'People telling you that you're great has never been my thing' - Paul Kimmage meets Mark Rohan
Rio games are no longer on the agenda but Mark Rohan has moved on to his next challenge
'I guess it comes down to a simple choice really . . . get busy living or get busy dying'
- Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins)
'The Shawshank Redemption'
Last Thursday morning the former Irish Paralympian, Enda Smyth, posted a clip from a newspaper column on his Twitter page and made a stinging observation for a friend: When you're winning medals you're front page but when you talk classification you're page 51 #irishindependent
Page 51 was a short (211 words) story by Brian McDonald on the results page announcing that Mark Rohan, the double Olympic champion and "poster boy for disabled sport", would not be defending his titles in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. The story also made the 'Briefs' (218 words) section of The Irish Times. Nobody else seemed bothered.
Not John Treacy, the CEO of the Sports Council. Not Kieran Mulvey, its impressive new Talking Head. Not Joe Duffy or Prime Time or Second Captains or Off The Ball. Even the good folk at Paralympics Ireland didn't seem that arsed - not a mention of it on their website but then, as our obsession with the Billy Walsh story has shown, it's not about people, it's about winning medals, and Rohan wasn't in that business any more.
Eighteen months ago, we spent a couple of days together at a training camp in the Algarve and I followed him on a ride from Portimao to Foia, the highest point of the Serra de Monchique. It took him three hours and 15 minutes to reach the 902-metre summit and as we sat for a moment admiring the view, he reflected on the journey and how far he had come.
Thirteen years had passed since that fateful morning in November 2001, when he had left his girlfriend's apartment in Athlone on a 400cc Honda motorbike for a football game in Ballinahown. He has travelled the road at least a thousand times and knew every rut and pothole but suddenly, and inexplicably, he lost control and in that moment everything changed.
At 9.23 he had his hand on the throttle and was cruising and at 9.24 he was swinging from a tree and fighting for his life: four crushed vertebrae (T-2 to T-5), four compound fractures of his right leg, a broken left foot, four broken ribs, a torn aorta, a broken sternum, a broken clavicle and bleeding on the spinal chord.
He was a week in hospital before he realised he was paralysed and it wasn't long before he would hit rock bottom after a visit from his girlfriend. "It was something really trivial," he explained. "Her sister had taken her clothes or something - you know the way sisters fight - but I remember being astonished that this was a priority. I thought: 'Fuck me! The world goes on! People's lives go on, regardless of what happens to me'."
His choice was simple - get busy living or get busy dying. "Without sport, I don't think I'd have got through it," he said. "I don't think I'd have survived."
It started with a game of table tennis at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire and a trip to Glasgow for the Inter-Spinal Unit Games. During the next eight years he played lawn bowls and archery and tennis and basketball until June 2009, when he was invited to join the national Paracycling team at the World Championships in Milan.
A year later, he won his first world title and was front page news in September 2012 when he returned from the London Olympics with two gold medals. He'd met a girl in London during the Games and it was on a flight from Gatwick a month later when it all hit home.
"I was sitting on the plane reflecting on the medals I'd won and the beautiful woman I'd spent time with and thought: 'This is the happiest I have ever been in my life. I have never felt so peaceful or more content'. Five minutes it lasted, a feeling of complete euphoria. That's what I'm chasing now. I would like to have that feeling again."
In 2013, his event was reclassified (H1 to H2) before the World Championships in Canada and he returned home with a bronze. A year later, he was reclassified again and moved to H3. "In 2011, I was (generating) 134 watts for the TT. In 2012, I did 147 at the Olympics in London. In 2013, it was 150 watts. Every year I was improving two/three per cent but to compete at H3 you're talking 220 watts for an hour when my max for five minutes is 185.
"There were two Americans in the race and they kicked my ass," he says. "They'd had a neck break, and were definitely quads (quadriplegic), but they had full trunk control and no problem with their heart-rate (Rohan's lung capacity, heart-rate, and sweat response have been diminished by his injury) and they just wiped me out."
Last June, he travelled to the World Cup meeting in Switzerland hoping to be reclassified but his appeal was refused. He finished 27th in the road race, 32 minutes behind the winner, Heinz Frei, and knew the game was up. There would be no more Olympics.
"I didn't want to take away from some of the H3 guys coming through in Ireland," he says. "That wouldn't be fair. So I knew that was it and accepted it pretty quickly and had planned to pack it in after Rio, anyway. But it's funny, I've spent the last few months racing around Europe and finishing at the back and I've come to realise that the results are secondary.
"That winning feeling is great but there's a great buzz and great enjoyment from just racing your bike and going as hard as you can. I was on my own and there was less pressure. I could chill out and have a beer and a pizza and not worry about my power-to-weight and all that other shite!"
On Wednesday, he travelled to Madrid to complete a sports management course and begin a new phase in his life. He's brought his basketball chair and his bike and is getting busy living - that's always been the bottom line. "I never wanted to make a big deal out of retiring," he says. "People telling you you're great has never been my thing."
And he was, but we'll whisper it. Thanks Mark.
Sunday Indo Sport