Brittany Hinchcliffe

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The Captains of their Souls

Brittany Hinchcliffe and the discus medalists at the Invictus Games
Silver medalist Joshua Jablon, gold medalist Jamie Garza, Brittany Hinchcliffe, and bronze medalist Sean Hook at the Invictus Games (photo courtesy Brittany Hinchcliffe)

To Joshua Jablon, his discus throw of 40.68 meters (133.46 feet) at this year’s Invictus Games was more than just the act of heaving a 4.4-pound disc almost half the length of a football field. It was more than the roar of appreciation from the crowd at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It was more than the silver medal he received for his effort, straining every muscle in his body beneath the blazing Orlando sun.

It was the celebration of a new life, one that almost ended almost seven years ago when a roadside bomb in Iraq ripped through the vehicle he was traveling in, shrapnel tearing into his leg and back and leaving him with a traumatic brain injury.

It was the celebration of a life that now includes classes at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota, where he is working toward a degree in business.

It was the celebration of a life that was rebuilt, in part, by his coach: Brittany Hinchcliffe, BA ’06, MA ’14, who knows a thing or two about what it takes to overcome long odds to succeed.

Hinchcliffe, a 2006 All-American, is the owner of the third-farthest throw in UO history and placed tenth overall in the 2008 US Olympic Trials. At the time her throwing career was winding down, the Marine Corps camp came to Hayward Field looking for throws coaches to train their athletes. Lance Deal, UO director of track and field venues, National Track and Field Hall of Famer, and 1996 Olympic silver medalist; and former UO throws coach Stewart Togher recommended Hinchcliffe.

“Stewart pulled me in, and said, ‘Help me out with this.’” said Hinchcliffe. “I said, ‘It’s better than helping out with yardwork, so count me in.’”

Hinchcliffe helped the Marine Corps at its camp, and then traveled with the team to the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. The Warrior Games is a multisport event for wounded military veterans, and pits the various branches against each other in friendly competition that helps the veterans rehabilitate physically and mentally through sport. By competing in archery, cycling, shot put, discus, shooting, seated volleyball, swimming, track, and wheelchair basketball the athletes unleash their competitive instincts, all the while learning skills that may be completely alien to them.

"Prior to this, I will fully admit I didn’t know seated throwing was an event," said Hinchcliffe. "I wasn’t that up to speed on Paralympics. It was really cool to see how versatile the sport can be; there are some seated throwers who can outthrow our standing throwers. There are limitations of movement within the chair, but these athletes figure out a way to throw far, and it’s pretty impressive to see them in that process.

“We have people come to the Marine Corps trials who have not tried several of the sports, and they now find themselves in four new sports all at one time. That gets pretty crazy, but they do it and they push themselves to achieve as much as they can. I’ve seen athletes come back the next day and say, ‘I was practicing that back in the hotel room, and looking at YouTube videos,’ and I say, ‘You’re hooked!’ It’s really cool to see the transition for them.”

Hinchcliffe is now in her sixth year of coaching veterans, and earlier this year was selected to be a throws coach for Team USA at the Invictus Games. Founded in 2014 by Henry Charles Albert David Windsor—better known worldwide as Prince Harry, youngest son of Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales—the Invictus Games are an international Paralympic-style sporting event for wounded military veterans, and are named after a William Ernest Henley poem about inner strength and perseverance.

“When I traveled back from the battlefield on a plane carrying the body of a Danish soldier and three young Brits fighting for their lives, I began to understand the real permanent cost of war,” said Prince Harry—who served two tours in Afghanistan with the Household Cavalry and the Army Air Corps—during the Games’ opening ceremony. “I joined the army because, for a long time, I just wanted to be one of the guys. But what I learned through serving was that the extraordinary privileges of being a prince gave me the extraordinary opportunity to help my military family. And that’s why I had to create the Invictus Games—to build a platform for all those who have served to prove to the world what they have to offer.”

Prince Harry and First Lady Michelle Obama at the opening of the Invictus Games
Prince Harry and First Lady Michelle Obama at the opening of the Invictus Games (photo courtesy Fisher House Foundation)

This year’s competition was held at Orlando’s Wide World of Sports Complex from May 8–12, and was broadcast on ESPN. Fifteen nations from around the world competed, taking part in events ranging from wheelchair rugby and sitting volleyball to paratriathlon and athletics. Wounded veterans from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, and Germany challenged themselves and each other over the five days, pushing themselves to new limits.

“It was truly inspirational,” said Hinchcliffe. “First of all, to see fifteen countries come together to participate is something incredible in itself. The fact that they pulled that off is pretty amazing. It was really well funded, it was well thought out and organized; it was really special. Every athlete probably left that event feeling really valued, and inspired to do what they newly found that they love to do, or something they’ve been participating in for a while. The athletes were really well taken care of, and you had celebrities come out and connect with them. Kudos to Prince Harry.”

