Invictus Games alumni reaching for the stars
Life after competing in the Invictus Games looks different for every competitor. Many stay connected with Invictus Australia local Veteran Engagement Managers in their region to participate in sport, volunteer, stay active with their families or mentor others. After all, participating at a Games is about rehabilitation, recovery and reintegration into society following an experience of being wounded, injured or ill. But for some, an Invictus Games experience is the beginning of a pathway to elite sport.
An example we’ve shared proudly many times is that of Invictus Australia Ambassador and Invictus Games competitor, Curtis McGrath, who used the event as a springboard to dual Paralympic success. However, there is a new breed of athletes with global sporting dominance on their mind. This is their story.
The closing ceremonies of Invictus Games experiences for Australian competitors Able Seaman Taryn Dickens (2023), Matt Brumby and Mark Daniels (2018), marked the opening of doors to new experiences and challenges that they are each embracing with impressive commitment.
While each of their circumstances are unique, what unites them is the healing power of sport that creates a sense of purpose and tribe, coupled with the ongoing support they receive from their friends, families, and communities.
Mark dedicated himself to his training for recovery after becoming an amputee in 2015 – the result of a motorbike accident. His hard work eventually resulted in him earning a place on the 2018 Australian Invictus Games team where he competed in volleyball and swimming, scored a bronze medal for rowing, and hit gold in wheelchair rugby.
Invictus Games Ambassador, alumni and double gold medal Paralympian, Curtis McGrath was commentating for Mark’s rowing event, and it was a chat with him afterward that provided Mark with his next pathway.
“Curt said there was another spot on the kayaking team and asked if I’d like to give it a crack. Nationals were only four months away. I hadn’t kayaked since high school, but I wanted in. We found a kayak in Perth, got it fixed up and spent every day before work training – I got myself to the start line and fell in. Curt was racing me, but he helped me empty the water out of my boat, got me back up, gave me a pep talk and we started again. Curt has truly mentored me from the moment we spoke after his 2018 Invictus Games commentary.“
Without the Games, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It taught me about adaptive sports – it showed me what was possible.”
Most recently, Mark has competed in the Noosa Triathlon, along with completing the 10km course at the Sydney Marathon, kitted out and supported by his sponsors ASICS – and not long before both events he was in Europe competing in the Germany World Championships and completing test events in Paris for the next Paralympics.
It’s clear that Mark is going to give the possibility of a spot on the Australian 2024 Paralympic team everything he’s got.
“I’ll keep going until someone tells me I’m not going to Paris and then I’ll re-evaluate then go at it again for the LA Games in 2028. For me it’s a five-year plan – I’m trying to get as much experience in this Olympic cycle as I can, learn everything I can from Curt, and then do all I can to prepare me for the next one.”
Quick to point out that balance is vital in his life, Mark admits that he initially felt he was ‘gold medal chasing’ and has since realised that it can’t all be about the medals and the wins, but for the experiences along the way. It was chatting with five-time Paralympian, Brad Ness, that Mark realised the importance of this.
“Brad said if you’re doing it all (the training) for the Paralympics only, then no, it’s not worth it. It’s one week, a great event, like the Invictus Games, but once that week is done, that’s it. Making it about the people you meet, the lessons you learn and goals you hit along the way, who you become through that journey, that’s what it’s about.”
‘being blind is the best thing that’s ever happened to me’ – meet powerhouse, taryn
Fresh from her first experience competing in the Invictus Games in Germany this year, Able Seaman Taryn Dickens was most proud to hit personal bests in each event (powerlifting, cycling, and rowing). She also graced the podium twice having scored two gold medals for both the four minute and one minute rowing events.
Post Games there’s no rest for the wicked. Taryn is now in Canada getting her classifications in the hope of being selected for the 2026 Winter Paralympics in Nordic skiing and Biathlon. She only started Nordic skiing last July and went from two weeks learning how to ski to doing an 18km race each month and later a 42km race.
There’s never been a vision impaired Australian in the Paralympic Games for Nordic skiing or Biathlon – why not do something no one else has done?”
It was in 2019, the beginning of Taryn’s career in the Navy, that she received a diagnosis of an eye disorder which impacts the retina and causes loss of vision, known as cone-rod dystrophy. Determined to not let the news result in having to discharge, she requested a transfer to Canberra where she hoped to secure an administrative position, still within the Navy, which would be more manageable with what she understood of the future she could expect with her new diagnosis. Although it has been a challenging path for Taryn, she says she wouldn’t change a thing and sees it as her duty to encourage others to make the most of their circumstances.
