TVO: Multi-sport athlete soldiers on at the Invictus Games

Despite a serious back injury, Sergeant Brenda McPeak came to this year’s competition to ‘kick some butt’

  Brenda McPeak is competing in rowing, running, shot put, and discus at the Invictus Games in Toronto. (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)

Brenda McPeak is competing in rowing, running, shot put, and discus at the Invictus Games in Toronto. (Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services)

There was a time when Sergeant Brenda McPeak preferred not to talk about her health issues — but competing in this year’s Invictus Games has made her feel comfortable discussing them.

cPeak joined the Canadian Forces as a reservist when she was still in high school. Six years later, she joined the regular forces as a mobile support equipment operator, driving large vehicles, such as trucks and buses. “We deliver all the goods to the front-line guys,” she says. “We deliver all their food, their ammo, their beans and bullets, as we call it, and their mail. And transport even the troops sometimes.” In 2003, McPeak was sent on the very first rotation to Afghanistan — for eight months, she helped build the Canadian camp in Kabul. “Every day I was out on the roads from camp to camp, going to the Brit camp, the Germans, the Italians.”

  McPeak stands in the courtyard at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. (Sarah Reid)

McPeak stands in the courtyard at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto. (Sarah Reid)

Even being in a support role in the military can take a physical toll. “Being a trucker’s hard on your body, lifting supplies and fuel cans and water cans,” McPeak says. In 2012, she suffered a back injury. “I think that it was festering over time.” She’d just been posted to Gander, Newfoundland, and was unpacking at her new home. “I was picking clothes out of a box, and snap, crackle, pop, my back went.”

“It took a year to find out what was actually wrong with me. Because Gander’s so isolated, you’re competing with other Newfoundlanders to see specialists. So it took me a year to find out that I had four bulging discs, and one was pressing on a nerve.”

After she hurt her back, McPeak was posted to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which provides support and programs for ill and injured soldiers trying either to heal or to transition out of the Forces. “I was scared I was going to lose my career that whole time in JPSU,” she says, because she didn’t know if she would every fully recover. 

While at the JPSU, McPeak worked for Soldier On, a grant program that encourages recovery through sport. It was the highlight of her career, she says. “I felt a real sense of being able to give back to soldiers. Talking about Soldier On and what they can do for you, how they can get you active again. With Soldier On, I got qualified to scuba dive; I went skiing; I went snowboarding. I’ve done snowshoeing with them — I did sledge hockey. I helped organize injured soldiers to go with the musical ride in Ottawa with the RCMP. I’ve done the Army Run a few times.

“That’s how I started getting back into sport. So that was my giving back to the military and giving back to them, was helping them out.”

In 2014, McPeak was deemed healthy enough to return to regular duties. She was posted to Petawawa and promoted to sergeant. She was honoured, she says: “To know that I had earned it in a good way, it was awesome.”

It was during her time with Solider On that she learned about the Invictus Games. After her back trouble developed, she’d started long-distance running: Invictus gave her the opportunity to engage in the sport she loved, while also promoting a cause she believed in. At the 2017 Games in Toronto, she ran for the Canadian team. “Unfortunately [the Invictus event] is only 1500 metres, but it’s still going to get me out there.” She also competed in indoor rowing and two throwing events: shot put and discus. “I’m going to give it my all,” she said a couple of days before her first event “Try to kick some butt.”

She’s in the Games for herself, she says, “to get that love of competition back again.” But, she adds, “I’m also doing it to show my troops that even if you are injured, that doesn’t mean your life, being active and getting out there, has to stop. You can learn how to modify things.”

The Invictus experience has also made it easier for her to share details about her life. A number of years ago, a combination of back and thyroid issues caused McPeak to gain weight. She opted to have gastric bypass surgery in January 2016, a decision she calls a turning point in her life. After the surgery, she lost 150 pounds in seven months; she’s now been at her current weight for about a year.

“I’m not stuck in my house anymore. I’m not afraid to talk to people. I haven’t really told my story about the surgery, because it’s quite personal. It’s a personal decision, and not everyone is positive about that surgery, and that’s really hard. But being a part of the Invictus Games has shown me not to hide about the choices I’ve made to save my life. It’s still a little scary to talk about, but why hide it now? I am who I am.”

McPeak plans to stay active when she returns to Petawawa after the Games. “Running’s my big thing right now. I want to save up the funds to buy a kayak and a paddleboard to keep me active on the water. I’m going down to Virginia for the Marine Corps Marathon. I’m going to do the 10k with Soldier On there in October. And I signed up for my first half-marathon two days ago.”

The Invictus experience hasn’t simply pushed her physical boundaries — it’s also inspired her to expand her social comfort zone. “You can feel the energy. It’s hard to be that grey man, that fly on the wall. Because I am a total introvert anyways. But it’s kind of hard to do that.”

Her first morning there, she saw a group from the Canadian team sitting at a table eating breakfast together, but she passed them by. “I can talk to them anytime, on Facebook or whatever … I sat with a bunch of Ukrainians … I think I’m going to do that for every meal. I want to get out and meet people, make friends.”

It’s easier to do that at the Games, because all the competitors belong to the same community. “We’ve all been in the military, so we all have that commonality and that way of joking that you may not understand. And we’ve all been injured in some aspect, whether it’s in combat or at home, or not even having to do with the military at all, but they’re still injured. We’re all here because of something. So why not learn people’s stories or just get to know people?”