Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by milk life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Just over five years ago, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Marks was in San Antonio, recovering from hip injuries suffered during a deployment in Iraq in 2010.
Marks, a combat medic, was determined to recover so she could fully return to duty. One day, while visiting the pool at the Brooke Army Medical Center to get some physical activity, she caught a break.
Marks struck up a conversation with a woman who told her about adaptive swimming programs. The woman taught Marks how to swim with the injuries she had. Two months later, Marks was swimming at the Warrior Games.
In the years since, Marks’ life has benefitted in numerous ways from adaptive swimming. She’s not only competed in the Warrior and Invictus Games, multi-sport events for wounded warriors put on by the U.S. and UK, respectively, but she also won two medals in her classification at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, a gold in the 100-meter breaststroke and a bronze in the 4x100-meter medley.
At the same time, Marks has remained an active-duty soldier. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and works at nearby Fort Carson as part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program.
“Had that person not seen me at the pool that day, it would have been a lot more difficult, it would have been a lot harder transition,” said Marks, 27.
Marks felt that swimming was such a powerful force in her life that in the years since, she’s worked to help other active-duty military and veterans learn about the healing power of adaptive sports. It’s become a focus of her life that will remain a priority even after she stops competing as a swimmer.
“I think that serving is a lifelong commitment,” she said. “I don’t believe that it’s serving and then you’re done. These people are my family. So even while I’m being competitive and even while I’m on active duty, if I were to transition out of the military, if I were to transition out of adaptive sports, I would always try to make myself available to my family.”
Marks has helped counsel many men and women with injuries to take up adaptive sports. She’s given her contact information to the World Class Athlete Program in San Antonio and at Fort Carson, and is happy to speak with anyone who has questions.
“I’m not a coach,” she said. “I make sure they know that. I’ve only been swimming since 2012. But if there’s any mentorship I can provide or I can help people become more confident in the water … or help them figure out their new normal, I’m happy to mentor.
“If I don’t know how to do it, I have friends that do. If we don’t know how to do it, we’ll find someone who does. I try to stay actively engaged as much as possible.”
When Marks first began swimming, she says it helped her to heal.
“I found a lot of peace in the pool,” she said.
Yet she still felt something was missing. It wasn’t until she began reaching out to others that she truly felt whole again. She says her passion for helping others is greater than for pursuing medals.
“Being able to usher people into Paralympics, to show them they have a path and that they can strive for something, is powerful and exciting,” she said.
Marks’ own path has been difficult. The Arizona native first had three operations to restructure her hips after the injuries in Iraq. Then an illness in 2014 reduced the mobility in her legs and decreased her lung capacity, causing disorientation and vision issues while swimming. Those difficulties took a bad turn, putting her in the hospital, where she was put on life support. Though doctors told her she survived because she was in excellent condition from swimming, she lost even more leg mobility and developed neurological issues.
By the time she was preparing for the Paralympics in Rio last year, she was in bad shape.
“I was losing a bunch of weight and my hair was falling out and I was in a lot of pain,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep very well, I couldn’t eat very well. It was just mentally exhausting.”
Doctors determined the problems were centered in her lower left leg, so she and her doctors decided to amputate below the knee in July. She calls it a “quality of life” decision that has been a huge positive. She’s now eating, gaining weight and sleeping.
“I feel so much better mentally,” she said. “It was a wonderful decision.”
Within days of the surgery she was lifting weights. Soon, she was back in the pool. Now she’s ready to start competing again in January. She’d love to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, but she’s going to keep her focus on closer day-to-day goals and helping others.
“I’m grateful for every day in the pool,” she said. “I’ll work my hardest. The real gold and the real gold medal for me is how many people can we bring into the Paralympics.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.