A three-time Paralympic Champion, paracanoeist Curtis McGrath is also one of the most inspirational Australian ambassadors for the sport of paddling and the Paralympic movement at large.
It’s a role that the former Australian Army combat engineer fully embraces both on and off the water.
“I do a lot of public speaking and I am on a fair few athlete’s committees and councils. I am trying to give back to the sports, be a leader and provide opportunities for other athletes to get into the sport,” McGrath explains.
The Paralympian’s love affair with watersports dates back to his youth days, a long journey that began years before his service in the Australian Army.
“It’s been a bit of a trip,” McGrath admits. “I grew up in New Zealand and in Queenstown there are a lot of adventure sports. So I had the opportunity to get out on the rivers and the rapids there. I really loved being on the water and in a boat, kayaking.
“When I got injured in 2012 and I lost both my legs, I immediately pivoted towards sport, something that was very familiar to me and also gave me a purpose. So I found myself back out on the water, which I loved since I started.”
Fast forward just four years and McGrath was already able to reach the highest step of the Paralympic podium, winning the gold medal in the KL2 at Rio 2016, where the sport made its debut on the Paralympic program. Five years later, in Tokyo, McGrath defended his title before going on to win a third gold medal in the VL3 category.
“It’s been a really amazing journey. Ups and downs, but a lot of ups!” he says. “[Paddling] is a sport that’s given me a lot and I am really looking forward to seeing what I can get out of Paris.”
The 2024 Paralympics in France will be McGrath’s third Games. It will be an experience made all the more special by the fact that earlier this year he was nominated Paralympic co-captain of the Australian team, an honour and responsibility he will share with six-time Paralympic Games athletics representative Angie Ballard.
“Paris will be interesting because I had a year off from sport [in this Paralympic cycle], which has been refreshing, but it also made me hungry to come back,” McGrath said.
“Rio for me was about proving that I could. It was a journey of recovery, learning to deal with my disability and seeing what an amazing journey the Paralympics can offer.
“Tokyo was all about reaffirming that, but with a high performance mindset. I wanted to go there and be the best,” he explains.
Although driven by an unflinching desire to constantly improve his performance, McGrath’s sporting journey is not all about results. He sees the Paralympic movement as an amazing opportunity to get diverse people together, each of them with their unique story, in an environment that allows the human performance with a disability to be seen as equal.
“Everyone is coming along with their own challenge and adversity to overcome, to be the world’s best athletes in whatever field,” he said.
And of course every chance to don the green and gold and represent Australia internationally is also an incredible motivation.
“To have the opportunity to represent something that it’s so inspirational for other countries to aspire towards is really great, and having the opportunity to stand on top of the podium and hear the national anthem is really special.
“I always think about the amazing opportunities I’ve been given to make the best of the situation, which I have. My wife has been really important to support me along this journey. My family has always been by my side, but also my teammates here have been pushing me along, making me better every day.”
And with less than nine years to go on the runway towards Brisbane 2032, McGrath relishes the crucial role he could play in bringing more people to the sport in the next decade and beyond.
“It’s such an interesting time because an athlete that could be on the start line in Brisbane in nine-years time could be nine or ten years old now. Just to think that a nine-year-old is out there somewhere, who could be an Olympic or Paralympic champion, having this little dream to be a part of it, is really amazing.
“For myself, hopefully I can bring people into our sport of paddling and out there on the water to enjoy it as much as I do. To bring people into the amazing environment of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is something that is really special,” McGrath concludes.