This is what sport is about

by Kate McKenzie-McHarg on October 16, 2018

Sport has the power to change people. Not just physically, but mentally.

Most of us will never know the horrors of combat. Many Servicemen and women suffer life-changing injuries, mental and physical whilst serving their country. The 2018 Invictus Games will open in Sydney this weekend. What we will see over the following week will be inspiring performances. What we won’t see will be the brave stories that have shaped the physical and mental endurance of these inspirational athletes.

Ben Farinazzo is set to represent Australia in the Indoor Rowing competition. Ben was a member of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and was discharged in 2002. We spent some time with Ben earlier this week to learn about his incredible journey to Invictus 2018.

How long have you been indoor rowing, and how were you introduced to the sport?

I was a skinny, 14 year old at The Southport School and my mates dragged me out of bed down to the rowing shed. They gave me a 10 minute lesson on the rowing machine and threw me into a boat to fill an empty seat in their rowing crew. It was cold and dark but my passion for rowing was ignited! I went from old wooden tubs to carbon-fibre sculls, and from fours to eights throughout high school and into the Australian Defence Force. In the military my main focus was the Disher Cup, an incredible race over 4,250m. This is an annual military versus civilian event on Lake Burley Griffin commemorating the Australian Imperial Force Number 1 crew that beat Oxford University in the final of the Inter-Allied Services event at the Henley Peace Regatta after the end of the First World War. Next year celebrates the 100th Anniversary of this significant event. Throughout these early years we incorporated ‘erg work’ as part of our off water training routine. I then stopped rowing for 20 years! Each time I tried to get back in the seat, life seemed to step in the way… Three years ago, I was left shattered on a hospital bed with PTSD, and a broken neck and back. In the quiet moments I would dream of being able to get back into a rowing boat. I would let my mind drift off to escape the reality of my situation. I would imagine the sensation of sitting on the water and watching the sunrise. I could hear the silence broken by the gentle trickle of bubbles along the hull. A swell emerged from the depths of my subconscious mind along with the saying, ‘Live out the glory of your imagination, not the echoes of your memory’. Ten months later, I went down to Capital Lakes Rowing Club at Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra. I pushed off the dock in a single scull and sat there alone as the mist cleared the treetops. I watched the sun emerge over the horizon and shed a tear of overwhelming joy. Over the next couple of years I then set myself a series of goals and gradually, one bridge at a time, I was able to make it to end of the lake and back. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I submitted an expression of interest for Invictus Games Sydney 2018 to facilitate my ongoing rehabilitation and recovery. I completed the first Invictus Games selection camp at the AIS and was surprised with my 1min and 4min Indoor Rowing results. The following month, I couldn’t believe that I had somehow set the new Australian record for Indoor Rowing 100m Heavyweight Men 40-49. It was somewhere during this time that I committed to Indoor Rowing training as it provided a potential sporting opportunity to represent Australia.

The Indoor Rowing journey from that point has been both brutal and rewarding. I began by having to change my mindset regarding the rowing machine. I had some serious ‘avoidance issues’ when it came to doing an erg that I had retrain my mind to overcome. I achieved this three ways:

  1. Focusing on the process of doing the ‘work’ and continuous technical improvement rather than achieving a personal best every session.
  1. Learning and developing a passion for Indoor Rowing by watching YouTube videos by Rowing Australia, Concept2, Decent Rowing and Dark Horse Rowing.
  1. Forming a community with other Indoor Rowers through the Australian Defence Force Adaptive Sports program, Concept2 online logbook and online global communities through events such as Row Series.

Through this journey, I was able to relive the joy and sadistic experience of pushing my body and mind to its absolute limits. More importantly, I was able to connect and enjoy sharing the pain with others. I have been inspired by seeing the results of other Indoor Rowers and was particularly pumped watching the individual marathon row as part of 2018 CrossFit Games.

For us at 776BC, sport isn't a race to the finish line. It's a lifelong commitment. How has your commitment to sport helped you through your more challenging times?

Sport and regular exercise has been an integral part of my ongoing rehabilitation, recovery and maintenance. It has helped to build my strength, flexibility and endurance to allow me to better engage in daily activities with my family and friends. I came from a place where I had to relearn to walk and get out of bed. I set myself a goal to ‘rebuild the chassis’ after I broke my neck and back. Now I’m able to get back out in the garden and enjoy holidays with my family. Sport is deeply connected to my sense of wellbeing. It provides me with a set of healthy tools to manage my mental health. It helps me to achieve balance and to feel good about myself. Sport has focused my mind on regular activity, healthy eating and the importance of rest. It also provides me with a wonderful connection to the outdoors and the world around me. My recent involvement in sport has opened my mind and shone a light into my world by connecting me with a global community that I had never even contemplated. The Australian Defence Force Adaptive Sport and Invictus Games family have been exceptional and embracing. The support from the broader Australian community has been overwhelming. I have enjoyed sessions with junior squads, meeting the magnificent athletes and coaches at Rowing Australia, as well as connecting with international competitors bound together by the healing power of sport.

Training can provide a lot of benefits but can also add extra pressure leading up to a major event like Invictus. How do manage to keep a healthy balance between training and the rest of life?

Maintaining a healthy balance has been an ongoing challenge and learning experience both physically and mentally. Invictus Games seemed like a distant and remote possibility as I stepped into the first selection camp in February. My wife and I agreed that we would take a step-by-step approach to each camp and assess my capacity to manage my physical and mental wellbeing. I was exhausted and almost ended up back in hospital following the first weekend selection camp. It was the first time that I had spent time away from my family, with the exception of hospital. My normal weekly routine was disrupted and I felt overwhelmed by competing priorities. I was already struggling with the normal daily demands of maintaining an average suburban household and now I felt the weight of additional training demands. Fortunately, I was able to learn from this experience to focus my energy and maintain balance. I had to be honest with myself about what it was that I wanted to achieve and the impact that achieving this was going to have. I’m a middle-aged husband and father with some serious mental and physical health issues. Also, I have a tendency towards perfectionism, to give too much of myself to others and strive for excellence. I made myself vulnerable and sought advice and input from those closest to me. Once I had set some clear guidelines regarding the outcome and expectations I was able to turn my attention to working on the process. I began by creating a structured daily, weekly and monthly routine that provided the opportunity for training, key family and social activities and rest. The aim was also to minimise the ‘noise’ around decision-making by standardising meals, having the same sets of clothing for training, and set sleeping patterns. I then kept reminding myself to remain flexible and to have fun as I ventured into unchartered territory. Whenever I came across an unforeseen obstacle or challenge, I would take a moment to check in on my energy levels and reassess my approach. Most importantly, I was able to surround myself by an extraordinary network of family, friends, coaches and professionals that would listen and help me navigate my way forward.

What do you hope to gain out of your time at the Invictus Games Sydney?

At Invictus Games Sydney I hope to gain special memories and friendships that I can connect with throughout the rest of my life. It is an opportunity to celebrate and share a special moment in time with my family, friends, as well as the broader Australian and international community. It has provided a wonderful focus for my ongoing rehabilitation and shone a radiant light on a global community of people striving to improve their quality of life whilst making the world a better place. As much as I have come to appreciate and enjoy indoor rowing and the opportunity to represent Australia at the Invictus Games, my spirit keeps calls to me to return to the boatshed again and experience the magical sensation of gliding across the water at daybreak. We would like to thank Ben for sharing his story. We wish Ben and all the competitors at the 2018 Invictus Games the best luck for the games.

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