Heywood military veteran Kelly McVitty wins five medals at Invictus Games
Date published: 03 October 2023
Photo: Royal British Legion
Kelly McVitty (second from left) with Team UK at the Invictus Games
A military veteran from Heywood who now lives in Spain has returned from September’s Invictus Games in Germany with five medals.
Kelly McVitty, 41, vice-captain of Invictus Games Team UK, won three golds, one silver and a bronze after competing in one-armed swimming, recumbent cycling and a 100m relay athletics race.
The Invictus Games are an international multi-sport event which was first held in 2014, for wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women, both serving and veterans. The aim of the games is to demonstrate the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and demonstrate life beyond disability.
A former student at Heywood Community High School, Kelly lived in Heywood until 2003 when she joined the military, working for the Princess Mary's Royal Air Force Nursing Service.
Kelly specialised as a critical care nurse, looking after people on life support, spending many years of her service at the Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, treating injured personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The former nurse also completed three tours of Afghanistan in 2008, 2010 and 2012, and was on call several months of the year for the Critical Care Air Support Team. It was during one of these missions in 2012 that Kelly was involved in an ambulance collision that would change her life.
Kelly was left with a variety of symptoms – including pins and needles, lethargy, neck and jaw tension and hypersensitivity – which were traced to the upper left side of her body. Her symptoms are exacerbated when using her left side and can last for several weeks at a time.
An MRI scan showed that Kelly was experiencing oedema (swelling) of the brachial plexus, a network of nerve fibres in the shoulder. She was also diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a group of disorders that occur when blood vessels and nerves in the space between the collarbone and the first rib (thoracic outlet) are compressed.
Kelly underwent surgery in 2017 to remove one of her neck muscles and first rib to try and relieve the compression in her artery and nerves, but unfortunately, her symptoms didn’t improve.
In 2020, she was medically discharged, losing her job as a critical care nurse. She also moved to Spain in March 2020, as the warmer weather helps with her symptoms.
When Kelly found out she would be discharged, she began looking at courses and events to attend, to see what she could do outside of the military.
One of these events included going along to the Invictus Games trials to learn about adaptive sports, and she was selected for the 2020 Invictus Games in Hague in 2019, however had to withdraw after finding out she was pregnant with her son, Jaxon.
After a traumatic birth which nearly saw both Kelly and Jaxon lose their lives, Kelly faced a long recovery and watched the Invictus Games on television.
She said: “In April 2022 I watched the people I had been selected with take part in the Hague. It made me so proud, however, I was so upset that I hadn't managed to take part.
“This spurred me on to apply for the Invictus Games Dusseldorf 2023.”
Kelly attended the trials, and found out in January 2023 that she had once again been selected and would compete in the September games.
Kelly had been due to take part in the athletics event, but with no-one else in her disability classification, she was unable to compete. However, she was added to other classifications so she could still run, throw and take part in the long jump.
She said: “It was more important for me to take part and show the world what I can do, in spite of my disability. My coach asked me to make up the relay team for the 4 x 100m. I was extremely nervous as I wasn't a sprinter. I had used athletics to get me back into fitness. This was my fun sport, and my coach would laugh as I ran around my events waving at the crowd.”
Kelly competed in the event, her nerves increasing when she realised she was the only woman in the event, which included teams from nine other countries. The team qualified for the final four, and ultimately placed third and landed a bronze medal.
“I couldn't believe the drama and elation as we qualified through the heats into the final four,” Kelly continued. “In our heat, Rich Potter’s prosthetic blade was coming off just as he finished his first 100m, but he managed to keep it on long enough to slap David Curtis’ hand for a speedy second section which brought us back into the lead.
“I raced as fast as I could, but I saw two men from other teams speed past me as I completed and we were now in third place. Allen McSween said ‘just give me five metres and I’ll catch them’ – but it was more like 10m. It was so incredible to watch as he went steaming past the other two countries to win the semi-finals. We and the crowd were screaming and jumping around. This race was one of my highlights and will stay with me forever.
“We had to change the team in the final and we came away with a bronze truly was a team effort. It was amazing to celebrate it in front of our friends and family. These are the backbone to all the competitors and none of us would have been there if it wasn't for them.”
Kelly’s next event was the swimming competition, taking part in both the 50m backstroke and breaststroke. Despite not being, in her words, “a confident swimmer,” Kelly won gold in the breaststroke and silver for her backstroke.
She explained she only learned to swim breaststroke using one arm in February this year, keeping her head in the water.
She said: “I had horrendous anxiety right before my breaststroke as I was planning to also dive in from the poolside, something which I also found difficult to do with one arm. I did it and did even better than I expected by winning gold.
“The funny thing was, on TV the commentator said he couldn't quite believe that I had won gold as I had my hand over my face when I finished the swim. Little did he know that I had taken in a mouthful of water with five metres to go and so swam the last bit with my head above the water struggling to breathe! I had my hand over my mouth as I was trying to cough and calm my breathing down. It wasn't until I got out of the water that I found out I had won.”
Kelly’s final competition, two recumbent cycling races, saw her win two more gold medals in a time trail and a circuit race.
Of the time trial, she said: “I was against some incredible women, including three from the USA on recumbent adaptive tricycles. The cycling was held on a closed 1.6km circuit, which included navigating several tight corners.
“Cycling is definitely my new love and gives me a freedom I thought was lost forever after my accident as I'm unable to ride a conventional bike. I will continue cycling long after the games, especially because my three-year-old son Jaxon is learning to ride a bike, so this is something we can do together as a family with my husband, Sean.
“I went round the course as fast as I possibly could, determined to be the best I could be. My coach shocked me to the core by announcing in front of the rest of the team that I had taken the gold medal for Team UK. I was so, so elated and proud to wear the UK flag when collecting my medal.”
However, Kelly’s condition began to flare up, causing the shoulder and back pain and nausea she is only too familiar with, and she considered pulling out of the afternoon race.
“I was so sick and deflated, debating whether I could compete, should I pull out? It was then I remembered why I was there. So many people have to deal with pain day in, and day out, the Invictus Games is about showing what you can do regardless of being wounded injured or sick, pushing yourself to be the best version of yourself that you are able.
“By pulling out of the race I would be letting myself down, and everyone else who had supported me, so I pulled up my big girl pants and off I went. It was a tactical race and I sat behind the other three bikes for the 20 minutes until the bell rang for the last lap.
“Measuring my effort with the pain and nausea I was feeling to that point, then with the finish in sight I pushed as hard as I could, with all the energy I had left from a busy and unforgettable week, I overtook the three from the USA to cross the line first and win gold again. This race was to prove to myself that I am worthwhile and to stand up and be counted.”
Kelly added: “The endless kindness of the other competitors, the Royal British Legion and the amazing volunteers that made this all possible. I spent most of the week either laughing or crying happy tears and I left there with my heart full, full of confidence and with a renewed energy.
“I feel it’s my mission now to shout out as loudly as possible about the Invictus Games because it genuinely saves lives. For those that haven't been in the military but who are injured or sick, please reach out in your community to find adaptive sports.
“There is something for everyone, you never know what it may do for your life.”
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