A Sunderland war veteran who saw Army comrades killed as he served in Afghanistan is walking his way to fighting a mental health battle.
Ray Robinson, who now works as a lifeguard at Sunderland Aquatic Centre, has said sport is helping him recover from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The 44-year-old served for 10 years in the light infantry regiment of the Army, during which time he was a keen runner and cyclist, racing in national and international events.
But after a trapped nerve induced back injury, Ray found himself unable to train at the same level, so took up Nordic walking.
He recently won the National 3000m British Masters Indoor Walks Championship, adding to a host of achievements over the years, but now has his sights set on taking part in the Invictus Games, which was set up by the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry.
Ray, who is a now a member of 8 Rifles, the reserve infantry battalion of the North East, said: “I’ve been into sport since the age of 10 as I come from a big family of footballers and boxers.
"I’m not training to the level I was before my back injury, but I still try to run and cycle.
“Nordic walking has been part of my rehab and involves walking at speed with poles for an allover body workout.
"I really enjoy it as it has less impact on my legs and my back.”
After taking up the sport, Ray joined Redcar Race Walking Club and started being coached by walking athlete John Paddick, an Olympian who competed in the 20km walk event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Ray has since won first place in the 3km and 5km British Masters Outdoor Walks Championship, but now has his sights set on competing at the Invictus Games - a multi-sport event for veterans and serving soldiers who have been injured in service.
This event is of great meaning to the athlete as during his last tour in Afghanistan in 2010, Ray was involved in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack which saw some of his comrades killed in action.
As a result, Ray suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and it’s his passion for sport that has helped him through.
“It took eight years for the PTSD to come to the surface, as my injury meant that I had to spend a lot of time at home,” said Ray.
“The Invictus Games Foundation uses sport as a way of recovery, and it helps to keep you busy.
"I was diagnosed in 2017 and am now very open about it after I received therapy from the Army and the NHS.
"The hardest thing was accepting it, realising things weren’t going the way they should, and stepping forward to say, ‘I have a problem’.”
Making full use of the facilities at the Aquatic Centre, which is run by Everyone Active on behalf of Sunderland City Council, Ray is now committed to a gruelling training regime for the Invictus Games trials, which take place in Sheffield in July, ahead of the Games in summer 2020.
He plans to compete in the cycling, swimming, indoor rowing and athletics events.
Ray makes the most of every opportunity to train throughout his working day as a lifeguard.
After taking his dog for a morning walk, he cycles 20 miles to work each day, takes a swim before his shift begins, then completes 5km on the indoor rowing machine on his lunch break. He then cycles home, goes for a four mile run and a 5km race walk.
Ray said: “There is still a stigma around mental health, and unfortunately some of my comrades have committed suicide after suffering with PTSD.
"After I came forward to my manager at the Aquatic Centre about it, they enabled me to go for treatment and have been very supportive. It really was a weight off my shoulders.
“I’m now very focused on training for the Invictus Games trials over the summer and am looking forward to being with like-minded people who understand PTSD.
"I’m hoping it will help with the road to recovery from both physical and mental injuries. I take every day as it comes now.”
Elizabeth Spencer, sales manager at Everyone Active, said: “Ray’s commitment to staying active quite simply blows us away each day at Sunderland Aquatic Centre.
"He is a true inspiration and we wish him every success with his upcoming competitions and Invictus Games trials.”