Health

Friday 19 September 2014

I was the first blind man to conquer the South Pole, now I don't know if I'll ever walk again

Three weeks before his wedding, adventure athlete Mark Pollock fell from a second-floor window and broke his back, writes Susan Daly

On a good day, Mark Pollock considers himself a lucky man. He's alive and he shouldn't be, having split open his skull and ruptured an aorta, filling his chest with blood, when he fell from a second-floor window two months ago.

On other days, when the spirit is low, the adventure athlete allows himself to feel that he has been hellishly unlucky. In the fall Mark also broke his back in three places and he has still not regained any feeling in his legs.

It would be a terrible trial for anyone, but the sense of tragedy is compounded by the fact that just over a decade ago, Mark had to overcome another immense physical hurdle.

Twelve years ago, at the age of 22, Mark went suddenly and completely blind.

"I'm trying to think back to when I went blind," says Mark. "I'm only two months into this (breaking his back) and I'm not comfortable with it or probably not particularly dealing with it. Two months into going blind, was I thinking like this?"

Mark had been born with weak retinas and lost the sight in one eye at the age of five. The retina in his other 'good' eye detached as he was finishing a degree in Trinity College Dublin.

Over the next decade, Mark learned to rebuild his life, got a job, girlfriends, and won two Commonwealth medals in rowing. He became a motivational speaker, wrote an inspirational book called Making It Happen and competed in adventure races all over the world.

In 2003, he ran six marathons in seven days across the Gobi Desert, raising funds for Sightsavers International. He became an Ironman triathlete. He competed against legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes who called him "truly inspiring".

For the tenth anniversary of his going blind, Mark decided to set himself a new challenge, more daring than any he had attempted before. He decided to compete against the likes of Olympic medallist James Cracknell and his team-mate Ben Fogle in the first race to the South Pole in a century. If he completed the 800km race, he would become the first blind man to reach the Pole on foot.

The harsh training regime he set himself, the financial headaches and his gruelling experience in the race itself are portrayed in a powerful and moving documentary being shown on RTE1 tonight called Blind Man Walking.

"I felt I had become a bit stale with the races and talks I had been doing," explains Mark. "I wasn't sure I was bringing any fresh insights to my talks and I wanted to really go and put myself on the line."

The South Pole race was more than putting himself on the line; it was potentially putting himself at death's door. It involved two months of non-stop trekking in temperatures as low as -48 degrees, pulling a 200lb sled of provisions behind him.

It was a 12-hours-a-day slog, head-down, battling the elements, trying not to starve, freeze, or fall into a crevasse in the ice. But for Mark, completing the race would prove once and for all that he was truly an adventure athlete.

"Any sporting thing I'd done before, there was always the element of 'Sure that's great, 'cos Mark's blind'," he says. "I really felt that when I was talking to people about this race they were fascinated with Antarctica and the South Pole and it wasn't about the blindness. It just felt like the adventure was a true adventure -- and it took me away from my blindness."

You'll have to tune in tonight to discover the outcome of the race. Suffice to say, Mark came back in one piece in February of last year, with a fresh perspective on life. He was making plans to get into radio and other media, and to expand his motivational business. He followed the South Pole race with other physical challenges -- including becoming the first blind man to co-skipper a boat in the 1,400-mile Round- Ireland Yacht Race in June of this year.

He had also made a very personal decision while at the South Pole: to propose to his girlfriend Simone. His Norwegian team-mate Inge had warned all the competitors to not act immediately on any major vows they made to themselves during the mentally-challenging conditions of the race.

"So I waited until November to ask Simone. I phoned Inge to tell him then and he said, 'Jeez, I was only talking about a couple of weeks to calm down, I didn't mean nine months!'"

The couple had been due to marry on this August Bank Holiday weekend, something Mark says has been "postponed, not cancelled".

Three weeks before, on July 2, Mark was attending the Royal Rowing Regatta in Henley, England, when he fell from a second-storey window in the house where he was staying. It is not yet clear if he was sleepwalking or disoriented as he made his way to a bathroom that night: all he remembers is being on the ground below.

"Apparently I was trying to get up and I remember hearing Brendan Smyth, the rower I did the Commonwealth Games with, saying, 'It'll be alright, it'll be alright, just stay lying down'."

His parents and Simone were at his bedside the day after the accident and have been there since as he moved from weeks of morphine-hazed consciousness to delicate surgery to stabilise his back.

He is now rehabilitating in Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire, a centre for spinal injuries in the UK. His doctors have no long-term prognosis on whether he will walk again and Mark is undergoing exhausting physiotherapy sessions, trying to build up his strength to be able to sit in a wheelchair for more than an hour or two at a time.

"At times I do feel unlucky," he says. "Then I think I really could have died in the first couple of weeks after the accident.

"We met a guy last night who is two years down the line from getting a wheelchair. He used to be a professional moto-cross rider and he's back out working, he's a mechanic, and doing all sorts of sports and living his life independently. On one hand, you think, 'Well, that's great, one small step at a time', and I can be happy and positive.

"But then you start thinking, 'I don't want to be a happy person in a wheelchair'."

One consolation to him is that TV viewers will be able to see him at his finest in tonight's documentary.

He didn't want his accident to change anything about the film -- especially not the title, Blind Man Walking, which he came up with for director Ross Whitaker, and which now seems particularly poignant.

'I didn't want to change it because of this accident," he says. "The great thing about the film is that it captures a time when I was feeling very content and had buried the demons of my blindness after going to the South Pole. Trusting Ross to tell the real story has allowed me to have a record of one of the most positive times of my life.

"It didn't feel like a short-term champagne-popping experience: achieving the South Pole gave me a long-lasting contentment."

Blind Man Walking is on RTE1 tonight at 10.30pm. l Read about Mark's progress in his blog at markpollock.com

Irish Independent

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