In 2012, Curtis McGrath was patrolling a police checkpoint in Afghanistan when he trod on an improvised explosive device. What the Paralympic kayaker has achieved with his body since then will impress you. What he’s done with his mind could change your life.
Before he digs his paddle into the warm water of Rio’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon at this month’s Paralympics, kayaker Curtis McGrath will reach down and touch a thin metal band wrapped around his right wrist. Engraved on the band are nine names – the names of nine Australian and New Zealand combat engineers killed in Afghanistan.
McGrath touches the band now, manoeuvering it up his arm to reveal a pin-sharp tan line. “It never leaves my wrist,” he explains. “Some guys don’t like wearing them, others do. It’s something I look at before each race and think: These guys didn’t have a second chance, but I do. It’s a reminder that I’m lucky; a reminder to look at the haves rather than the have-nots.”
Read those words again. Think about them. Because it’s not often you’ll hear a man who’s had both legs blown off say he feels “lucky”.
Although he fought in the Australian Army and will paddle in the green and gold at this month’s Paralympics, McGrath’s flattened vowels betray a childhood spent in New Zealand. He was born in Dunedin but moved throughout the South Island. When he was 10, the family moved to Western Australia’s wheat belt. When he was 14, they headed back to Queenstown. After he finished school, they travelled back east across the Tasman, this time settling in Brisbane. It was a childhood devoted to sport: rugby and snowboarding in winter, cricket and slalom kayaking in summer.
But after finishing school, McGrath found himself adrift. He had no interest in university. And his marks weren’t good enough to pursue his dream of becoming a fighter pilot. So in 2006, he enlisted as a combat engineer in the Australian Army. Based in Darwin, he was deployed to Malaysia, East Timor and Indonesia before a stint spent in central Australia building houses and roads for Aboriginal communities.
It was honest work, but after five years as an engineer he began to sniff around for new opportunities in the military. It was then that he got a call from his sergeant, offering him a deployment to Afghanistan. He accepted on the spot. “I equate it to a rugby player who trains five days a week but doesn’t play a single game in five years,” he says. “Combat situations are what we’re trained for. So yeah, I jumped at it.”
His chief memories of those first few months in Afghanistan are of long, hot, dusty days. His nerves were on edge, his stress needle constantly flickering in the red zone. To relax, he would pummel himself in the on-base gym. It was an oppressive existence leavened only by the presence of his comrades. “When you go to Afghanistan, that bond with your mates is the closest thing you’ve got to a family – if not more so,” he says. “You live in each other’s pockets; you have the same problems, you have the same activities, you pass around the same hard drives. You’re all doing exactly the same things; you get incredibly close to everyone else there. And that bond never leaves you.”
So the months passed – until he trod on an IED, an improvised explosive device.
It was late August, 2012. The blazing height of Afghanistan’s summer. McGrath’s unit had been tasked with clearing an unoccupied police checkpoint in a mountainous corner of Uruzgan Province. The post had been empty for two months – sufficient time for the Taliban to sow the roads with explosives and litter the ground with metal to confound the detectors. For five days straight, 14 hours a day, the unit scoured the ground for IEDs. It was slow, deliberate work that stretched McGrath’s nerves tight as piano wire. On the fifth day, as the unit prepared to explode a large boulder blocking one of the roads, he wandered off and slumped down on a rock.
“What are you doing?” called a mate. “Get up, you idiot!”
“I’m tired!” McGrath called back.
But he climbed to his feet, grabbed his rifle in his right hand, his detector in his left, and started walking back to his unit.
He leans forward on his chair, his voice measured, as he describes what happened next: “Suddenly I was on my back, looking up at the sky. It was dark. There was dust and rocks falling, but it was very, very quiet. I got up on my elbows, looked down, and that’s when I realised I’d stepped on an IED. My legs were gone, completely gone. Just shredded bits of flesh at the end of what I had left. I immediately grabbed my right leg and realised that the hamstring was gone. My fingers were touching my femur. I looked at my left and saw it was squirting blood. I remembered I had a tourniquet on me, so I ripped it open. But because I’d lost my legs, I’d lost my balance, so every time I went to get off my elbows and lift my leg up, I’d just fall over backwards.”
Within seconds, his unit had clustered around him. As the unofficial medico for the team, McGrath had to direct them: tourniquets, bandages, morphine. And the pain? He shakes his head: “When a bee stings your finger, your finger’s sore. When you lose limbs like that, your whole body’s sore. My ear lobes were sore; everything was in pain. Think of a full-body bee-sting pain that just keeps coming, over and over and over again. It was excruciating.”
Finally, the men loaded him on to a stretcher and carted him across 500 metres of rocky terrain to a flat swatch of land where a chopper could land. Even through the blinding pain, McGrath can clearly remember the banter as he lay in the stretcher.
“You guys’ll see me in the Paralympics,” he told his carriers. “But it won’t be in the green and gold – it’ll be in the black and white.”
“Fuck off . . . ” came the gruff reply.
