Disabled Israel Defense Forces veterans are participating for the first time in the Invictus Games, in Dusseldorf, Germany.
The athletic competition, held every year or two since 2014, is for wounded warriors from countries around the world and promotes sport as an essential means of physical and mental rehabilitation. Military veterans with “invisible injuries,” such as PTSD, also compete, whether or not they also have a physical injury.
Israel is sending 20 competitors ages 24-68 accompanied by four coaches and staff from the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organisation (ZDVO). The team members, including three women, will compete in swimming, cycling, archery, table tennis and indoor rowing.
The games, founded a decade ago by UK military veteran Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, are run by the Invictus Games Foundation. The first games were in London in 2014, with others following in Orlando, Toronto, Sydney and The Hague. After Dusseldorf, the next will be in Whistler, Canada in 2025.
Representatives from 21 countries will compete in 10 sports in this year’s games. The others are field athletics, powerlifting, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby.
“Initially, the games were only for countries that had fought alongside the UK in Iraq and Afghanistan, but later other countries were invited to join. We have long sought to be part of the games because Israel has been a world leader in sport-as-rehabilitation for more than 50 years and we have so much to offer,” said Ora Seidner, who does project development for the ZDVO’s Zahal Disabled Veterans Fund and is the administrator for the Israeli Invictus Games delegation.
According to Invictus Games Foundation communications director Sam Newell, admission into the Invictus Community of Nations is at the sole discretion of the Foundation, and applications to join are considered on a case-by-case basis. Nations are selected for participation in the Invictus Games by the Foundation in conjunction with the host city.
Seidner credited Dusseldorf with playing a significant role in having Israel welcomed into the Invictus fold.
“The Zahal Disabled Veterans Organisation is proud to be taking part, for the first time, in the Invictus Games, representing the State of Israel. Sport has always played an important role in the rehabilitation of our wounded veterans. We shall look forward to the competitions, to meeting the teams of the other 20 participating nations and are certain the spirit of the Invictus Games shall prevail,” said ZDVO chair Edan Kleiman, who is himself an injured veteran.
Newell said that the competitors are selected by the team managers for each nation following guidance from the Invictus Games Foundation regarding eligibility. They must have been injured, or fallen ill, during or as a consequence of military service, and the selection should always be based on recovery indicators rather than elite performance.
“It is for that reason that we call those taking part competitors, rather than athletes; to highlight this distinction and focus on recovery and rehabilitation,” Newell said.
In a newly released Netflix documentary series on the games titled, Heart of Invictus, there is much talk about how participants should be chosen based on who “needs to be in the games the most” to advance their rehabilitation. The series highlights a handful of injured military veterans from different countries who turn to sport only after they reach rock bottom physically, emotionally, or both.
According to Seidner, ZDVO introduces sport rehabilitation early on as part of an attempt to avoid such situations. This often leads to some veterans taking their chosen physical activity extremely seriously.
“‘Invictus’ means undefeated,” Seiden noted of the Latin word, “and for us invictus is every day. Wounded IDF veteran athletes are very competitive and are all about winning the medals.”
Indeed, disabled Israelis are regular competitors at international championships and have won 384 medals at the Summer Paralympic Games since 1960.
Therefore, Seidner and head team coach Miki Uzai had to look for sportspeople of a different ilk to fill the 20 competitor spots allotted to Israel in its Invictus Games debut.
The ZDVO decided to balance the team based on proportional geographic representation of the organisation’s operations throughout the country. It also looked for people who have been practicing their sport for at least three to five years and have shown perseverance in using it for their rehabilitation but have never had the opportunity to compete abroad.
Swimming has been a central part of team member Liran Coriat’s ongoing rehabilitation since a devastating accident during her army service. Now a 51-year-old mother of three living in Ramat Yishai, she not only swims two or three times a week but is also employed as a swimming teacher by the Education Ministry.
She will be competing in the 50-metre freestyle, 50-metre backstroke, and 50-metre breaststroke events at the Games.
Coriat was a 20-year-old soldier in the intelligence division of the Northern Command when a jeep ran into her.
“I was in a coma for a week. I had brain and neck injuries. I needed surgery on my broken legs. My teeth were knocked out. I was injured all over,” she recalled.
She underwent rehabilitation for nine months at Loewenstein Hospital in Raanana and then continued at home.
“The first thing I did when I got home was go to the pool. I had been on a swim team when I was younger and I wanted to get back to the sport, if not competitively,” Coriat said.
She said she has continued swimming all these years because she doesn’t feel her aches and pains in the water, and it is relaxing.
“It’s quiet. You don’t have to talk to anybody. You can just be with yourself and get away from everything,” she said.
Coriat expressed excitement about competing again and having two of her children in Dusseldorf watching her. The Invictus Games fund the participation (on the ground expenses) of two friends or family members for every competitor to facilitate social recovery.
Assa Ender told The Times of Israel that he and the other four archers representing Israel have been practicing once or twice a day for the past few months in preparation for the competition.
“We are taking this very seriously. We are devoting a lot of time to our preparation, and most of us are working people,” he said.
Ender, 51, is now an agronomist and married father of four daughters living in Tzur Yigal. However, back in 1993, he was a young officer in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade when he and his unit were ambushed in Lebanon. Ender was hit by a bullet that shot out of an improvised explosive device. The bullet severed his femoral artery, an injury that can easily lead to death if not effectively treated within 15 minutes.
“The adrenaline kept me going and I continued to fight. Then when I realised my wound, I recognised how serious the situation was. I somehow managed to staunch the bleeding myself until medics could get to me and I was evacuated to Rambam Medical Centre by helicopter,” Ender recalled.
Unfortunately, the physicians at the hospital could not save his left leg, and it had to be amputated below the knee. Ender has used a prosthesis since then.
Ender not only practices and teaches archery, but also builds bows. He specialises in takedown recurve bows and said he is the only one in Israel making them.
“Archery is really becoming a thing in Israel. British Olympian Richard Priestman is now coaching the national team and we had one of our archers come in ninth at the Tokyo Olympics, which is great considering how relatively new the sport is here,” Ender said.
“I compete within Israel, but I’m definitely not one of the leaders by results,” he said.
Despite his pride in representing his country at the Invictus Games and his wanting to end up on the podium, Ender emphasised that for him the most important part of participating in sports is the psychological effect.
“Being part of an organised activity is important from the social point of view. You meet people and you’re committed to others because you’re a part of a team. People demand things from you and you are obligated to them. You’re not floating in the air,” Ender said.
“It’s easier to demand from yourself when others are demanding from you. It provides you with a framework. Only very strong people can do something without that,” he said.
In addition to competing in the events, the Israeli team members will have ample opportunity to meet and mingle with participants from other nations in the specially built Invictus Games village.
The Israeli delegation will also attend a reception hosted by JNF Germany, which will be attended by the German defense minister and key representatives of Boeing, the game’s leading sponsor.
With the games extending through Rosh Hashanah, the Israelis will be hosted by Dusseldorf’s Jewish community for the holiday.