Australian canoeist Curtis McGrath lost his legs in Afghanistan, but said Friday he was “pretty content" and had no regrets about the time he served there after winning a second Paralympics gold.
McGrath powered to victory through the wind and rain in the men’s KL2 canoe sprint to retain the gold he won in Rio five years ago.
Nine years ago he was a 24-year-old serviceman three months into a tour of insurgent-rife areas of Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) and his life changed forever.
The Taliban swept back into power last month, something that McGrath admitted earlier in the week had been a distraction in the run-up to the Paralympics.
But McGrath said he would never regret serving in the country where as a young combat engineer he carried out one of the world’s most dangerous jobs — clearing IEDs.
“It’s a tragic situation. My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan," he told AFP after finishing ahead of silver medallist Mykola Siniuk of Ukraine and Italy’s Federico Mancarella at Tokyo’s Sea Forest Waterway.
“I’m really grateful that their athletes got the opportunity to represent Afghanistan," he said.
“Yeah I was there. I was searching for improvised explosive devices, clearing the way for school buses, people going to work or whatever and I’m pretty content with my contribution to the country," the now 33-year-old McGrath said.
Such was McGrath’s will to live in the crucial minutes after the blast, that he was already thinking about becoming an amputee athlete.
Partly to maintain consciousness as a survival mechanism, he joked to those helping keep him alive: “You’ll see me in the Paralympics," according to his official website, CurtisMcgrath.com.
Within two years McGrath was competing at national level in canoeing, which he had first tried at school.
His rise to the pinnacle of para sports was as rapid as it was impressive.
McGrath lost his legs on August 23, 2012. On September 15, 2016, he became a Paralympics gold medallist.
‘All on the line’
“I’m putting it all on the line (in Tokyo) and I went to Rio and had the similar sort of feeling — that some people don’t get the opportunity to compete for their country and race for gold," he said.
“I’m thankful that I get to stand on top of the podium."
McGrath has the chance of a second gold in the men’s VL3 category on Saturday.
“Yeah, another day tomorrow and hopefully the same results," he said.
“I think the weather’s meant to change a little bit. Hopefully the rain can bugger off but we yeah we’re just wanting to go out there and compete.
“In Rio it was all so new to me and the high performance of it, all that.
“Now I’m more experienced and a little bit older. I’m going to race my own race and hopefully I can put it all together."
In other medal events Friday, Hungarian teenager Peter Kiss justified being pre-race favourite when he took the men’s KL1 gold for his first Paralympic title.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be here. It’s a dream come true," said the youngest man in the competition, who was not old enough to compete in Rio five years ago.
Great Britain’s Emma Wiggs was in floods of tears after winning gold in the women’s VL2 class.
“I’m trying to get a grip. It does feel just incredibly emotional," she said before paying tribute to Japan for managing to stage the Games during the Covid pandemic.
“I’m just so overwhelmingly grateful to the Japanese people and the organising committee to get these Games on.
“It was so important for the continued progression of Paralympic sport that we are here."