“Yeah, or we’ll drop you here . . . ”
“And you can walk to the chopper yourself. ”
McGrath smiles broadly as he recalls that conversation. It is, he admits now, a moment he cherishes. “Bad, ugly, despicable – these are the moments you learn from,” he explains. “You have to take that away and use it to achieve and improve and strive.” He pauses to gather his thoughts. “The way I see it now, my life’s pretty good. Some people might think otherwise, but I’ve had amazing opportunities in the last three-and-a-half years to do things and meet people that no one else I know has had. Life’s all about what you make of a situation moving forward.”
McGrath was flown to Bagram Airbase where his left leg was amputated below the knee, his right leg above the knee. Then there were the other injuries: a shattered left wrist, a scorched left hand, a perforated eardrum. From Bagram he was flown to a US military hospital in Germany. He spent eight days there, going under the surgeon’s knife every 36 hours.
It was during these days that the enormity of what had happened began to settle on him. But his chief memories are not of his own pain, rather the suffering he saw around him. “I vividly remember this one guy who came in,” he says. “He’d been severely burned all over his face and arms. Every morning, at 7am on the dot, the doctors would have to debride his burns, peel the scabs off. He had it tough. Really tough. And I remember looking at him and thinking: Well, maybe I don’t have it so bad.”
From Germany, he was flown to the Royal Brisbane Hospital. It was here that he reached his lowest ebb. Bedridden, the nurses had to wipe his arse and cut his food up for him. For a man who had prided himself on his physicality, the fury of helplessness bit deep.
He survived by chasing a goal: when his unit arrived home from Afghanistan on November 28, he promised himself he would walk out to meet them on prosthetic legs. It was a crazy ambition. To be walking a bare three months after having his legs blown off? Madness. But with the goal fixed in his mind, he worked towards it with a will. Physiotherapy sessions that started at five minutes a day soon stretched to four, five, six hours. His healing process shifted into overdrive. “I wanted to make it as though nothing had happened,” he says. “I desperately wanted to be up and walking, wearing my uniform.”
McGrath contends that it was the single-minded pursuit of this goal, paired with the support of his family and girlfriend, that staved off the mental demons that haunt so many veterans. In his estimation, the constant activity left no time for post-traumatic stress to sink its claws in. He shrugs: “You’ve got to be busy achieving things. You’ve got to think, shit, my life’s pretty full, rather than giving yourself the time to dwell on what you don’t have.”
Three days before his unit was due home, McGrath was fitted with his new prosthetic legs. On November 28, kitted in his fatigues and slouch hat, he walked out to the chopper to meet his returning mates. It was at that moment, he says, that his new life began.
“You’ve got to think, shit, my life’s pretty full, rather than giving yourself the time to dwell on what you don’t have”
The realisation struck midway through the thousand-kilometre paddle from Sydney to Brisbane. Organised by veterans’ support group Mates4Mates, the paddle aimed to give injured vets a project to immerse themselves in. And so, as McGrath inched up the coast, he realised that, although he was the most disabled person on the water, he was still just as “able” as everyone else. They were all in the same boats, wielding the same paddles, moving at the same pace.
Back in Brisbane, he began to research Paralympic paddling. There was no slalom kayaking – the sport he’d loved as a teenager – but there was the outrigger canoe. He phoned Andrea King, the coach of Australia’s Paracanoe team. She told him to come down to the team’s Gold Coast base. In December 2013, he moved south.
His aptitude for the sport was astonishing. He won a state title, then an Oceania title. The prospect of the Paralympics hardened in his mind. He won at Nationals and got selected for the 2014 World Championships in Moscow, where he won by a boat length. In two years he’d gone from a man lying bleeding in the Uruzgan dust to world championship gold. He smiles bashfully: “Yeah, I was pretty chuffed. It was all new; I was breaking ice the whole time.”
The fairytale rise, however, came crashing down not long after those World Championships, when it was announced that the outrigger canoe was to be cut from the 2016 Paralympic schedule. McGrath shakes his head at the memory: “I was devastated. It was a real kick in the guts. The next day at training I remember I just wanted to smash everything, snap my paddle . . . ” He grins: “It was a bit of a tantrum. But then I realised I had exactly two-and-a-half weeks for the 2015 World Championship qualifiers. So I just turned around, went in a different direction, and started focusing on the kayak.”
The simplicity of this statement belies the difficulty of what McGrath was attempting. The outrigger canoe and the sprint kayak are entirely different beasts. The canoe is stable, the kayak tippy; the canoe employs a single-bladed paddle, the kayak a double-blader; the slowness of the canoe makes it forgiving of mistakes, the speed of the kayak means a botched first stroke can end your race. But again, McGrath pursued his goal with a will. In two-and-a-half weeks he morphed from a canoeist into a sprint kayaker. He qualified for the worlds in Milan and tore through the heats before claiming the silver medal. Now it’s on to Rio, where he’s at short odds for the gold.
McGrath shrugs, his story told. But before he goes, I have one more question. This sparkling positivity that underscores everything he does – where does it spring from? He cracks the faintest of smiles: “I go back to what I said on that stretcher in Afghanistan. I said I’d make it to the Paralympics, so I was determined to go and do it . . . ” The fingers of his left hand brush the band on his right wrist as he searches for words. “I don’t have slogans on my wall; I don’t read the same passage of a book every morning. I just get up and get on with things. I’ve got a place to be and things to do. That’s it really. You’ve just got to get up and get on with life.”
Pick up the October issue, out on September 12th, to hold the inspiring story in print.