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Invictus Games Trials: Conquering Adversity Through Art & Sport

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In the last week of July, quietly and without much fuss, Sheffield hosted the Invictus Games Trials.

The Invictus Game Foundation was set up by Prince Harry to support the recovery and rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women and to encourage more respect and understanding for those who serve their country. This year for the first time, a programme of arts and live events ran alongside the trials to demonstrate how the arts can help people damaged by war to recover, come to terms with their physical and mental injuries, and find a new sense of self.

Children's writer Michael Morpurgo gave an audience at the City Hall as part of the arts week. He was in Sheffield to talk about his 2014 book, Half A Man, inspired by a war veteran he met when he was six. As he stared at the man's burnt face and missing fingers, the young Morpurgo came to understand what war does to flesh for the first time.

Morpurgo was in conversation with Ade Adepitan, Paralympic gold medallist, TV presenter and, more recently, children's author. His book, Cyborg Cat: Rise of the Parsons Road Gang, is about a boy who comes to London from Nigeria with callipers on his legs after contracting polio, like Adepitan did.

Is failure [...] an opportunity to learn and to improve?

Both authors talked about the importance of telling children how it is, about survival, friendship and change, about how reading develops empathy and helps us learn how to feel when the big stuff happens. Is failure just that, or is it an opportunity to learn and to improve? Can you forgive yourself when you are not able to overcome a challenge? The discussion explored inclusivity, having role models of all abilities and backgrounds, and the importance of inspiring a sense of self worth, a spark to light children up.

Across Barkers Pool in an empty shop, the charity Style For Soldiers had curated the Art In The Aftermath exhibition, featuring poetry, art and film created by veterans. I met Karl Tearney, a veteran with severe PTSD after serving in Northern Ireland, Egypt, Israel, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Poems pour out of Tearney. He writes one every day. He told me he is a common man rather than a thespian and that without his PTSD, he would never have found poetry and had the opportunities he's since had.

The creative work in all cases is powerful and credible

Stewart Hill is a portrait painter, poet and motivational speaker. Hill suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in Afghanistan in 2009. Dougie Adams was injured in an IED incident in 2012 and suffered the emotional trauma of seeing his best friend killed by an IED. The story of each artist is told alongside their work. And of course, we want to know the story, like the six-year-old Morpurgo finding himself unable to look away.

The creative work in all cases is powerful and credible, able to stand alone and apart from the artist who created it, but we are compelled to face the stories; stories of heroism and emotional trauma, of broken limbs and minds, of relentless horror, of death and survival. Morpurgo's veteran told him he didn't mind him looking. What he didn't like was when people looked away. This exhibition gives the viewer permission to stare.

During the week I managed to catch some of the sport. Competitors missing one, two, even three limbs swimming 50m or cycling around Sheffield City Centre. Competitors with such severe PTSD that they got to the starting line, but found themselves unable to compete. Families cheering and whopping. Tears on the podium. Everyone in t-shirts saying 'I am Invictus'.

During the week, our city provided a space for individuals to show to themselves, their families and the world what they are made of. That though they might be broken, they are not beaten and not conquered. Through sport, words, paint - whatever medium possible - they can find themselves again.

But most importantly, it's what we are left with too - an opportunity to meet service men and women, hear their stories and develop a sense of gratitude and respect, an urging not to look away.

Abi Golland

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