My Invictus Diary: Fairy tale ending
28th September 2017
Richard Osborne will be one of the only Brits who will be backing another country at this year’s Invictus Games. His incredible coaching journey has seen him become the coach of the Georgian sitting volleyball team and he’ll be mentoring them at this year’s Games. While in Toronto, he’s writing an exclusive diary for Volleyball England. In his final piece the Georgians complete a fairytale story to be crowned the Invictus champions…
Main Image Credit: Invictus Games Toronto 2017
It’s the day of the finals in the sitting volleyball competition at the Invictus Games 2017. Although our first match doesn’t start until 5pm, and I’m therefore afforded the luxury of a lie in, I’m too worked up to rest and so I start to read my notes on our known opposition, the USA, while skimming over the others for Denmark and the UK.
Goga (Georgia’s coach) and I convene a meeting with the players in my room where we reflect on yesterday’s achievement and what we expect by way of competition from America. That done, the players are asked to rest and to be ready to leave for the venue at 3pm. I decide to take a wander outside and walk fairly aimlessly for about 45 minutes unable to shift focus from the semi-final match. I find myself on Yonge Street which is apparently the longest street in the world and decide to see whether that’s true. I last about 10 blocks before concluding it probably is and instead turn back to the hotel.
At 3pm, I make my way to the rendezvous point where the players are gathered and we board transport to the Mattamy Athletics Centre where the finals are to be held. The venue is much closer to the hotel than the Pan Am Centre where we trained and entered the preliminaries, but we are still guided there by a fleet of Canadian police riders. I’m going to miss these when I return home and need to battle through rush hour traffic with everyone else.
On arrival, we are ushered into the changing room which is adjacent to the court and Goga and I head there for an inspection. It looks spectacular and the organisers have pulled out all the stops to prepare it in time. Before we know it, we are notified that the warm up will begin shortly and so we go back to the changing room to have a final team talk. My focus is on conveying tactical information accrued from the scouting I had undertaken all week. Goga reminds them what they are there to do. Two players, Dato and Enver, had earlier said that the team would be fighting on the volleyball court for their military friends back home who never returned from battle. My interpreter tells me this and says the hairs on his arms had bristled. I nod. That’s all I could do because to speak was not possible. It was so moving and emotional.
Talking done, time for action. We are called to the waiting area for the teams to be presented to what looked like a capacity audience and with military timing (because the events is televised globally), we enter the arena. The US have asked to warm up separately, simply because they don’t reverse pass and don’t want to switch sides to hit through 2, so the Georgians wait on the sidelines until they are called to warm up for 6 minutes.
The players take to the court and the US have serve. Goga and I stand in the technical area poised to give instructions to the team. The official blows to commence play and we’re off. The first few points are shared between the teams as they both struggle to find rhythm but it is immediately clear to me that Georgia are more accomplished technically and so it proves as they forge ahead. The atmosphere is phenomenal, as the US has a large number of supporters who chants as one “U.S.A, U.S.A”. While fewer in numbers, however, the Georgian support is clearly audible and as the match flows in favour of them, the US cheers ebb away a little. A technical time out is called at 16 points and the Georgians are looking comfortable. They go on to win the first set 25-16. The second set begins better for Georgia who are more relaxed by getting one set under its belt and before long they have notched up more points. They are playing with more confidence and finding gaps in the US block. Dato makes some powerful hits, as does Otar. Giorgi, the Libero, who had confessed he was very nervous this morning, did well to keep the ball alive when needed. The Georgians take the second set 25-17 and in so doing advance to the final for the first time in Invictus Games history! I can’t say that I’m stunned because I was quietly confident they would beat the USA, but it nevertheless takes a few seconds to sink in. It means they will definitely improve on last year’s bronze medal which in itself was one better than 2014 when they came 4th.
The second semi-final gets underway almost the instant we leave the arena, and we head back to the changing room to celebrate. The players disperse briefly as the team from Denmark takes on the UK for the other final place. An accomplished Danish team takes the first set after an exhilarating finish, 28-26, but cannot sustain the momentum losing the second and third sets. So, it is decided. Georgia will face the UK for the gold medal. The bronze medal match takes place first, however, which the US go on to claim. I was unable to watch any of it as I spent every second I could in the changing room briefing the players, getting them warmed up and mentally prepared for the final match. I step outside briefly to assess how advanced is the match for third place and find myself face to face with a Prince Harry who is here to support the teams. He kindly agrees to have a photo with me and Goga then heads off to watch the last action between Denmark and the US. Moments later though he returns to our changing room to wish the players the best of luck and a further team photo is taken.
With the pace unrelenting we are called forward to the waiting area again where we line up alongside the UK team. I know a lot of these players and compete against them with my team in South Hants. There is mutual respect between us and I know they are are very capable outfit indeed. I have to set aside friendship for an hour or so, though, to hopefully finish the job I came here to do.
Warm ups complete, the teams take to the court to decide who will take gold. I had prepared serving patterns based on the UK’s game against Denmark which I used to alert my players that the serve was likely to go to them. It worked very well and helped players stay ready to receive. Some superb blocking and expert hitting saw Georgia nudge ahead. I instructed my players to avoid the UK’s Libero who is a fantastic defensive player, but in the heat of battle they didn’t get a look at where he was all the time and couldn’t kill the ball. As Georgia got into a passing groove, however, they points started to accrue and they went on to win the first set 25-15. That was only the first part complete, I remind them, and urge them not to become complacent or, worse, do what they did last year in Orlando where they saw the finish line too soon and started to grab at the ball.
The second starts neck and neck, with both teams playing some good volleyball. This continues and the crowd responds with calls for both teams. There’s a separate competition going on there with the UK and Georgians supporters vocalising their support and trying to outdo the other. The match progresses and it seems that Georgia have the edge and it powers on and on with further great blocks. The ball handling is a bit suspicious at times but the officials want to give the audience a spectacle and these things even out.
The Georgians mount a final surge and then the moment arrives. Set point, match point, championship point. I have no memory of how it happened, only that it did. Georgia wins! There is an eruption of noise from all around the arena and the players embrace each other. The Ambassador for Georgia has been alongside the team all evening and congratulates the team, then the Minister of Defence is seen via FaceTime also extending his congratulations. He speaks to me and while it is difficult to understand him against the cacophony of noise, I’m pretty sure he was pleased!
I take some time to stand back as the players, coaches and friends go wild and a moment of tranquility descends upon me. I wonder, in fact, whether I am still in bed dreaming this is going to happen or whether it has just happened! The players eventually move away from the court to a holding area while the awards ceremony is set up. We line up in a corridor where the US is already waiting. High fives and hearty congratulations are offered from both sides. Then, once the UK team has joined us (with more high fives and hugs), the teams are led to the medal ceremony where Michael Burns, CEO of the Invictus Games, present bronze medals to the USA and silvers ones to the UK, while HRH Prince Harry anoints Georgia as champions and bestows upon them gold medals.
So as I sit here writing at what is now 2.45am local time, utterly shattered, both physically and mentally, I remind myself of the seven guys who ventured into the sports hall in London back in 2014, unsure what the sport was about or what they had to do, to the team now crowned Invictus Games sitting volleyball champions 2017 and I could not be more pleased or proud of each and every one of them. They have worked hard for themselves, each other, their friends and families and thoroughly deserve the success. In 2016, when they won bronze, it generated more interest across the Georgian Armed Forces in taking part is disability sport. I can only wonder what a gold will do!
Sakartvelo! (Georgia!). We ARE Invictus.
Read Richard’s other diary posts: