Kilts, cabers and a crate of beers from the future King – a Help for Heroes team of wounded, injured and sick veterans and serving personnel from the Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick Garrison has competed at Scotland’s only adaptive Highland Games.
The Mey Games were held in John O’Groats in front of thousands of spectators as well as its Chieftain, Prince Charles, or the Duke of Rothesay as he is known over the border.
Last year, he invited the military charity to enter competitors – the first time that disabled athletes have been included within a traditional Highland Games in Scotland. This year’s team doubled its ranks with 23 veterans making the trip to the country’s most northerly tip.
After a day of sporting events from tossing the caber and throwing the hammer, Prince Charles presided over the prestigious final of the tug-of-war which resulted in a hard-fought win for Help for Heroes against Police Scotland.
The jubilant team was coached by Zoe Savage from Newton Aycliffe who is a Staff Sergeant with the Royal Artillery and due to be medically discharged early next year due to depression caused by trauma.
She competed in track and field events including 800m, shot put, hammer throw and tossing the caber before leading the Help for Heroes tug-of-war team to victory and then being congratulated by the heir to the throne.
“Prince Charles asked me how long I had been tossing the caber and when I said that I’d never done it before yesterday he was impressed. We had such a good time at the Mey Games, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” said the 37-year-old who has Served in the army for 21 years.
The overall Mey Games champion with the most points was named as Help for Heroes’ ambassador Jim Holborn from Sunderland who came first in the weight for distance, weight for height, 16lbs shot put and 22lbs shot put as well as third in the caber and hammer throw.
Jim, who was deployed to Iraq and served in the army for almost 10 years was medically discharged after injuring his leg following a parachuting accident while on exercise.
The 38-year-old is now a qualified boxing official, qualified athletics coach and official registered athlete for Gateshead Harriers.
He said: “Talking about my mental health has really helped in my recovery but when it comes to sport, I’ve always tried to hide my physical problems. However, at the Mey Games my disabilities were on show and that was liberating. I also really enjoyed supporting the other athletes and seeing them grow in confidence and achieve in front of cheering crowds.”
As well as rewarding the winning tug-o-war team with local ales, Prince Charles also presented the Help for Heroes’ Players’ Player award. The sculpture of an adaptive Highland Games athlete with a prosthetic leg was made in resin in just a week by Paul Cappleman, a fellow veteran and art room volunteer at Help for Heroes’ recovery centre in the North, Phoenix House.
He said: “I got just as much pleasure from seeing the reaction to the sculpture as I did making it. The pictures of Prince Charles handing it over to someone so worthy makes it even more special.”
Prince Charles presented it to Kieran Wood, 31, from Preston who served with the Royal Infantry until he suffered an acquired brain injury in a car accident aged 19. He won a Gold in archery at the Invictus Games in London after learning to walk and talk again and took part in throwing the hammer and shot put at the Mey Games.
Kieran was mentored by Mark Tonner who lifted four Atlas Stones – the heaviest weighing 50kg – one handed. He was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan in 2010 which resulted in the loss of the use of his right arm.
“I had the best time; it was humbling to see others achieve so much. When Kieran first started training at Phoenix House he couldn’t even swing the hammer round his head so to see him throw it 27ft on the day at the Mey Games was incredible,” added the 36-year-old former Corporal in the 22nd Cheshire Regiment from Catterick.
Mark Airey, physical development coach at Phoenix House, said: “We were welcomed to the Mey Games with open arms – they looked after us very well.
“Sport has played a central part in many of our veterans’ recovery from very serious injuries and in making their transition from military to civilian life.”
The Scottish Highland Games Association is eager for Help for Heroes to be involved in shaping policies to ensure its Highland Games of the future are even more inclusive.
President of the Scottish Highland Games Association, Charlie Murray, said he had been proud to lead a two-day course earlier this year to teach Help for Heroes’ veterans how they can coach others in its traditional sporting events.
Mr Murray said: “There is still a lot of work to be done especially in categorising adaptive events as some people stand a better chance of winning than others. However, with the support of Help for Heroes and the Invictus Games Foundation, I think 2020 will be even better.
He added: “I am passionate about Highland Games, they should be a place for all, whether you are competing inside the arena or outside watching where you see something special and I think they have seen that at the Mey Games.”