Invictus athlete Gemma Kemble-Stephenson fought back tears as she revealed how sport saved her from feeling 'caged' by mental health after she was medically discharged from the Army.
Gemma, who is competing in the Invictus UK Trials 2019 in Sheffield, was overwhelmed by emotion as she urged others to turn to sport if they are suffering with mental health issues, saying: "You have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
The powerful message from the sports athlete, in an emotive interview with Forces Network, is an inspirational testimonial that perhaps sums up the spirit of the Invictus Games, a tournament set up in 2014 by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, to use sport to inspire recovery and support rehabilitation for our wounded, injured or sick servicemen and women.
Having served for 19 years as a combat medic, Gemma was medically discharged in 2018, and that is when her life started to take a very different path as she battled to cope with medical issues and life away from military service.
"When you’ve always been told to be in the services you are the best, all of a sudden you’re not good enough and the impact ... sends you down quite a dark rabbit hole."
The sudden change in career paths left Gemma feeling that her identity had been lost, a feeling common with some military service leavers.
Her emotion, as she described how significant sport has been in her journey back from those dark times to a brighter place where she is now competing in the national spotlight at the Invictus UK Trials, reveals a glimpse into her personal battle and how much of a positive impact her sporting achievements have made to her life.
Gemma told how she discovered sport was able to take her “in the correct direction in life” after she was reintroduced to sport sometime after she left the Army by her friend, and now fellow competitor, Caroline Buckle.
Overcome with emotion she offered advice to those who might be in a similar situation to where she found herself last year.
She said: “This year I will be competing in swimming, cycling, powerlifting, indoor rowing and seated shotput.
“If anyone is sat at home, and they are ‘caged’ by their own physical and mental health issues, give sport a go.”
In a moving and emotional expression of her own personal experience, she added:
"You have nothing to lose … and everything to gain."
Living with a form of arthritis, Gemma has never let it stop her from taking on a challenge, and she described cycling and swimming as being her "safety sports" - refusing to let new obstacles get in her way. She now also competes in powerlifting, rowing and athletics.
Her inspirational attitude to sport has been hailed by her supporters, including the charity Help for Heroes, which paid tribute to her “warrior” spirit in a previous competition.
Her family has also played a huge part in getting her to where she is today, especially her nine-year-old daughter Esme.
Esme, stood by her mother’s side, movingly told how she was “really proud” of her mother, explaining how their earlier life living in Germany meant the family could not be so close to each other as part of their military lifestyle but, now they had moved, she said it had changed everything. She said:
“So I can come and support my mum and we can be a family, supporting each other and being there for each other.”
Gemma is one of the many athletes competing at the Invictus UK Trials who have worked hard to earn impressive sporting achievements, including many whose confidence has been boosted by taking part in the tournament.