“It’s good to be visible in what I’m doing – pun intended – I want people to know that they don’t have to discharge from the forces if things change for them in any way. It’s not easy or perfect but if you don’t eat a couple of shit sandwiches, you don’t get things like Invictus, or even consider possibilities for yourself like the Paralympics.”
Beyond her elite sports aspirations, Taryn is determined to be the person she wishes she had to look up to during the early stages of her challenges. After her initial diagnosis she struggled to find anything positive within community and Facebook groups with those she shared her diagnosis with.
“I want to be a source of positivity for the next person who goes through this. Why not have fun doing that in the process? It might sound strange, but I wouldn’t change a thing now. Being blind is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I have my moments, like I’m soon to lose my driver’s license, but the opportunities I’ve had – it has been amazing.”
from chance encounters to Paralympic pathways – matt brumby has arrived
It was through an organisation called VESPA that Taryn met Matt Brumby, former Navy. VESPA was founded by Gary ‘Curtis’ Steiger who originally hails from the UK and served in both British and Australian Naval Forces. His organisation provides adaptative competitors from the Australian Defence Forces, Veteran community, and Emergency Services personnel the opportunity to learn and master Nordic Skiing and Biathlon.
Having discharged from the Navy in 2001 after a spinal injury from a clearance diver selection course, Matt took time out and travelled around the country for a few years working on a mate’s farms. His friend was also in a wheelchair and Matt was shown what was possible for his life, and all the things he could do. Another chance encounter with a friend came about in Melbourne where Matt met a guy in a wheelchair who had just completed a half iron man. Matt’s interest piqued.
With rigorous training, Matt won the Ironman 70.3 World Championship Triathlon in 2016. He then aimed to make the Rio Paralympic Team, but narrowly missed out and refocused his efforts to half ironman events. He recalled the Invictus Games and thought he’d give it a go. And that, he did. Co-captain of the 2018 Australian team at the Sydney Invictus Games, Matt received three gold medals in athletics, IT4 100m, 200m and 1500m respectively. Knowing himself well, Matt wanted to have another big goal to aim for soon after the closing ceremony. He set his sights on qualifying for the Iron Man World Championships and did better than qualify – he travelled to Hawaii and completed his first ever full iron man event and won.
Having missed out on a spot in the Rio Paralympic team, Matt is excited and determined to nab a place for the 2026 Winter Paralympics and both he and Taryn hope they can take their service dogs (Gigi is Taryn’s side kick and the beloved Willow is Matt’s). If Taryn and Matt secure places, both competing in Biathlon, they will be part of Australia’s first Paralympic Nordic team.
“The amazing thing about Biathlon is the contrast between really pushing yourself super hard with the ski section, then having to calm and ground yourself to focus to shoot targets. It’s all the elements we need as veterans and service people – push the body and then ground and calm, great for mindfulness.”
Like Taryn, Matt is currently in Canada getting his international classifications ahead of the 2024 season and in the lead up to 2026 Winter Paralympic Games selections and getting in as much training on the snow as he can. And it’s not lost on him how much support he has had to get to where he is today.
“Most people’s strength come from others. We have a certain amount of strength and resilience. But life experience can make you stronger and sometimes weaker. For me, my family and friends are second to none. That’s my strength, especially when you’re first injured, it came from everyone around me, they propped me up and reminded me that I didn’t need my legs to stand.
No athlete can do anything at a world level on their own. Whatever the sport, there’s an entire team behind them.”
For Mark, Taryn and Matt, winning a medal is not the end goal. Each agree that being a part of the events, working with others to achieve their personal bests and the relationships they develop along the way are worth so much more. Like Mark, Matt was initially focusing on the wins when he began competing post injury, but with time he now sees it differently.
“As soon as I realised that none of this is about what place or time I get but being out there and really getting into being a part of it all with great people, then I love it.
My best competition results have occurred when I’ve been invested in the experience, not the outcome.”
Words by: Lisa Carlberg
Follow along the competitors post-games journey here, and support them if you’re able.
- Mark Daniels: Instagram Facebook
- Able Seaman Taryn Dickens: Instagram Facebook
- Matt Brumby: Instagram
About Invictus Australia:Invictus Australia is the NFP responsible for organising the Invictus Games Sydney 2018. We carry on the legacy of the Games every day in local communities, as all veterans and their families can benefit from involvement with sporting communities, particularly ‘at risk’ veterans. As well as promoting the physical, social and emotional benefits of sport, Invictus Australia shines a light on the unique needs of younger veterans and the challenges they face as they transition from military to civilian life. Find out more at www.invictusaustralia.org