Campbell River’s Chris Zizek spent almost 20 years serving our country in the Canadian Military.
He now turns his attention to serving ill and injured veterans – like himself – as an advocate, ally and athlete.
Zizek has been named to Team Canada for next year’s Invictus Games, taking place in The Hague, Netherlands, in rowing, seated volleyball and swimming. When named to the team earlier this year, he had no background or training in any of these sports, but he was more than willing to give them a shot.
His background is in mechanics. His 19.5 years in the forces were spent as a vehicle technician. He spent time working on military vehicles in every province of Canada other than Newfoundland, and did a tour in Afghanistan in 2005-2006.
“Unfortunately, my body was taking a beating,” he says. “I was getting sore hips over the years, and now I’ve had three hip surgeries since 2008, including a hip replacement. That’s what got me released from the forces. I didn’t meat the ‘universality of service,’ as it’s called.”
He was later also diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
But while he was undertaking his release protocol in Comox, he took a volunteer position with BC Parks, and met Harry Reddin. Reddin is a retired military firefighter who had previously taken part in the Invictus Games and now served as a park ranger. He encouraged Zizek to apply.
But Zizek didn’t think he would bother. There’s no way they’d pick him, he thought, and if they did, he wasn’t really in any physical condition to compete.
“But (Reddin) said, ‘think of it this way, there are people who are missing limbs that are doing this, there are people on the team who are recovering from cancer.’”
So he sent in an application, and kind of forgot about it.
Me of all people…
“When that letter came in May, I had to have my wife read it, because I wasn’t sure if I read it right,” he says. “There were 500-plus applicants and 32 selected for the team, and I was one of them. I’m still flabbergasted.”
You see, Team Canada, Zizek says, is a little different than some of the teams that go to the Games, which he found out when he was accepted – but before he attended the first training camp in September, just outside Quebec City. There are no “tryouts” to make the team, and they don’t place people in events based on their skill in them.
“Their whole thing is to give everyone a chance,” he says. “You rank which events you’d like to do from 1-6 for the individual sports and 1-3 for the team sports and then they try to figure it out to give people the ones they want to do. I think the oldest guy on the team is 67, and we’ve got some 20-year-olds, and we run the whole spectrum of injuries and illnesses and backgrounds and a lot of us don’t have any idea what we’re doing when it comes to the sport we’re playing,” he adds with a laugh.
Like Zizek himself on the rowing machine, for example.
“I don’t have a good technique,” he says with another chuckle. “I’m like a blob on the seat and my legs kinda flail out and do a chicken-wing kind of thing. At the camp they told me I couldn’t row like that, and I said ‘I have to row like that. It’s the only way my hips go.’”
Bringing everyone along
But the first thing Zizek thought when he was accepted wasn’t “now I have to get in shape,” it was, “how am I going to afford for everyone to come?”
“I wanted the journey to be with my family. We didn’t know that two people were sponsored, at first, but when we found out, it relieved a lot of stress, but I have two boys, 10 and 14, and I knew they were both coming, we just had to figure out how.”
He wanted them to be there with him. He wasn’t going to go without his whole family.
“My kids are somewhat spoiled living here in Canada,” he continues, “so I thought maybe they’ll stop worrying about the little things in life if they actually see, in person, someone swim 200m with one arm. Maybe they’ll stop saying, ‘I can’t’.”
He didn’t really want to ask for financial help, he says, “but my family got on me and said, ‘let’s make this a thing, and we’ll make it a big deal,’ so I said, ‘okay,’ but I was really, really hesitant.”
So he started up a GoFundMe campaign to make enough to bring his third family member.
But the first day that the GoFundMe campaign was open, he made it to about third of his $3,000 goal. He’s now passed that goal, and doesn’t have to worry about being able to afford for his whole family to be with him for this important event, so he closed the fundraiser early.
“I really just can’t thank the community enough,” he says. “I know there are a lot of friends and family in that donor list, but there are a lot of anonymous people and people I don’t know who just threw money in, and all I can say is thank you. There’s something about this Island, and Campbell River, in particular, that everyone is just very, very generous around here.
And he’s hoping that he can do them proud. Not that he’s hoping to win his events, or anything, because that’s not what it’s about. For him, it’s about continuing his journey to good health.
“I just want to be not the last guy in the pool or the last guy on the rower,” he says. “I know that’s not the purpose of these games, but it’s still, for me, about boosting my confidence that I’m still capable of doing these types of things – hopefully with only minor pain,” he laughs again. “A lot of times when you have physical injuries, people get it in their head that they ‘can’t’ do things. The more I keep getting more active, the better it feels. Hopefully, after the games, I can keep this going.”
He also wants to take the honour of being named to the team and carry that forward, as well.
“Just because I got in this time, doesn’t mean I will in 2022,” he says.
“But if I don’t, I’m going to apply to be a coach so I can keep being a part of it. It’s important, and I can’t promote it enough, I don’t think. It’s so important and I’ve just been having a blast, so whatever I can do to support it, I’m in.
“It’s been a wicked ride. An absolutely wicked ride.”
And Zizek will be ready.