The Israeli athletes said they came away with great memories of meeting fellow military veterans from around the world, including Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. Harry founded the Invictus Games following his service in the British Army and deployment in Afghanistan.
The athletic competition, held every year or two since 2014, is for wounded combat soldiers from countries around the world and promotes sports as an essential means of physical and mental rehabilitation. Military veterans with “invisible injuries” such as PTSD also compete, even if they do not also have a physical injury. Athletes compete against others who have similar levels of disabilities.
This year’s games, held in Dusseldorf on September 9-16, marked the first time that Israel was invited to participate. Sponsored by the Defense Ministry and the Zahal Disabled Veterans Organization (ZDVO), Israel sent 20 competitors, aged 24-68, accompanied by four coaches and ZDVO staff. The team members, including three women, competed in swimming, cycling, archery, table tennis, and indoor rowing. Some competed in more than one sport.
“It was an incredible experience,” said team co-manager Ora Seidner. “We went into it focusing on just having fun and doing our best, and we ended up winning all these medals!”
“We were especially amazed that we did so well in table tennis. Table tennis was new to these games, as the host city gets to introduce a sport. It’s a big thing in Germany and particularly in Dusseldorf [with its top team Borussia Dusseldorf],” Seidner noted.
Gold medals in table tennis were won in the single men’s competition by Yigal Lagziel and Menashe Zorik. Boaz Tabib and Boaz Arad nabbed silver medals in the single men’s, and Yagur Caesari won a bronze. Mor Mizrahi won a bronze medal in the women’s competition.
Two Israeli teams met up in the double men’s final, with Caesari and Zorik taking the gold, and Lagziel and Arad settling for the silver.
Israeli team members won bronze medals in swimming: Yaacov Gershoni (100 m. freestyle); Shalom Zanzuri (100 m. freestyle, 50 m. breaststroke); and Amitai Arnon (50 m. backstroke).
Ariel Mariasch came through for Israel in recumbent cycling, winning the bronze medal in that sport.
Despite much practice, Israel’s archers didn’t succeed in making it onto the winners’ podium.
“They even paid to practice at a private club in Dusseldorf so they could get more practice time in while at the games,” Seidner said.
Failing to medal did not faze archer Assa Ender, who ultimately came in fifth after being in second place at one point as he competed in the 18-meter open field compound bow. He also coached the Israeli recurve bow competitors.
“I worked very hard and I was close to a medal but it wasn’t enough. I feel that I gave all I had to give and next time it will be better,” he said.
Swimmer Liran Coriat also did not medal, but she logged personal bests in her events.
“That’s what mattered to me. We were competing against very strong swimmers from other countries. The Australians left us in the dust,” she said.
Ender told The Times of Israel that he was very proud to represent Israel and was thrilled the delegation won many medals and “gained a lot of respect.”
“The overall feeling was like taking part in the Olympic games and we felt like VIP guests in Dusseldorf. It was an atmosphere of celebration of sport and also a celebration of life even if its life with physical and mental challenges,” Ender said.
“For me, the most significant experience was to compete with people from all over the world. You speak the same language of sport even if you can barely understand each other’s spoken language. I also enjoyed walking around the Invictus Games village and the city and having people want to talk to me when they saw me wearing my team uniform,” he said.
Coriat recounted getting on the wrong team bus at one point and ending up riding for 50 minutes to the venue with the French athletes.
“I had a blast. They were all singing and happy to have me with them. In general, the feeling at the games was that there were so many people with the same vibe. People were there to compete, but it was friendly competition and everyone was happy all the time and sharing their stories,” she said.
According to Seidner, Israel was welcomed with open arms by the game’s hosts and other teams. They cheered for the Israeli team as they made their way across the arena stage at the opening and closing ceremonies, and congratulated members as they won medals.
“We were new to the games, and we sort of became a sensation once we started winning medals,” Seidner said.
A highlight for the Israeli team was meeting Prince Harry at a cocktail event organized by JNF Germany, also attended by the German minister of defense and the commander of the German air force. The latter, having always wanted to try recumbent cycling, spent a morning riding with Israeli team member Yossi Polack.
“We were told ahead of time to follow protocol with Prince Harry, but he turned out to be very kind and friendly with everyone. He speaks directly with people, without pomp and circumstance,” Seidner said.
At the JNF event, the Israeli team was divided into five groups around different tables and the prince moved between them to chat. At one point, he posed for a photo with the entire group.
“He was super-informal with everyone and asked them about how they were wounded. When one of our guys spoke about his PTSD, Harry told him that he prefers to call it PTSI, with “I” standing for injury, meaning that it is a biological injury that can be treated and hopefully healed rather than merely a disorder,” Seidner shared.
“He also called an assistant over while speaking with the same team member who told him about an innovative treatment he underwent for PTSD, asking her to take his email address and follow up with him,” she said.
Prince Harry also met with ZDVO chair Edan Kleiman, his wife Shiri Kleiman and Team Israel member Yael Inbar at the Dusseldorf mayor’s office as they signed the city’s guestbook.
The next Invictus Games are scheduled for February 2025 in Vancouver, Canada. Nearby Whistler will host the first winter adaptive sports program at the games, offering the Invictus community the chance to compete in alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, skeleton, and wheelchair curling.
In addition to the winter sports program, the 2025 games will also feature the core Invictus Games summer sports, including indoor rowing, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair basketball, and wheelchair rugby.
“We are not as strong on the winter sports, but we may have some competitors in those events. We are strong in wheelchair basketball and we will definitely send a team for that,” Seidner said.
“The main thing is that we have already signed on for 2025 and are looking forward to it,” she said.