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Michael Whitehead: Leader of the Wheelchair Warriors

Written By: Chris Perotte

Falling in Love with the Sport 

High tempo; energetic, fast paced, crashing, and banging. A game that takes a lot out of you physically. When Michael Whitehead saw this game in person, he immediately fell in love with it and decided to take up this sport.  If you think I’m referring to the game of hockey, then you would be mistaken.  

The game I just described is Wheelchair Rugby.  A game that Whitehead feels has similar characteristics to hockey. Wheelchair rugby caught his attention one evening at approximately 6:30 pm in the first week of February in the year 2000.  From that moment on for the past 16 years, Whitehead has played wheelchair rugby for the Canadian National Wheelchair Rugby Team, and has loved every minute of it. 

Forty-two-year-old Michael Whitehead resides in Hollis, New Hampshire, USA with his wife Kerri and his two children, 13-year-old daughter Addison and his son Avery, who is 10.  When representing Canada during wheelchair rugby, Whitehead plays in an offensive role for the team. 

Transition to Head Coach 

“Coaching soldiers is very easy because they are trained to work in a team and they are trained to listen,” said Whitehead.  

When a wheelchair rugby team was being assembled to represent Canada at the Invictus Games in Toronto 2017, the Soldier On Program (a physical activity and sports program designed by the Canadian Armed Forces to help and support veterans and serving members overcome their mental or permanent physical health injuries) reached out to the Canadian Wheelchair Sports Association to ask Whitehead to be their head coach.  

“I was moved. I was honoured,” says Whitehead. “We were at a training camp in Victoria, British Columbia for the National Team. I was just eating lunch and exhausted and my two bosses came up and offered the position to me. I was shocked on many levels.” 

“To be a part of the Invictus Games was going to be an honour, and for them to choose me as somebody to take on that role was an honour as well. It was amazing." 

Whitehead, after 16 years of playing wheelchair rugby, had been having thoughts about slowly making a transition into coaching. Capitalizing on this head coaching opportunity, he realized during training camp how easy his soldiers made it for Whitehead to coach their team. 

To be honest, the first training camp I was laughing because it was like 'alright, I don’t have to repeat myself at all',” Whitehead says, jovially. “You ask them to do stuff and they go above and beyond. They respect each other, they respect the coach. It was the easiest job I ever had honestly.” 

Memories of the Invictus Games, Toronto 2017 

The Invictus Games was the brainchild of Prince Harry. He created the games as a way for injured, sick or wounded soldiers and veterans to participate in various sporting activities, including indoor rowing, sitting volleyball, archery and wheelchair rugby. The Invictus Games Toronto 2017 ran from September 23 to 30 and was the fourth installment of these games.   

For Whitehead, he felt a tremendous sense of pride to be a part of the Invictus Games. 

“It totally opened my eyes and made me a prouder Canadian,” reflects Whitehead. “To be a part of all the soldiers and getting to know them, and being a part of their recovery. Knowing what they went through and what they sacrificed for Canada. It has totally made me a prouder Canadian.” 

Showcasing the Invictus Games in Toronto allowed the fans and supporters to see the type of immense positive impact these games had on the participants and their families. The importance of having that type of event was an overwhelming, priceless experience for all who were involved in the Invictus Games. 

“It was profound. I had the daughter of one of our rugby players come up to me after the games and she bluntly said ‘you changed his life.’ I almost went to tears,” reflects Whitehead. 

“That happened across the board for so many of the athletes. The soldiers, they bonded and shared with each other, and they all grew in the recovery. It was amazing to be a part of. The Soldier On Program took such good care of the soldiers and their families. It was amazing to the soldiers with their families and just everyone being so grateful for the experience.” 

Looking Ahead 

The 2018 Invictus Games will take place in Sydney, Australia. Whitehead looks forward to being part of those games once again, either as head coach or a player. 

Whitehead encourages every soldier and veteran who might be debating on whether they should participate in the next Invictus Games to contact Soldier On and just go for it. 

“It will change your life,” enthuses Whitehead. “It sounds corny, but it does.” 

As Whitehead continues his journey in life, he lives by his motto, “If you are going to do something, try to do it right the first time.” 

His motto is very similar to the last two lines from the poem “Invictus” [written by William Ernest Henley] that has been the inspiration these Invictus Games. 

“I am the master of my fate. 
I am the captain of my soul.”