An official medal count is not kept at the Invictus Games, as the competition itself, and the community nature of the event, are the true reasons for bringing together athletes from around the world who are bound by wounds suffered on the battlefields.

“It is not just physical injuries that our Invictus competitors have overcome,” said Prince Harry. “Every single one of them will have confronted tremendous emotional and mental challenges. When we give a standing ovation to the competitor with the missing limbs, let’s also cheer our hearts out to the man who overcame anxiety so severe he couldn’t leave his house. Let’s cheer for the woman who fought post-traumatic stress, and let’s celebrate the soldier who was brave enough to get help for his depression.”

One such competitor was Jablon, who joined the Marine Corps after graduating from high school and served one nine-month tour in Iraq. During that tour he was hit by three IEDs—improvised explosive devices—and left the Middle East with shrapnel in his leg and back, a traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He spent time rehabilitating in Japan and Hawaii, and it was during the latter stop that he set out on the path that would change his life.

“I was focusing on recovering and trying to get better,” said Jablon, who had already lost one post-Iraq job due to drinking and fighting. “I had just gotten out of the PTSD program, and the Marines asked if I wanted to do track and field therapy. They sent me to Eugene to do a track and field camp, and that’s how it started.

"Brittany and Stewart started it all. That was my first track and field camp, and I didn't think I could do anything. They said they wanted me to keep practicing, and that I showed potential. I set myself goals, and did better recovery-wise."

Hinchcliffe oversaw a number of discus throwers at the Invictus Games, with one of her classifications—IF4, Jablon's classification—sweeping the medal standings.

“That was cool to see US flags on the podium,” she said. “I had worked with some of these athletes before, and they’ve had successes, but I had several athletes in a couple of branches that had personal bests in this event. To see them rise to an even higher level in competition and ask more of themselves was pretty cool. There was something about Invictus that amped them up even moreso than previous competitions. They brought it.”

Gold, silver, and bronze medals on display
While medals are awarded to the top three finishers in each event, an official medal count is not kept (photo courtesy Fisher House Foundation)

Jablon won the IF4 silver medal with his 133-foot throw, but due to the nature of the Games, the trinket was secondary to the experience of being there with his comrades.

“To meet people from other countries who were going through the same thing I was going through was a breath of fresh air,” said Jablon, who has been so inspired by the experience that he wants to follow in Hinchcliffe's footsteps and become a coach after he graduates from Bethany Lutheran. “Everyone has different circumstances, but we’re all going through the same thing.”

Thanks to their military backgrounds, the veterans Hinchcliffe teaches are very coachable, and typically pick up the sport quickly. Giving an at-risk population such as wounded veterans something to focus on can, quite literally, be a life changing experience for both athlete and coach.

“Even though it was fiercely competitive, and each team and each individual wanted to win, they hugged each other at the end and clapped each other on the back,” said Hinchcliffe. “It was more than the sport, even though in the moment they were dedicated to the win. I think there were people running on the track in races and some had a spill in a lane, and another athlete would help them up.”

While Hinchcliffe is inspiring veterans through athletics, they in turn inspired her to pursue a career path helping at-risk populations in Eugene and Springfield. While deciding upon a graduate school program to enroll in, Interim Vice Provost for Portland Programs Jane Gordon—then in the School of Law, where Hinchcliffe was overseeing a Duck Store location—recommended the prevention science program. While in the program Hinchcliffe met Phyllis Barkhurst, director of 90by30 and the co-director of the Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect (CPAN), who hired her upon her graduation.

“We joke that I had a nine-month interview,” said Hinchcliffe. “She brought me in post-graduation to be part of this team.”

When not training wounded veterans, Hinchcliffe serves as CPAN’s outreach coordinator for 90by30, which aims to reduce child abuse in Lane County by 90 percent by 2030. She is also an evaluation coordinator for a three-year project CPAN is partnering with the Ford Family Foundation on, measuring the effectiveness of a child sexual abuse prevention program.

“Wounded Warriors inspired me to work in communities and work in prevention areas,” Hinchcliffe said. “It inspired me to go into that master’s program, and now I get to work for CPAN, and work in primary prevention efforts within this community as well with 90by30 full time, and still get to work with Wounded Warriors.

"My coach—Lance Deal—instilled in all of his athletes to 'leave their environment better than they found it' and I have taken this philosophy into my career in prevention efforts. Working with Wounded Warriors showed me time and again how much resilience lies within an individual, and my current work at CPAN allows me to foster this at the community level. I can’t think of any work that is more rewarding than working alongside community members to build child safe and child friendly environments and investing in our future."

- by Damian Foley

William Ernest Henley, “Invictus”

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul