05 November 2019

EXCLUSIVE: First interview with Rachel Williamson, Team UK's first female Invictus Games captain

It has been an uncomfortable few months for Prince Harry, with suggestions of a rift with his brother, concerns over the 'fragile state' of him and his wife Meghan and an escalation of his private war with the tabloid press.

But this week he was back in his comfort zone, surrounded by the men and women of his Invictus Games army and with one competitor in particular proud to be called 'Harry's girl'. 

Former RAF medic and corporal Rachel Williamson was unveiled as Team UK's first female Invictus Games Captain and she marked the occasion by giving the founder a huge hug.

A hug from Harry was a real highlight at the team's unveiling this week (Rachel Williamson)

“It’s just incredible, unbelievable and I’m so proud to be the first female captain of Team UK,” said the 30-year-old.

“It [a female captain] was bound to happen at some point but anyone can go for it so I’m truly honoured. It really is amazing,” she added.

When applying to be an Invictus competitor, all applicants have the option to run for positions of authority and Williamson was one of only two females in a select group of six to make it to the interview round.

The rugby fanatic referred to the roller-coaster of emotions of the week and admitted that her appointment “ranks even above England winning the Rugby World Cup".

Given the disappointment of their defeat to South Africa in Tokyo yesterday, that's just as well.

“This week has been mad what with the rugby and this - I’ve never had so many different emotions in such a short space of time it’s crazy.

“But it’s definitely gotta be captain that tops it off and makes me the most emotional. It’s so personal and it’s just everything,” she added.

The Duke of Sussex has a laugh with Team UK at the launch (PA Images)

The Invictus Games were launched by the Duke of Sussex in 2014 after he took inspiration from the Warrior games in America.

Williamson was full of praise for the young royal saying: “He is hugely involved and integral to the process. He comes to our training camps and does join in himself. It’s great that we actually have him with us because he is part of Team UK like the rest of us.

"We don’t just hear about him and see pictures of him, but he does come along and speak to all the competitors and take part. He knows what our mentality is like so he really gets involved.

“He said that as the captain just be yourself. You don’t need to copy what anyone else has done. Make it your own and you will grow in confidence throughout this experience. This is your journey as well as everyone else’s.

She added: “He’s such a genuine guy and he gave me some advice and most importantly I got my hug!”

A dream come true to meet "The Thorpedo" Ian Thorpe in Sydney (Rachel Williamson)

While her meeting with the prince was clearly a special one, Williamson has had several encounters with sporting stars and other celebrities. 

“I met Ian Thorpe, the Thorpedo, on poolside in Sydney. I’ve been on the One Show, I’ve met Michael Ball and Alex Jones.

Rachel (second from right) alongside team mates on the One Show with Michael Ball and Alex Jones (Rachel Williamson)

“There’s loads,” she said nonchalantly, adding: “David Beckham is just as good looking in person. He was sort of soft spoken and I remember him smelling really good!”

Close enough to confirm David Beckham "smelling really good" (Rachel Williamson)

Full of surprises, when asked the one celebrity she would want to meet, Williamson was quick to say: “I would love to meet “The Rock” - Dwayne Johnson.

“I think he just seems like such a genuine person. He’s got that 'anything is possible attitude' like the Invictus spirit. He shares our values I think.”

A keen swimmer and Olympic hopeful in her youth, sport has always been a huge part of Rachel’s life.

Rachel in 2002 with her impressive collection of swimming trophies (Rachel Williamson)

“I don’t think I had any aspirations other than being an Olympian. That was my childhood dream.”

Rachel dreamed of a place on the Olympic team (Rachel Williamson)

She narrowly missed out on Beijing qualification and admits joining the military was just her “going out on a limb and going for it” when she accepted her Olympic hopes would not become a reality.

Rachel in her basic training kit (Rachel Williamson)

Upon joining the RAF, Rutland-born Williamson signed up for the rugby union team after switching from swimming because she was “fed up of smelling like chlorine all the time”. 

It was during a training session in 2014 that she suffered a thumb sprain that would impact the rest of her life.

Rachel (left) was an impressive rugby player for the RAF Women's Rugby Union side (Rachel Williamson)

“All I did was sprain my right thumb,” she said. “I just bent it backwards and landed on it awkwardly. I carried on as normal, I even played a game the following day.

“It went into my fingers and my hand and now it’s all the way up to my shoulder so I’ve got no functioning in my right arm.”

She was medically discharged in February 2018 at what she calls “the lowest point” of her life.

“But thanks to Invictus I’ve now represented my country so I’m very happy.” she added.

The medical future is still unclear for the trail-blazing captain who won six medals at the games in 2018 in Sydney (two gold in rowing, three silver and one bronze in swimming.)

Rachel is ready to add to her impressive collection of medals from Sydney 2018 (Rachel Williamson)

“We don’t know what will happen now,” she said, “it’s a slow progression. The nerve messages are confused between my brain and arm. It’s almost like it is going paralysed.”

This is not stopping the wonder woman, who, not content with just swimming and rowing, is adding field athletics to her repertoire for 2020. 

She is ready to knuckle down to business but also reflects on the community atmosphere with competitors from other countries.

“You make friends for life. I’m still in touch with the girls I competed with,” she said. “It’s great that even where language might be a barrier, we still have sport and our journeys that can keep us connected. It’s truly amazing.”

She recalls fondly one particular memory from Sydney.

“We created the wedding of a Canadian competitor. Because of his injury he doesn’t remember anything prior to that and they managed to get a vicar. We went into the main hub and grabbed everyone and it was a complete surprise to his wife as they renewed their vows in front of everyone.

"Competitors from all over the world were there together. We were all crying and even though we didn’t know each other we were all proud and together and this guy has some amazing new memories.

"It’s really gonna be a fun year ahead and I can’t wait for the games. I just have to go through the training and stuff but I’m so excited.”

The 65 athletes for the 2020 Invictus Games (Rachel Williamson)

Williamson was keen to pay tribute to Help for Heroes, the charity launched in 2007 to help provide better facilities for British servicemen and women who have been wounded or injured in the line of duty.

“I could not have done any of it without them,” she said, adding that she wants to “give back as much as I can now". 

And in a message that would doubtless meet the approval of the Games' founder - and her new 'favourite celebrity' - she encouraged others to get involved: “Just take the plunge. You never know what you discover. It could be a whole new sport, new world, new experience. Just give it a go."

Ready to replicate that winning feeling (Rachel Williamson)

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