“Kia ora New Zealand!”, I bellow, as I stride into the Team NZ camp.
‘Kia ora’ is a popular greeting, a way to say ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ in New Zealand, but it’s literal translation from Maori is, ‘have life be well/healthy’. A particular poignant phrase as I would come to discover.
“Kia ora”, the response comes back from Matt, Kelly, Craig and Kiely. I’m concerned that I may have interrupted; “You’re fine. Come on in. We’re just shooting the sh*t” Kiely says. Typically Kiwi. They all are. Welcoming and laid back.
Major Kiely Pepper is 47 years old. She cuts a diminutive figure next to Matt and Craig, who are solid rugby types, hard looking, but easy-going with it.
Still serving in the New Zealand Army, she has 22 years’ service under her belt, but nearly all that came to an end when, back in 2015, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Months of intensive chemotherapy and surgery followed, taking her away from the job she had loved for the past two decades.
“I’ve suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome for nearly as long as I’ve been in the army, so when I went off to have chemo, I think most people thought I was probably away with that.”
She continues: “I chose not to tell that many people. I didn’t want anyone treating me differently when I got back to work.”
Her confidence is striking. Major Pepper knew she was going back to work. It was never in doubt. There was no, ‘if I go back to work’, she was positive she was going back.
“Of course when I did return, people knew the moment I walked in the door I had cancer. I was thinner and had no hair from all the chemo.”
‘Kia ora’ I say to myself.
This is Kiely’s first Invictus Games. She explains how training for the event helped with her recovery.
“I’d never done any of the sports I’m competing in before the Invictus Games came along” she says.
Kiely has her cycling gear on, getting ready to head out onto the track. “I’m also competing in the rowing, archery and wheelchair basketball.”
“The Games can help kick-start your recovery. For my part the Invictus Games has pushed me out into the community back home.”
Not knowing the first thing about archery, Kiely explains how she attended the local club.
“They were really welcoming and helped me a lot. They just kept encouraging me. To be honest most of them probably have no idea I’m out here doing this.”
I ask Kiely what is the best thing about being involved in the Invictus Games…
“We’re all part of a club. Everyone has been through something, is recovering or rehabilitating from something and when you need it, your mates are there to put an arm around you, but also give you a kick up the bum when you need it… A gentle kick mind.”
And she’s right.
The Invictus Games is about using ‘the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding and respect for wounded, injured and sick Servicemen and women.’
Sometimes however, like your oppos running, riding and rowing next to you, it’s can just be there to give you a kick up the bum.
As Kiely would say, ‘a gentle kick mind.’
By Liam Maguire