourself so physically ready for a race or a couple of races but my Paralympics was over in about 120 seconds. I felt like I hadn’t pushed myself to the extent I do at training.”

But the goals Curtis sets need to be well calculated and be rational and realistic. Ironic, since Curtis is the first to admit his goal of going to the Paralympics was set at a time that was not the most realistic. However, history will show this is one man that if he chooses to put his mind to it, he will succeed.

As one of the most mentally tough and resilient athletes getting around, Curtis has great advice for budding young Olympians and Paralympians to take away with them.

“You can only do your best on the day. You might have done a PB in training or another race but on the day of a final or a repechage you can only do the best race you can, and if that doesn’t work at the time or doesn’t come through, there will always be more races or more opportunities to give it your best chance.”

Leaving us with one piece of advice, Curtis believes that failure is very motivating.

“To succeed, you need to be able to think about harnessing the feeling of failure. In my office at home I put my silver medal in front of me and the gold ones are in the box on the shelf.

“Knowing and feeling how I felt standing on the second step is a very motivating feeling and something that athletes especially shouldn’t look down on.

“Failure is an experience and everyone can learn from failure.”

Last updated
12 June 2017