Anaesthetist and former Army Major Dr Jen Warren represented the United Kingdom in the Invictus Games, in Orlando, Florida in May 2016. Jen competed in her racing wheelchair on the track, hand bike for the road cycling and in the outdoor pool for the swimming events. This resulted in Jen winning nine medals, I repeat, nine medals. Jen is a big deal. I attended the Invictus Games as a guest and had the time of my life. I am delighted Jen is speaking to me for Liability to gain insight as an athlete. Jen considers herself an amateur athlete, I would say there is nothing amateur about the level of training undertaken by Jen, alongside her career and motherhood. This Girl Can.
Jen was one of 110 athletes to be selected for the UK team, of which 19 were women. Jen suffered severe nerve injuries in 2008 after a skiing accident. These affected her ability to use her left leg, which means that she predominantly uses a wheelchair when working in the anaesthetic rooms and theatres at the hospital where she works.
Established by Prince Harry in 2014, the Invictus Games are the only international adaptive sporting event for ill, wounded and injured active duty
and veteran service members. The UK delegation to the Invictus Games was delivered by a partnership comprising The Ministry of Defence, Help for Heroes and The Royal British Legion.
Jen had the honour of meeting Prince Harry, and attending glamorous events which included speeches by Michelle Obama, George W Bush and multiple stars of film and music. I tried to meet Prince Harry but his security is tight and I’m a ninja, maybe next time. There were 476 athletes in Orlando, from 14 nations, competing in 10 sports. In total, 70 competitors were women. Jen took home a gold medal in hand cycling (time trials) and silver medals in hand cycling (race), four in wheelchair racing, three in swimming. That’s a lot of hardware.
As a para tri-athlete Jen is in regular training and this area of her life provides a strong drive to use her injury to focus on what she can do, and provide relief from her work as a doctor. The Invictus Games had a very significant impact on Jen’s ability to acknowledge her achievements in sport and in her career which she had downplayed previously, due to a lack in confidence and a perceived loss of the life before acquiring a disability. Working as a doctor using a wheelchair has provided it’s own challenges from some patients and members of the medical community who found it difficult to accept Jen professionally. Jen, who served in Afghanistan, also had serious physical and psychological pain from the experience of transitioning to a new civilian life with reduced mobility. With triggers from working in a medical environment then was a period where Jen doubted her professional ability so much she thought she may not be able to return to her chosen work. Already a qualified doctor, since then Jen decided to train as an anaesthetist, which was physically challenging to qualify in this area. This determination to train in anaesthesiology has impressed her colleagues and resulted in Jen being invited to hold a key note speech at Royal College of Anaesthetists. A huge turnaround over eight years and I can feel the gentle pride from Jen as she speaks.
“Military people struggle with the war hero image and asking for help if they need it, especially for their mental health needs, which are much broader than PTSD. When people offered help, I feel it was a criticism, and I really didn’t start living until those issues were addressed. The Invictus Games increased my profile and especially at work, people felt they knew me before they actually met me, and my work credentials where a given. This increased my confidence in keeping with my medical skills.”
The word “Invictus” means “unconquered.” It embodies the fighting spirit of the wounded, ill, and injured Service members and what these tenacious men and women can achieve, post injury. The Games harness the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for those whom serve their countries.
The Invictus Games are more inclusive than traditional Paralympics with mixed male/female teams for wheelchair basketball and rugby, and sitting volleyball. The training sessions are also mixed for many of the sports. This is partly given the lower number of women competing but I feel is a real benefit to mixed teams (having come from a wheelchair basketball background myself as a teenager and onwards). There are also categories for people with emotional wounds. While the classification system is not perfect (some classes had to level up a class to compete) it is not competing with the Paralympics, the common mission is achievement through sport. There is still a very competitive edge of course, ex service personnel like to win every time, but there is a level of humanity in how people win and lose.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry are spearheading the Heads Together campaign to end stigma around mental health. Heads Together aims to change the national conversation on mental health and wellbeing, and is a partnership with inspiring charities with decades of experience in tackling stigma, raising awareness, and providing vital help for people with mental health challenges. Jen remains an advocate for mental and physical health awareness and is a public speaker in schools, and has visited a prison to share her message, that a disability does not mean inability. Jen hates labels and assumptions as much as I do and she will crush them at every opportunity.
One of the most amazing moments both Jen and myself reflected on, was a female competitor Ulfat Al-Zwiri was the only woman among 17 competitors representing Jordan in her hijab. She didn’t win a medal but
she has real guts and left a big impression on everyone. The applause she received at the opening and closing ceremony was a complete choker to witness. As Jen puts it, “The Invictus Games are not really about the medals, it’s a celebration of para sport, and what it can do for people overcoming an injury. When that happens you can lose direction and purpose, the Games send a very powerful message regardless of when you got injured, 2 or 20 years ago. Educating the public that para sport is for all people”.
Jen is in training for the Toronto Invictus Games in September 2017, she’s fitter than ever and has three para triathlons to come as part of training. The Invictus trials start in April and you can tell from speaking to Jen, that she just has fun in her sports and in her life. It’s as simple as that, in her words “Seek out what you enjoy”.