Curtis McGrath delivers on promise of gold four years after losing legs to IED
When Curtis McGrath crossed the finish line, there wasn't an exultant fist pump. Perhaps the time of reflection and introspection was already beginning.
It's easy to understand why his gold medal win was met with an understated response.
Just over four years ago he lost both his legs. In an instant, his life changed irretrievably. McGrath, who was born and raised in Queenstown, was serving with the Australian army in Afghanistan. He was leading a team searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in a remote district of Uruzgan province. He missed one and a couple of days later he stood on it.
In a quirk of timing, his sliding doors moment happened around the time of the London Paralympics. McGrath, a combat first-aider, even told his colleagues what to do as he went into shock. Apply tourniquets, stem the bleeding, inject morphine.
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He was carried 500 metres to base where they waited for a rescue chopper. Famously, he joked to them "you guys will see me in the Paralympics". It may have been a joke, but it wasn't an idle claim.
Such a scene was a world away from Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, one of Rio de Janeiro's picturesque landmarks, on Thursday morning. McGrath had delivered on his promise – he had reached the Paralympics and he'd won gold.
In the immediate aftermath, the 28-year-old was thinking less than the race he'd just won – a 200m canoe sprint done and dusted in less than one minute – and more about his remarkable journey.
The relief was etched on his face.
"It's not easy to just wake up everyday and go out and paddle. It's not as easy as that," he said of his training program.
"You get up at 4.30am, you're on the water in the winter, it's cold, it's dark and you're busting your gut out.
"For all that work to pay off, and the extra preparation camp that I was in. I spent a bit of time with the Olympians and really took in as much as I could. To actually cross the line in first place, it's really nice to have that relief and satisfaction of gold."
As for his body language at the finish after giving Austria's Markus Swoboda a start before surging and passing him in the last 50 metres, McGrath said: "Adrenalin exhaustion. The feeling of crossing the line and not having to take another stroke is quite relieving. When I cross the line I have a reflection of the race, and really pick up my improvement points and move into what I've achieved. It was exhaustion but the nerves help that."
He admits he was only certain gold was his in the closing stages.
"It was only in the last 50m. Markus is a very strong paddler and the sport wouldn't be the same without him. He's got an amazing start. It's actually a carbon copy of our race in the world champs this year. He's ahead at the 100m mark and I gradually kick into another gear and cruise over.
"Not actually cruising, it's busting."
McGrath will be enjoying and celebrating in Rio, but the time to reflect on the enormity of his achievement still lays ahead.
"When I'm at home having a bit of quiet time," he said. "I'll drink some decent coffee and reflect on the wounds that have healed and the people that have helped me get here.
"It's not a time for reflection now it's a time for celebration. When I get home I'll definitely have a sit down, a think, and I'll start writing it all down."
It's no surprise that a book could be on the way. It could be just one of his long-term plans, of which he admits there are many. A switch to a different Paralympic sport could be on the cards.
"I'm still only 28 and Paralympic athletes generally have a bit more longevity. Maybe not in this sport, but there could be another sport that I could slide into," he says
"I'd like to go to Tokyo, pick up another sport, but we'll see how we go."
McGrath went to Wakatipu High School before his family moved to Queensland after he finished school.
His original intention was to represent New Zealand but, after trialling in Christchurch, it soon became apparent it was impractical to represent his homeland while his support network and family were in Queensland.
McGrath said the support he received from the ADF meant his long-term future was in Australia.
"Because I was injured in service they look after me medically for the rest of my life. I would be an idiot to move away from that ... I don't know anyone else that has the support I do."
- Brisbane Times