Elizabeth Marks competes at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Swimming has always been about more than lap times and medals for Paralympic gold medalist Elizabeth Marks.
At this year’s U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Championships, to be held Friday through Sunday, it will be about even more. Not only will she be racing in her home state of Arizona, but this will also be her way of saying thank you to all the people who supported her after making the life-changing decision to amputate her left leg below the knee in July 2017.
“The most important thing at this meet is to perform to the best of my ability because there have been so many people that have not questioned me and rallied behind me and supported me and I want them to see the fruits of their labor and understand that I took this very seriously,” said Marks, 28, from Prescott Valley, Arizona. “I’ve been very appreciative of the opportunities they’ve given me. A lot of coaches and high performance directors on the military and the civilian side would have walked away from an athlete going through what I did and no one walked away from me.”
Marks is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program who had already undergone more than her share of operations, hospital stays and recovery time before the amputation.
Injured in Iraq in 2010, she underwent hip surgery multiple times. Illness and complications resulted in decreased lung capacity and mobility in her legs, then in 2014 while on her way to the Invictus Games in London, she fell ill and ended up on life support. That resulted in even more complications and by the time Marks made her Paralympic debut in Rio in 2016, she was living with daily, chronic pain.
Despite the severity of the pain, Marks refused the drugs that would have brought some relief because of family history and fear of what the medication might do. So she dealt with it, and even tried to ignore it, until her body would no longer let her.
“I definitely lied to myself for a while, until my hair started falling out and I couldn’t keep weight on,” she said. “I worked with a nutritionist who tried so hard to help keep the weight on, but I had no appetite and my stomach was a mess. All things that come from pain that if you don’t acknowledge it, your body starts to tell you in serious ways.”
She was too thin, she was exhausted because she couldn’t sleep, and she could no longer function at the level she was used to functioning.
At that point, amputation wasn’t just an option, she said. It was the only option.
Marks had no doubt it was the right thing to do after the operation was complete.
She had no idea how much pain she’d been in, she said, until the leg was gone.
“Some of the feel-good drugs wore off and I was waiting for the epidural to wear off and mentally preparing for this pain that never truly came,” she said. “It was painful, but compared to what I’d been living in it was a relief. It was kind of shocking that it had been so long that I’d been in pain I didn’t really recognize it. I got emotional because immediately after the surgery, I felt so much better.”
The recovery was not unlike what she’d been through after some of her other surgeries and medical interventions over the years, Marks said, and it was made much easier by the support of the people around her including her husband Mason Heibel, whom she married in November, Queenie Nichols, the high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming, head coach Nathan Manley and Willie Wilson, chief of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
One week out of surgery, she was back to lifting weights and her doctor allowed her to get back in the water as soon as the incision healed. Six weeks after surgery, she got her prosthesis and walked for the first time, and she rejoined the team in October.
“There have been hard parts and there’s been pain involved, but even the painful parts have been positive,” she said. “It immediately told us we made the right decision by how my body responded and allowed me to sleep and eat again and gain weight, and my hair grew back.”
Even with the amputation, she said, most of her strokes in swimming did not change dramatically nor did her classification change. There has been a bit of a learning process when it comes to using her “new” body to her advantage. Her breaststroke is different, but she’s also able to recover better now that she isn’t dealing with the pain. She’s even enjoying — mostly — other strokes besides the breaststroke, she said, for which she won gold in the 100-meter in Rio.
“I still don’t love freestyle, but I tolerate it better,” she said. “I have less excuses to not like it now.”
Marks started competing again in February. At nationals she’ll race in the 50-meter butterfly on Friday, although only for fun because the event isn’t contested for her classification, and then the 50 freestyle, 100 breaststroke and 100 backstroke, all on Saturday. Although she’s never raced that many events in one day, Marks said, she’s excited to see how she handles the volume.
“It’s a new race plan and a new location,” she said. “It’ll be fun and difficult so I’m kind of setting the goal as this is my new baseline. I’m finally, I think, steady enough at my new normal to set the baseline high. I’d like them to be good times for me so I know what to look forward to and what to improve on.”