Warrior Games showcases Defence resilience

The Australian 2024 Warrior Games team have arrived in Orlando ahead of this year’s games, hosted by the US Department of Defense from June 21-30.

CAPTIONWarrior Games 2024 Team Australia conducts wheelchair rugby training at the ESPN Athletics Centre in Orlando, Florida. Story by Simon Paton. Photo by Flight Sergeant Christopher Dickson.

Held annually since 2010, the games celebrate the resilience, dedication and exceptional physical skills of wounded, injured and ill current and former serving members.

Representing the culmination of involvement in an adaptive sports program, the games support rehabilitation and recovery, and demonstrate the incredible potential of these service members through competitive sports.

This year’s Warrior Games will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, an 89-hectare site at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, in the US.

Defence has partnered with Invictus Australia to support a team of 30 current and former serving military members. For the Australian team captains, Sergeant Emily Lahey and former Able Seaman Cooper Blackwood, the journey began long before the competition.

From terminal diagnosis to warrior athlete

Sergeant Emily Lahey joined the Australian Army as a command support clerk in 2010.

CAPTION: Warrior Games 2024 competitor Sergeant Emily Lahey at the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, ACT. Photo by Sergeant Ricky Fuller.

With deployments to both the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan, Sergeant Lahey has enjoyed a busy and energetic military career. Now posted to Headquarters 4th Brigade, Sergeant Lahey is currently on long-term medical leave.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2019, Sergeant Lahey’s illness has progressed to Stage IV, affecting her sinuses, skull and brain, including complete loss of vision in her left eye. When she was first diagnosed in 2019, she was given a 6-month life expectancy.

“While there have been setbacks and many unknowns, I remain on a targeted treatment intervention and my condition is currently stable,” Sergeant Lahey said.

From a family of sports lovers, Sergeant Lahey is driven by the opportunity to participate and to excel.

“Having rowed and played netball and soccer during high school, I now enjoy strength and high-intensity interval-style training, cycling and reformer Pilates,” she said.

“Exercise has been a big part of my rehabilitation and it’s given my body a greater ability to fight during treatment.”

Sergeant Lahey’s journey from cancer patient to athlete has been a statement of determination and commitment.

“There was a point in time where I was unable to walk the short distance to the end of my street due to the crippling effects of chemotherapy. Since then, I have worked hard to regain my physical strength and look forward to pushing myself even harder, to what I’m capable of, in preparation for the games,” she said.

Reflecting on why she made the commitment to the Warrior Games – where she’ll compete in athletics, rowing and powerlifting – Sergeant Lahey emphasised being with others and the spirit of competition.

“I applied for the Warrior Games to find a new focus and have something to work towards. Since being away from the regular workforce, I have missed the camaraderie and day-to-day interaction with work colleagues and mates, and the feeling of being part of something meaningful,” Sergeant Lahey said.

When asked about the prospect of Australians winning in Florida, Sergeant Lahey had a simple message: “Being selected to represent Australia at the Games is already a huge win in my books”.

Defying the odds

Cooper Blackwood joined the Royal Australian Navy as a boatswain’s mate in 2018 and was discharged earlier this year.

CAPTIONWarrior Games 2024 competitor Able Seaman Cooper Blackwood at the Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, ACT. Photo by Sergeant Ricky Fuller.

Born in Rockhampton in Queensland, Able Seaman Blackwood  grew up participating in a multiple sports, including touch football, soccer, futsal, golf and swimming.

“Swimming was my passion and I competed at a national level before I enlisted,” Able Seaman Blackwood said.

It was also the swimming pool that changed his life forever.

“I am an incomplete functioning C5-C6 quadriplegic,” he said.

“In January 2020 I suffered a spinal cord injury when I dived into a pool and hit my head on the bottom. I immediately lost all movement from my shoulders down and due to the damaged vertebrae I underwent emergency surgery.

“Losing all core function meant I had lost the ability to even sit up unassisted. I had no hand function, which meant that initially the simplest of daily tasks we all take for granted, like feeding myself, brushing my teeth or even rolling over in bed, required assistance to perform.”

Despite this harrowing experience, Able Seaman Blackwood recognised the impact that exercise and determination could have on his recovery.

“Overcoming all previous doctors’ assumptions and being able to not only walk, but also able to somewhat run again, beating my mates in a round of golf one year after my accident and overcoming my fears and taking on the challenge of swimming at the Invictus Games Düsseldorf 2023 revealed an incredible depth of character,” he said.

“I applied for the Warrior Games because I’ve seen first-hand how amazing the Adaptive Sports Program is and what it’s done for so many people over the years.

“Personally, I thought it would be a great opportunity to challenge myself further within sport and during my rehabilitation, while spreading positivity and supporting others as a previous competitor and helping play my part in a leadership role.”

Like Sergeant Lahey, Able Seaman Blockwood said that being selected to participate in the games was a win in its own right. He is set to compete in wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, swimming (50m backstroke, 50m and 100m freestyle), indoor rowing (1-minute sprint) and track (100m sprint).

“Winning for me at these games is being able to go away and compete in a competitive environment once again, being able to connect with other nations from around the world, make new friends along the way and support and encourage my fellow teammates with no expectations,” Able Seaman Blackman said.

“Making the team is already a win in my eyes, so my next goal is to compete to the best of my ability and just enjoy the experience and everything it has to offer.​”

CAPTIONWarrior Games Team Australia captains Sergeant Emily Lahey, left, and Able Seaman Cooper Blackwood as they prepare to depart for the Warrior Games 2024 in Florida, US. Photo by Flight Sergeant Christopher Dickson.


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