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22 and not Bullet Proof: Rebuilding after a major life event

Good as Gold's Podcast EP12

Mark Daniels is a motivational speaker, paracanoe and adaptive athlete who is passionate about pushing the limits and motivating others to do the same. Mark rebuilt his life and career after almost dying in a road crash which resulted in his right leg being amputated above the knee. This week Cal and Em speak to Mark on the Good as Gold’s podcast about how he has recovered both physically and mentally, and the role exercise has played, and continues to play in his journey.

In December 2015 Mark was 22 years old, a marine technician in the Navy, and had just returned home from a 4.5 month deployment in Northeast Asia. He was riding his motorbike home from a friend’s house, when a distracted driver t-boned him.

“I woke up not knowing what the hell happened. My list of injuries include a broken neck, 11 broken ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured kidney, broken right femur in four places, ruptured my femoral artery on the right side, and broken right hand. I went through 65 units of blood, died three times and had to be fully resuscitated and I was in a coma for ten days.”

Initially, his right leg had to be amputated below the knee, however after 14 surgeries he decided to remove it from above the knee.

“I decided let’s get rid of it. It’s not working. My leg was stuck at about 40 degrees, so it was never going to run, never going to walk properly or ride a bike. This isn’t living. It’s not helping me get rid of it. So that’s when I elected to have it chopped off and against medical advice. Everyone was like, ‘you don’t want to do this, it is so much harder being above the knee’. They are right. It is so much harder, but there’s no point holding on to something that doesn’t work.”

Going from a young, fit, active man to relearning basic life skills took a toll on Mark’s mental health, and while he was in hospital he attempted to take his life.

“I didn’t know how to be disabled. I didn’t want to be a burden on society and my family.”

His navy captain at the time put him in touch with Paul de Gelder, a clearance diver who lost part of his arm and leg in a shark attack during a routine military exercise.

“Paul was basically the one that saved me. He said ‘mate people are going to tell you what you can and can’t do for the rest of your life, tell them all to F off’.”

This gave Mark a newfound motivation to fight. After three weeks in hospital he went home…but had to move in with his parents when he realised he needed support while learning how to use a wheelchair, crutches and do daily tasks like shower himself. It was a tough transitional period for Mark both physically and mentall, but he was determined to not let his disability define him.

“In order to be physically strong I need to be mentally strong. I need to get back into the gym, I need to start training.”

“I learned how to pistol squat into my wheelchair with a broomstick. I learned how to deadlift on one leg. We weren’t even using weight, we were using bloody broomsticks, but we looked at mobility and how to adapt with one leg. Then I started going, okay, then what can I do?”

Mark remained in the Navy for five years after the injury, but was struggling with his mental health and PTSD so he decided to discharge. He is now a qualified PT – a job that also allows him to also focus on his kayaking – a team he was asked to join at the 2018 Invictus Games. 

“I could just not stay upright, but the fact I couldn’t do it pissed me off that much that I just kept going back and I fell in love with the sport because of how hard it was, because of how many things you have to overcome just to stay upright in the kayak.”

Along with training to qualify for the paralympics, Mark has been sober for 20 months and is continuing to work on his mental health. He is passionate about encouraging others to not compare themselves to others, to speak up when they are struggling and he is redefining what it means to live with a disability.

“I guess part of it is redefining what it means to be disabled. We’re getting better with it and brands are getting a lot more inclusive – we’re seeing a lot more publicity about it, people with disabilities on TV – there’s a lot of people doing amazing work, but I guess it’s changing that mentality of people like myself is that being disabled is a burden, and to change it to having a disability can be the most inspiring thing.”

As for what motivates him…

“At 22 I figured out what it was like to die – laying on the side of the road. People say that when you die, like your life flashes before you. For me it didn’t. It was every reason I wanted to live. It was every mistake I made. Every time I was an asshole to someone, every time I just wanted to be a better person. I just begged for whoever was listening, like God, whoever else…and I made that promise that if I got a second chance, I’m living it. I’m living every second of it. So that’s probably why I went out so hard at the start, but when you know what it’s like to lose everything, you want to make the most of everything you enjoy, every sunrise, every sunset, you want to wake up and just live life.”

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