Friday 26 December 2014

Setting his sights high

Since he went totally blind at age 22, Mark Pollock has achieved things most of us can only dream about. Now he's headed for the South Pole. By Susan Daly

Driven: Mark Pollock in training ahead of his race to the South Pole
Driven: Mark Pollock in training ahead of his race to the South Pole

Ten years ago, Mark Pollock woke up in a hospital bed and realised two things. The first was that the Good Friday Agreement had been signed, a fact he gleaned from a radio playing in the nurses' tation. The second was that he couldn't see.

"I was uplifted to hear them talking about the Agreement on the news," remembers Mark.

"What I didn't realise was that I was totally blind because I still had bandages on my eyes. But I was never to see again -- I found that out for certain two months later."

Mark Pollock is now 32, an adventurer, international motivational speaker and super-tough athlete who is aiming to be the first blind man to reach the South Pole on foot.

But in 1998, when he went blind for good, he thought his life was over.

"I was devastated," he says. "I thought that was the end of everything -- sport, work, study, girlfriends, socialising. As far as I knew, people like me -- blind people -- couldn't do anything."

Mark had problems with the retinas in both his eyes since he was a child. When he was five, he lost all sight in his right eye. The rest of his childhood was spent being steered away from rough team sports, in a bid to preserve his 'good' eye.

By the time he left his home in Holyfield, Co Down, to study Business and Economics in Trinity College Dublin, he had become a champion schools rower. It was a passion he was to follow in his college years -- and one that helped bring him back into the world after he lost his sight.

"The reason I was so devastated was that I had been a person with a very strong identity. I was captain of the rowing club, I was loving Trinity. When I went blind, that identity was completely scrapped," he says.

There had been a small chance that surgery would put Mark's remaining eyesight at risk -- but he never really countenanced such an outcome. He had been earmarked for a City job in London before he had that fateful operation in April 1998. He was cocksure, confident, ready to take on the world.

Instead, Mark found himself back living with his mother, learning to do the simplest things all over again.

"I had to find a new process of doing everything. For me to know if it was night or day, I would have to reach over, find my talking alarm clock and find out. Sometimes I couldn't find my toothbrush or I had to figure out which one was mine."

The initial frustration and anger subsided, and Mark enrolled in a course to help him cope with all aspects of his new life. "I just wanted to be independent again. I started to get the tools that might help me: my computer; my speaking clock; my watch; Larry, my guide dog."

But reality bites. While Trinity awarded him an honours degree, that job in London was now out of the question.

His potential was finally realised by the father of one of his college friends, who set him to organising corporate entertainment.

Then it was time to rebuild his sporting career. Rowing was still something he could do and he won bronze and silver medals for Northern Ireland in the 2002 Commonwealth Games.

He set himself bigger and bigger challenges. With a sighted partner racing with him, Mark ran six marathons in seven days across the Gobi Desert in China in 2003, raising tens of thousands for charity Sightsavers International along the way.

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