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Sunday, May. 19, 2019
Matt Bleach benefits from Invictus Games experience
by Randy Pascal

The recent Invictus Games provided many an inspirational moment, both for those on-hand, taking in the event live in Toronto, as well as the thousands of Canadians watching from the comfort of their homes.

Ironically, it was the takeaway for the athletes, and not the spectators and viewers, that would serve as the very foundation upon which Team Canada was built for the Games, a delegation some 90 strong.

"Team Canada looked to pick the people who would most benefit from the Games," noted 36 year old Sudbury native Matt Bleach, a competitor in the swimming events. "The podium wasn't even on their radar."

"It's nice to get to the finals, nice to get to the podium, but that's not the reason they compete. The reason is the journey." And what a journey it has been for the former medic in the Armed Forces.

Born and raised in Sudbury, Bleach never strayed too far away from the call of duty, active as an army cadet in his youth and initially pursuing a career interest in Police Foundation studies before moving to Ottawa as a young adult.

"It's always been something that I've wanted to do," explained Bleach. "Being a police officer was number one." When that was not to be, he remained true to his family tradition. "I wanted to serve. My grandfather served, his brothers, my uncles. It's something that always fascinated me. That was my main motivator."

Enlisting in mid-2006, Bleach would endure more than a year of training in order to pursue his dream. "When I finished my training, I wasn't assigned to a field unit, I went to a recruiting centre," he recalled. "I was posted in Hamilton as the medical technician there."

Eighteen months later, he was off to North Bay. Finally, in early 2010, Bleach was deployed to Afghanistan. "The NATO medical system is set-up in tiers, row one to five," Bleach explained. "I spent most of my tour, out on the front lines, feeling very very hot and sweaty."

Just two weeks before the completion of his tour, the local man would find his life altered, forever. "I don't have any physical injuries caused by my service, but what happened overseas for me was that I ended up having seizures."

"I woke up in the hospital in Kandahar with no memory of what had happened." Bleach had sustained a grand mal seizure, as the work began to identify the cause. "They know there is a problem, they can see it electronically, but there's no way to know what exactly caused the seizure," he stated.

"It could have been something environmental, it's not a very healthy place to be." Treatment began, with some encouraging initial signs. "It worked for about two years," said Bleach. "In the summer of 2012, I had a relapse."

"We now know that I likely had several smaller seizures, but they never progressed until the summer of 2012, when I had a whole series of grand mal seizures." With things settling down, somewhat, over the next few years, Bleach would be thrown another curve ball in 2016.

"I was aware of the (Invictus) Games that happened in Orlando," he noted of the second edition of the event that was created by Prince Harry and launched in 2014 in London (England), as a means of supporting those injured or rendered ill while serving their country.

"My sister went to school with Steve Daniels (local paralympian) and she mentioned that I should consider applying. Little sisters being little sisters, she nagged me for months. She knew it would be a good thing for me."

Throughout his youth, Bleach had remained active, most notably in the pool, swimming competitively for the Valley East Waves as well as part of the St Charles College Cardinals swim team.

Finally, he relented. He would be among the more than four hundred candidates that team officials reviewed before selecting the final crew of ninety. "They aimed to provide us with better mental health, better physical health, to set us up for a better future," said Bleach.

In November of 2016, he would be informed of the honour. Thankfully, he had already begun preparation, just in case. "Even before I got selected, I had started working on my swimming again, doing some open water swimming near our campground," outlined Bleach.

"We took out a family membership at the YMCA. My dad and I were going together. Since the spring, I have been fortunate enough to train at the Laurentian pool." Largely due to the pragmatics of a family schedule, Bleach would train primarily on his own. Besides, he was under no false illusions as to just how quickly his swimming proficiency might return.

"The kids with the Laurentian youth club would leave me in their dust," he stated with a laugh. Still, the competitive juices have apparently not completely disappeared. "I'm looking forward to the whole experience," said Bleach, just before leaving for Toronto.

"It will be fun re-capturing a little bit of that race feeling again. And I'm really excited for my kids." Yes, the Invictus Games have served their purpose, from the inspiration to those on the sidelines, to the motivation for all 550 of the athletes that were involved.

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