Thursday 27 July 2017

Achieving glory in adversity

Mark Rohan lost his ability to walk but not his ability to succeed, writes Marie Crowe

IMAGINE your worst nightmare, your greatest physical fear. And then multiply it by ten. Maybe now you are getting close to how Mark Rohan must have felt on the day his life and his body were thrown into the air and mangled almost beyond recognition.

And not just any life, not just any body. Rohan was an athlete, a high-level sportsman who thrived on the physical aspects of his work and his play.

The fact that he remains so is nothing short of remarkable.

Last week, in the house he had specially built 10 years ago, Rohan gave us a glimpse into another world. A world where courage is commonplace, determination is everyday and sporting excellence is still the driving force.

It was November 4, 2001 when the accident happened, Rohan was on his way to a soccer match in Tullamore. He had trained with the Westmeath under 21 footballers the previous evening; they were due to play a challenge game on the Sunday morning but that was called off so he decided to go to the soccer game instead.

Rohan was just three miles from his home when he came off his motorbike and hit a tree. He was lucky to survive. The impact left him with a litany of injuries including four broken bones in his back, four compound fractures of his right leg, a broken left foot, four broken ribs, a torn aorta, a broken sternum and a broken clavicle.

The accident also left him paralysed from the chest down.

Back then he was working as an electrician for the ESB, playing football for Westmeath and Castledaly and soccer for his local club Ballinahown.

Rohan survived, against the odds, and he had a long tough road of rehab ahead of him. He spent six months in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire and it took a further 18 months for the former footballer to get his independence back.

It was around that time that Rohan built his house just outside the Westmeath village of Ballinahown, not far from his parents' place. It suits his needs perfectly, the bungalow's doors have no saddles, the counters in the kitchen are low and the rooms are spacious. He has plenty of room to manoeuvre his wheelchair and also has a place to work out.

Along with Katie Taylor he's just signed up to be an ambassador for Sky Sports as part of their scholarship programme so as a perk he was sent a brand new TV and Sky box.

After the accident Rohan found accepting that life was going to be different was one of the toughest challenges he faced -- in many ways he had to leave his old life behind and start again. His old life was predominantly a physical one; it was playing football for his county, climbing poles for the ESB and helping out in his uncle's agricultural supplies business.

"It was a tough time but once I accepted that life would be different then I was able to make changes and adapt to my new circumstances," explains Rohan.

Another big challenge he faced was rebuilding his confidence, Rohan was now in a wheelchair and the things he used to do easily became a chore.

To be independent in a wheelchair you need to be physically strong and although Rohan was certainly this before the accident, after eight months lying in bed he had a lot of work to do. In Dun Laoghaire, sport was incorporated into his rehab, he started off with wheelchair table tennis and from there moved on to archery. He took to that straight away and even won a medal at the inter-spinal games. Rehab wasn't easy but Rohan maintains sport helped a lot.

"Even in the early stages sport was hugely beneficial. I've always been very driven, even in my work. Before the accident I used to do things like put up poles for the ESB and wire houses and even now I'd still drive by a place where I worked and think I did a good job there. It's just my mentality," says Rohan.

"I always liked doing things in set steps and sport is like that. You train, put in the work and compete and I can still do that now. It gives me an outlet to channel my energy. I suppose I could have done music or something else; some people turn to drink, I was lucky I had an interest in sport."

Once he got home Rohan took over the soccer team in Ballinahown, he did over 100 sessions with them and they earned promotion. They also made a cup final which they lost on penalties. Being on the sidelines for the first time made him realise he didn't want to be there for the rest of his life, he wanted some of the action and craved the buzz of team sports.

So he decided to do something about it. He got himself a car and set up the Athlone Wheelchair Basketball Club. The car gave him independence and allowed him to drive to training. It also gave him the opportunity to return to college and he spent three years in University College Dublin doing a sports management degree.

All the while Rohan kept up the basketball. From 2004 he was a regular on the national team and in 2007 when Ireland hosted the European Championships, the Westmeath man captained the side.

After that he took a year out and gave tennis ago before returning to basketball again. He also invested in a cross training bike for fitness and in 2009 he was asked to go to the UCI Paracycling Road World Championships in Italy.

"It was my first competitive race, I'd bought a bike online, it was like turning up to race on a High Nelly but I loved it. It was a great experience and there was so much room for improvement that I knew I could do well."

When he returned from Italy he dedicated his time to paracycling, he got a new bike and started training hard. It didn't take long for him to make progress and the following year he returned to the World Championships and won gold in the Road Race.

And the Ballinahown man didn't stop there. He kept working hard and last August at the World Championships in Denmark he retained his Road Race title and also added the Time Trial title to his repertoire. He now heads into the 2012 London Paralympic Games as double world champion and a front runner to get a medal.

For him this means a tough ten months of training. At the moment he has taken a career break from his job in the drawings room at the ESB so he can concentrate fully on preparing for the Games.

For the next eight weeks he will be working at home in Westmeath doing a strength phase. He's turned one of the spare rooms in his house into a makeshift gym, his bikes are stored there and he has a turbo rower on which he spends almost two hours every day.

Altogether he spends approximately 20 hours every week training so when he is not on the rower he is in the gym. After that he will head to South Africa for a cycling phase, this entails spending a lot of hours out on the road on the bike doing interval and endurance training.

Then next March it's back home again for the run up to the games.

Like Katie Taylor, he is expected to

medal at the games but the 30-year-old isn't letting the pressure get to him. His goal is a medal but his focus is on a personal best and he believes that if he focuses on his goal he is in big trouble.

Rohan is undecided about what the future holds for him after the Games. He'd like to go to America and maybe do a Masters. He's not sure if he will continue to cycle competitively.

He's recently taken up swimming and while on holidays in Florida a few weeks ago he tried water-skiing and loved it.

But looking back over all the sports he has applied himself to in the years since his accident it's still Gaelic football which holds a special place in his heart.

"I love it because you are playing with your friends; a group of people you grew up with and spent every day growing up with them kicking around. I remember going onto the pitch and you'd be ready to die for them. The game is special too; I loved the physical side of it, the speed and the skill.

"You make good friends in cycling but you just drop in and out of it. What I like about cycling is that after every session you have pushed yourself to the limit in a scientific way whereas with the GAA if you have kept your man scoreless often you've done a good job but you may not have touched the ball. If I could ever go back to the game I don't think I'd go back as a full-back. I'd like to be more involved in the game."

Maybe he will try to reach Paralympic level at a new sport, maybe he won't, but if his record over the last ten years is anything to go by, one thing is for sure: Mark Rohan will always be a competitor.

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