Francine Dudfield has scaled cliff-faces, traversed through caves, and provided life-changing care to sick and injured people in places like the South Pacific and Middle East.
As much as her physical strength has carried her through life’s demands, it’s Francine's mental stamina that has proven an even more powerful tool, one that has carried her through a brand-new challenge – the Dusseldorf Invictus Games.
Always competitive and chasing a challenge, Francine was inspired to enlist in 2004 as a medic for the Australian Army.
“I loved adventure, I always wanted to help people so that’s what drew me to being a medic,” she said.
“I was also really proud of being Australian.
“For me just being able to do my role as a medic for some people who were really unwell and provide them with the care they needed, that was very, very rewarding for me.”
One element of the army that was particularly appealing to Francine was access to sport. From a young age, she had always found herself on the sidelines of soccer fields and lining up for races – it is an inextricable part of who she is.
"I love the team environment, the competition, the excitement, everything,” she said.
“I love keeping fit. Sport has always been a big part of my life.”
But there was a time where, standing on the sidelines ready to compete in a sprint race or boxing tournament, the adrenaline of the moment would turn into “horrific” anxiety.
As she moved through life and continued her service, lasting injuries and chronic pain began to impact her sports participation. Recovery times extended from days to weeks, and nothing was easing the pain of competing in events she still loved.
She said she felt a part of her identity was stripped from her.
“It was quite disheartening, actually,” she said.
"Being quite fit, playing sport and being healthy really was part of my identity. It’s part of who I am. With these injuries and with aging, to step away from that and reinvent yourself was a little bit overwhelming."
It was here that her mental stamina came into play.
Francine is studying clinical psychology and volunteering with the Office of the Public Advocate. In this role she visits mental health facilities and acute psychiatric centres, advocating on behalf of the people within and listening to their stories.
Francine herself has also always seen a psychologist.
“I’m very passionate about mental health and I want to get people to see psychologists and have a bit more self-compassion, especially in the veteran community,” she said.
“A lot of people don’t want to admit they’ve got problems and don’t want to ask for help.”
All of her experiences have helped build the stamina Francine now uses day-to-day, as well as in the heat of a competition. Equipped with the tools to build her psychological power to match her physical strength, she has reshaped the way she looks at herself and her abilities.
“I feel like my preparation is very different, with deep breathing, very positive talk, self-compassion, taking things from a different perspective and also not needing to win,” she said.
"Winning would be great but it’s not a reflection on my value as a person. Prior to that I felt like I had to win, which I guess is the ego talking."
Playing adaptive sports, like those at the Invictus Games, allowed her to continue her passion for fitness and wellbeing without aggravating her injuries and chronic pain.
Francine represented Australia at the 2023 Invictus Games in volleyball, powerlifting, and rowing, but more importantly she was able to represent the female veteran community – something she feels enormously proud of.
“As females in a male-dominated environment, like in the ADF, we do have a lot of challenges that nobody wants to talk about because we don’t want to be seen as weak or causing any issues,” she said.
"I just want other female veterans to feel like they’re worthy and capable to be able to participate in these male-dominated events. We’re just as amazing."
On par with her physical preparation for the competition was the mental preparation. Francine said this focus on self-compassion and gratitude has completely changed her perspective on competing in a way that has only made her stronger.
“Maybe I’m not as competitive,” she said.
“Success to me is that I’ve had fun.
“I’ve had fun, I’ve performed to a standard that I’m happy with, and also being able to share those quality memories with my friends and family.”