“Today is just about being with each other.”
It’s the Invictus Games Sydney 2018, and the Invictus Games Foundation have joined the Golf Open, presented by ISPS Handa.
“Take your time Janusz. Don’t rush it, keep your head down, you’ve got all the time in the world my friend.”
It’s clearly not Keith’s first rodeo. The seventy-something year old Canadian has done this before.
Behind us, we’re told by an official, “four groups are stacked-up. These guys are slowing everyone down.”
Keith and his son, 41 year old Sergeant Mark Vokey, clearly another seasoned golfer, don’t care. ‘Care’ is probably the wrong word. It’s not that they ‘don’t care’; it’s just that they are unfazed.
The truth is that the more seasoned pairings, being prevented from moving around the course as quickly as they might otherwise, are equally unfazed by the slow pace of the Canadian and Polish pair, who are now slowly traversing the fourth hole.
An example of the Invictus Spirit I think to myself.
By this time Sergeant Janusz Raczy’s seven iron has cut a deep rivet in the immaculately manicured fairway of the New South Wales Golf Course.
I ask Jan, the other half of the Polish golf team, what his countryman had just said…
“He say, s**t”.
But it isn’t. Despite the wince at the size of the crater left in the fairway from the Club pro chaperoning us, the ball floats gracefully onto the green. Keith swings his arm around Janusz, who is just a couple of years older than his son Mark and proudly says, “Best shot of the day.” And it is.
Astonishingly, this is the first time both Janusz and Jan have ever played golf, but what makes their efforts all the more remarkable is that one is a single leg amputee, and the other survived being run over at high speed.
I ask Jan how he lost his leg. “My English, not very good”, he explains. It is better than my Polish. Despite his modesty, Jan is able to tell me that he lost his leg in 1996 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was a Private in the Polish Army and had only been serving for a year when he stepped on something.
“IED?”, I ask. He struggles to find the right word and Janusz steps in to help translate. “anti-personnel mine. Big one.”
I can see Jan is more interested in getting on with his new love of golf than chatting to me, and so I let him move back to the golf cart to find the right club.
“Janusz, tell me how you came to be here in Sydney?” I ask.
The Sergeant has a smile on his face. “I heard it was fun and look…”, he gestures at the vista. Clear blue sky. Still clearer: the Pacific Ocean that laps at the edge of the Course. By this time it is 27 degrees and I know what he means.
“But how did you qualify? Were you wounded, injured..?”
The perma-smile that had been fixed to the Sergeant’s face since teeing off slips.
He tells me how in 2004 he was manning a checkpoint in Karbala, a city approximately 100km southwest of Baghdad.
“There were 15 of us, Polish soldiers and maybe 10 Iraqi soldiers. Together we man checkpoint.” He explains.
“It was long day. Very long day. 29 February was the day.” His voice breaks slightly and as it does, I see in that moment, him relive that day.
“At 7pm a driver, going very fast, tried to speed though checkpoint. He didn’t. He speeded into me.”
He tells me that he woke up three weeks later in Rammstein Air Base in Germany. By this point I can tell Janusz is struggling. His voice cracking ever more, as he tells me that it has taken over 40 operations to get him here today.
I change the subject. “Tell me guys, what events are you all taking part in, other than the Golf Open, of course?”
Mark is competing in the cycling and archery. He looks like a cyclist; lean in the way only a Sergeant with 23 years of military service would be.
“I regret not putting my name forward for the Wheelchair Rugby now I’ve met these guys”, he points to Janusz and Jan.
“Why?” I ask.
“Well neither nation had enough competitors to enter independently, so for Wheelchair Rugby, Canada and Poland have a joint team.”
Last year’s hosts and the Games’ newest participating nation throwing in together.
I ask Keith if they’ve been keeping score in the golf, noticing that nobody, including me, seems to be keeping count as Jan chips another from the rough.
“They gave us a card at the start and yeah, we’ve marked it up a few times, but it’s not really about that today”, he says.
Looking at his son cracking a joke with the two Polish boys…
“Today is just about being with each other.”
by Liam Maguire