Invictus Games dream helps Hopkins on the road to recovery

UNSW Canberra graduate Wayne Hopkins is using the goal of competing in the 2018 Invictus Games to help overcome physical and mental health issues.

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UNSW Canberra graduate Wayne Hopkins will compete in the cycling event at the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney

It’s just like riding a bike.

True to the old adage, Invictus Games cyclist Wayne Hopkins has jumped back on the saddle 20 years after injuries forced him to hang up his helmet - but the ride throughout those years has been rough.

Hopkins, a UNSW Canberra graduate, had a 21-year career with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), including active service in Iraq. 

The injuries he sustained while serving his country were physical and emotional – the two are intrinsically linked. Getting back on his bike to compete at the Invictus Games Sydney 2018 next month is playing a key role in his healing.

About 25 years ago, Hopkins participated in the Hartley Challenge charity ride from Canberra to Mt Kosciusko and back. That three-day, 430km round trip was his “intro to cycling”.

It became an annual event for him, but after sustaining numerous musculoskeletal and nerve crush injuries while serving in the ADF, he couldn’t ride without pain.

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2018 Invictus Games competitor Wayne Hopkins had a 21-year career with the Royal Australian Air Force, including active service in Iraq

The physical pain began to have a major impact on his mood, which was compounded by a subsequent battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety and depression.

“In regard to pain management, it was one of the things that I decided to ignore, and it crept up on me, to the point where I realised that it actually affected my moods,” Hopkins says.

“When you’re in pain you become angry. When you’re fearful you become angry. Then when you put post-traumatic stress on that and have mental illness, the shortcut to anger and [being] out of control is then just on steroids.”

When Hopkins first realised he had a problem, he was still serving in the RAAF.

“At the time I felt that I was being overcome by pretty much everything,” he says.

“Work was being affected, home life was being affected and in my mind everyone else had a problem, not me. I came to the realisation that I needed some help and I sought that help and I think that’s been the best move I’ve ever made.”

He urges other people who think they may be suffering from a mental illness to reach out.

“It’s not just Defence people who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, it affects people from all walks of life,” Hopkins explains.

“I think that the treatment that I’ve received post my discharge from Defence has highlighted to me that everyone can suffer from post-traumatic stress and as soon as you realise that something’s not right, you should be asking for help, or seeking help.”

After four and a half years of rehabilitation with an Exercise Physiologist, the former UNSW Canberra student was able to start cycling again in December 2017.

He will represent Australia in road cycling at this month's Invictus Games  – a monumental achievement for someone who has only been back on the bike for 10 months.

Hopkins will also compete in archery and he attributes both sports to his recovery.

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Wayne Hopkins will compete in the archery event at the 2018 Invictus Games in Sydney

“I’ve found two new sports that have changed my life,” he says.

“The endorphin release and the adrenaline I get out of cycling, and sport in general, I think releases some positive thoughts and enhances that recovery process.

“With archery it’s exactly the opposite. All the adrenaline and all the focus on overachieving has to go the other way. You need to relax and you need to block out everything else that’s annoying you inside – and that’s physically and mentally – and reach a state of calmness, to be able to release a shot and shoot accurately.”

Hopkins will continue his rehabilitation once he has competed at the Invictus Games - “my body is still not back to where it should be” - but the Games mark a huge step forward in his recovery.

“The Invictus Games for me gives me the opportunity to feel proud about myself again,” he says.

“Post-discharge I fell into a lot of dark moods, I didn’t feel worthy in many aspects of my life. Having the opportunity to represent my country again is very important to me.

“I’ll be able to show my family that I’m back, that I’m unconquered.”

If you are faced with challenging thoughts, feelings, or memories, please contact one of the below services:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 46 36

Headspace: 1800 650 890

QLife: 1800 184 527

UNSW Canberra is a Premier Partner and the Official University Partner of Invictus Games Sydney 2018.​ The Games are an international sporting event for wounded, injured and ill veteran and active service personnel, and highlight the power of sport to inspire recovery, support rehabilitation and generate a wider understanding of those who serve their country.