Brendan Hardman was forced out of the Army because of a severe injury, but is now training to play in the Invictus Games, June 7, 2017 (ABC News: Tony Hill)
I first met Brendan Hardman on the basketball court. He was playing for Canberra, and I play for the Illawarra Eagles.
We caught up at Invictus this week, where Brendan is the captain of the Australian wheelchair basketball team.
Brendan’s journey to Invictus began with a back injury.
“Originally from Perth, I joined the military in 2009, and I was posted to 16 Air Defence Regiment in Adelaide,” he said.
“I first injured my back during a PT session. I blew a disc at the bottom of my back, and I rehabilitated without surgery.
“This happened several times over a period of three to four years, until it got to the point where I couldn’t feel my left foot any more, I had sciatica all the way down my left leg.”
“I had surgery that failed, so I ended up having a hybrid fusion and that was the end of my military career. I had the surgery in March 2016 and I was discharged in April.”
Following his discharge, Brendan suffered badly with depression and anxiety, and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
In November 2016, Brendan married his wife, Monique, but he had put so much energy into the wedding, and with nothing to focus on beyond that the depression worsened.
In April 2017, he nearly took his own life.
“I had a night where I was lying with my wife asleep next to me, and I just wanted to go,” he said.
“Fortunately for me it was her that kept me there; the thought of what would happen to her life if I do this. That was the only thing that drew me back from the edge.”
A week later, Brendan started playing wheelchair basketball.
Brendan said a mate of his worked for a not-for-profit organisation called The Road Home, which is part of the Hospital Research Foundation Group. They aim their wellbeing services at veterans and first responders, helping people to re-join society.
“I had no experience of disability sport before. I played high level AFL back in Perth. I didn’t want to go to wheelchair basketball at first, but my wife said, “You’ve got to go,” and she drove me down there,” Brendan said.
“It was bloody hard; a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, but it was great.”
I suffered a spinal cord injury in 2005, and my rehabilitation took place at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK, the cradle of the Paralympic movement.
When I first came to wheelchair basketball, I found a familiar scene where I could relate to other people who had similar experiences. But for Brendan it was much more of a leap into the unknown.
He said when he first walked in, he was full of anxiety because he didn’t really want to be there.
“But then I realised that there were people who had been through so much more than me,” he said.
“Everyone has their story, but some of them are bigger than what you’re going through.
“It’s actually quite eye-opening for many of us. I didn’t find it too confronting, but some people do find it difficult.”
‘Everyone can compete’
But the welcome that Brendan received had a powerful impact.
“The disability sports environment is so inclusive,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you have a disability, they include you, no worries at all, and everyone’s on equal standing.
“You’re likely to cop banter from anyone. That’s one of the things I really loved about it. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through. Everyone can compete.”
At the end of the first session, he asked when he could play again, and he was told there was a session with the first team on the following night, so he went back again, hands covered in blisters and bleeding.
When Brendan heard about Invictus, basketball became his main focus.
He started training regularly, and was invited to play with The Red Dust Heelers, a Perth-based team who play in the National Wheelchair Basketball League.
Selection for Invictus followed, and Brendan was made captain of the wheelchair basketball team.
“As the captain, my teammates expect me to lead, and it can be tricky at times, because I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said.
“I was an officer in the army, so it’s good to be a leader again. I love the team we’ve got. Everyone’s bonded really well, so it’s good to be in charge of a group of people where you enjoy everyone’s company.”
When it comes to the talk in the huddle, there is a definite difference between Red Dust and the ‘Wheeling Diggers’, as Brendan explains.
“In the National League, 90 per cent of the talk is strategy as everyone has specific roles on the court, and the last 10 per cent is patting each other on the back and talking everyone up, whereas with Invictus it’s reversed. The majority of the talk is trying to motivate,” he said.
“The post-match debrief is more about addressing the journey the team’s been on. If we’ve lost and the guys are down then it’s good to say, “Look at where we’ve come from and where we are now”.
What began with Invictus as the only goal has become a pathway that stretches out beyond the Games.
“So now I train twice a week with a team and three times by myself, and I’m now working for the Hospital Research Society, and I’m an ambassador for The Road Home — so I’ve come full circle.”
I look forward to meeting you on the court again soon, Brendan Hardman.