Every once in a while, you come across people who simply amaze you. I’m talking about the ones that astound you in a good way. The ones you talk to for a couple minutes before realizing that pretty much every word they say is so true, so applicable to your own life. Those people leave you speechless. You ask yourself: “Why can’t I be so humble yet determined, so full of energy yet in balance? Why can’t I inspire people the way this person does?” Mark Rohan is one of those amazing, humble, energetic, and inspirational people. Let me tell you his story…
Mark was born and raised in Ballinahown, Ireland, on July 26, 1981. Growing up as a kid, he enjoyed playing all kinds of sports, but especially Gaelic Football and soccer. Whenever possible, Mark wanted to spend his spare time outside. He enjoyed the freedom of being outdoors, whether it was helping out on a nearby farm or knocking a ball around with his friends. Mark was a naturally-gifted athlete. In fact, he was good enough to consider playing professional sports. Then, one morning in November of 2001, on the way to a soccer match, something happened that would change Mark’s life forever.
“I broke four bones in my back, I broke my chest bone, I broke ribs, the collar bone, had a punctured lung, tore my aorta, compound fractures in my feet, and I was in a ditch for about an hour and a half, two hours. It was November, it was cold…” What happened? Mark had a terrible motorcycle accident that morning and was found hours after the crash. If it wasn’t for Jim Dougherty, the guy who found him, Mark would probably not be here. “I was laying in the ditch, about 40 meters away from the bike. To the cars passing by, it must have looked like somebody parked the bike there.”
After the accident, Mark spent seven month in a hospital. For the first 14 days, he was in intensive care, before spending the next 12 weeks in a body cast. Mark survived the crash but was paralyzed from the chest down. At only 20 years of age, his world was shattered, but Mark tried to put the pieces back together. “With a spinal injury, you got to learn how to do everything again: dress, wash, how to use the bathroom, eat, cross the road, getting out of the car. Especially with a high level injury, you got to learn everything over again.” I cannot imagine what that must have felt like. Mark says his first thought after finding out about his paralysis was that he would never be able to play soccer again. “I don’t think I was fully aware of the extent of the injuries for a while. I wasn’t getting out and seeing the impacts. It was all very personal at the start.” A few months later, Mark left the hospital to attend a soccer game in a small, nearby town. That day, he began to experience the differences: “The way people look at you, that’s when you start to realize: ‘Okay, life is going to be a lot different.’”
Mark’s recovery and the fact that he – slowly but steadily – adjusted to his new life would be worth an entire story itself. But that’s not the part I consider inspirational. It’s the journey that began after he was released from the hospital which gives me chills. If you haven’t already seen it in the pictures, Mark went on to become a two-time hand cycling gold medalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. He sat on a hand cycle for the first time in 2009 and “fell in love with it. It gives me a great sense of freedom. Just being out in the countryside. If you’re an athlete and you get injured, you know how frustrating it is to just sit there and do nothing, not being able to do anything. On the bike, if I wanted to, I could cycle to New York. I like that. I like the idea of having an open road in front of me and being able to do whatever I want.” The love-at-first-sight turned into a passion, and eventually a profession. In late 2010, Mark was able to quit his job and become a professional hand cyclist. Thanks to financial support from the Irish government and sponsorships with companies such as Sky Sports [an equivalent to ESPN], Renault, and Invacare [which provides his wheelchair and hand cycle], Mark can spend money on things like expensive altitude camps.
Despite committing thousands of hours to hard training and making many sacrifices in order to be a professional athlete, Mark says the hardest challenge he ever faced was accepting “who you are. Once you are able to say: ‘I am in a wheel chair, okay. I’ll never move my legs again, I’ll never play soccer again. Forget about it. What can I do? Can I help others instead of being so self-absorbed?’” For Mark, the answer was: “Yes, I can!” Sports have made him the person he is today. Setting goals, working hard, that’s what helped Mark to recover mentally from his accident. He is now on the verge of retiring from professional sports. Last Tuesday, Mark left to go back to college and get his master’s degree in a sports management program at Real Madrid C.F. in Spain. “I need to work on myself for a little while, before taking on the next big challenge. I like to learn from other people. For me, that’s the best way to learn,” says the 34-year-old.
One message becomes very clear throughout the entire conversation with Mark: It never really is about him in the first place. It’s about those around him; about those he can learn from. People who have to overcome an obstacle in their life, just like Mark did. He doesn’t want to be famous for a few years, only to be left and forgotten thereafter, although he admits it is part of the business, part of being a professional athlete. Even if that happens, there’s nothing to be afraid of, says Mark: “Once you slap yourself and stop feeling sorry for yourself, you sit up and set a few challenges. Don’t take yourself too serious. Failure is not the end of the world. Enjoy life, it will be just fine.” The only thing he considers to be imperative is to find the reasons for why you are doing what you do. Why do you play soccer? Why do you go to school? “If you can’t answer that question, you’ll keep running in circles. Be very clear on your goals, values and what it is you want to achieve.”
Sports has helped Mark to overcome adversity. He believes in the power of sports which can bring together or reunite people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. “It can break down boundaries. In Ireland, the conflict between the North and South of the country was partially settled through sports. It has helped to rebuild communities. Sports is one of the best ways to connect people.” And since this blog is primarily focusing on the relationship between diabetes and sports, I’d like to twist Mark’s final comment a little: Sports shows you that, no matter what situation you are in, everything is possible. I’m certain Mark didn’t start hand cycling years ago, knowing he would become the best hand cyclist in the world. He did it to overcome his personal crisis, an obstacle that seemed impossible to break down. Here’s what Mark said about tough situations: “The biggest challenges I’ve faced led to my greatest successes, and sharing those experiences has helped me to motivate others.” Don’t ever let anyone tell you what to do or not to do. Don’t let them tell you what you are or are not capable of doing. Put your “Yes, I Can”-face on, set goals, and show those around you what you are made of. You won’t always succeed. But what did Mahatma Gandhi once say? “The path is the goal.” I hope you’ll find yours, or have already found it.
Listen to the first part of the interview:
Listen to the second part of the interview:
Listen to the three-minute podcast with Mark:
Watch the first part of the interview on YouTube:
Watch the second part of the interview on YouTube: