Elizabeth Marks competes in the Women's 50-meter butterfly finals at the 2021 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials on June 17, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minn.
MINNEAPOLIS — Setting records wasn’t on Elizabeth Marks’ mind heading into the first day of U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Swimming on Thursday.
She wanted to do well, of course. The athletes gathered in Minneapolis this week are all hoping to prove they belong in Tokyo this summer.
The 2016 Paralympic gold medalist and U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class just happened to do so well that she set two American records — one of them twice — and nearly equaled a world record in her two races at the Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center on the University of Minnesota campus.
“I think I just really enjoy swimming,” said Marks, who goes by Ellie. “I think it’s a lot of fun. So, I don’t know, I think sometimes the times reflect that when you’re happy. I’m just excited to be here.”
Thursday marked day one of the three-day trials, not only in swimming but also cycling and track and field, in Minneapolis. Marks, a native of Prescott Valley, Arizona, will be competing in four events, and started things off with the S6 100-meter backstroke. In a highly-competitive heat that included Paralympic veterans McKenzie Coan and Mallory Weggemann, Marks won with a time of 1:21.56, just shy of the world record of 1:21.43.
Her second race was the 50-meter butterfly. She first broke the American record of 37.10 seconds with her time of 37.08 in the morning’s preliminaries, then lowered it again in the final with a time of 37.06.
Marks, 30, was serving in Iraq as a combat medic when she was injured and suffered bilateral hip injuries. She started swimming in 2012, almost two years later, in order to help her become fit for duty, and it turned out she had a natural talent. After overcoming a life-threatening illness in 2014, Marks competed in the 2016 Invictus Games and won four events.
She went into Rio as the world record holder in the SB7 50-meter breaststroke with a time of 41.21 seconds, and won gold in the 100 breast. She also took bronze as a member of the 24 pt. 4x100-meter medley relay team and was eighth in the 100 back.
Then in 2017, the chronic pain that had plagued her for so many years as a result of both her injury and illness became unbearable. Marks decided to amputate her left leg below the knee. Two years later she made her world championships debut and won gold in the 100 backs.
Going into this, her second trials, Marks said there’s a different feeling.
“Last time I was so nervous I didn’t really get to soak it all in,” she said. “This time is just more fun. I still want to do well, but swimming is my happy place, not my job.”
Marks is a member of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, and said that in the days leading up to the trials she felt so much support from her unit.
“We have a lot of very talented athletes who took the time to wish me good luck,” she said. “There are also paratriathletes and Para archers in our unit and they all made time to encourage me. I feel very fortunate. I have a big, beautiful family of support.”
Para swimmers haven’t had many opportunities to compete before this week. In fact, for most of them the only live event since the COVID-19 shutdown was a World Para Swimming World Series event in Texas back in April, where Marks won the 100-breaststroke and set an American record.
She’ll compete in the 200-meter individual medley and the 50-meter freestyle before the trials are over.
As a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Marks said that coach Nathan Manley encouraged all of the swimmers going into the trials to enjoy the experience and be grateful.
Marks is certainly grateful to be back in her happy place.
“I love how hard (swimming) is,” she said. “I use swimming and racing as my time to reflect and think about my brothers and sisters in the military and show my gratitude through a physical act. It is a very special and personal experience to me.”