Preparing for Invictus
4th May 2017
Volleyball England guest writer, Kate Wyver, reports from the recent open trials to determine Great Britain’s Sitting Volleyball squad for the 2017 Invictus Games, to be held in Toronto in September.
Prosthetic legs and wheelchairs are thrown aside as around one hundred athletes take to the court for the Invictus Games trials for Sitting Volleyball.
The Invictus Games were founded by Prince Harry in 2014 for wounded and injured soldiers and veterans. The Games are built out of muscle, ambition, determination, sweat, resilience and camaraderie.
This is an open weekend of trials in Bath. There is varied ability across the sports hall, some of the contestants having played for years, some never having played at all. "There's no doubt some of these who haven't done it before will be sore in the morning after three hours tonight,” says Rich Stacey-Chapman, head of Sitting Volleyball Experience, who help to run the trials.
The teams for Invictus are mixed gender, though at the Sitting Volleyball trials, it is overwhelmingly male. The three categories of athletes are open, moderate and maximum, which indicate different levels of disability.
They start off with drills. For this, Head Coach Charlie Walker, who plays for Paralympics GB and captained the Invictus team in 2014 and 2016, is looking for “height, movement and control to the target”. Balls fly across court as he wanders round the groups, asking for “quality, not just getting your hands on the ball” and reminding them to put their shoulders square to their target.
Maurillia Simpson was first reserve for the 2014 games and part of the Invictus choir in 2016. “For me, just being part of [Invictus] is such an honour.” The games, the name of which translate as “unconquered”, connect to her personally because, she says, “I’m unconquered. I’m alive. I’m grateful.” Having served for 13 years, including three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, she is still going through recovery. Sport has played a significant part in her recovery and not just because of the positive effects of physical activity. “When you lose your identity and you lose what you know,” she says, “sometimes the only thing that brings you back is comradeship.”
This is what drew Simpson to a team sport rather than an individual one. “We, as the British Forces, always work better as a team,” she explains. “We dig deep and we find some way to get back up and keep going.” In a team game, she says, you get a feeling “like a chain reaction. It’s amazing.”
Simpson’s favourite position on court is serving because it was this role that gave her the courage to play. Having played standing before her injury, she assumed she could serve sitting and easily get the ball over the net. “But when you’re sitting, you lose so much height and I had to readjust everything of my game. It taught me humility.” When she got her first serve across the net in sitting volleyball, she felt determined. “I just wanted to master every space I could find with that ball.”
Only 90 athletes will be selected for the Invictus GB team, with room for around eight for Sitting Volleyball. There may be some crossover with a few athletes competing in more than one sport. Part of the process, Stacy-Chapman makes it clear, is to get everyone involved. “Just because they're not selected now, doesn't mean they can't continue playing." Though Sitting Volleyball is still a relatively small sport, Help for Heroes have two teams in the Volleyball England Sitting Grand Prix competition and there are several clubs around the country.
Daniel Bingley, currently serving with the 1 Yorks in Warminster, went to the Air Force trials with Help for Heroes and won gold in February. “Because I’ve done in both my knees, it’s the only team sport which is where you’re all basically the same level, you’re not disadvantaged,” he says. After being injured, Bingley spoke to Band of Brothers who put him in touch with Help for Heroes. He’d like to see the sport on a bigger scale. “I’m new to this so I want to see how far I can progress, see how much I can achieve.”
Help for Heroes volunteers are dotted around the hall, feeding back stray balls and helping the session run as smoothly as possible. Volunteer Sarah Hawkins, who has two sons serving in the Army, notes how Help for Heroes has got military charities working together. “It’s absolutely incredible. The camaraderie between all the guys, I’m privileged to be here.” Being on court and helping out makes a change from collection buckets, she says. “This way I get to see where the money’s gone and meet some of the lads and lasses."
Walker moves the groups on to game situations. It’s a fast game and it quickly dispels the idea that Sitting Volleyball is not as athletic as its standing counterpart. The players throw themselves across the court, heaving weight at each other. It’s knackering just watching. Teams cheer each other on as serves pick up speed and they start getting clever with their placement over the net.
The GB team won the Sitting Volleyball competition in London in 2014 , beating USA in the final, but the Americans gained their revenge in Orlando in 2016, so GB are hoping to regain the title this time around. Nevertheless, Stacey-Chapman explains there is a focus on development. “It’s about potential as well as performance.” The selectors for Invictus take the player's’ recovery process into account, considering how helpful selection might be for them, as well as curating the best team possible. The key, he says, is finding the balance between the two.
Kate Wyver is a student at the University of Bristol, where she plays volleyball for their ladies’ 1st team. Keen to become a journalist after she graduates this summer, Kate writes extensively about theatre and performance and has previously been published in The Huffington Post.