The fall and rise of Mark Rohan
'I thought I knew everything; I was playing county football, tall, six foot, no problem with women. Then, suddenly, you're this little guy in a wheelchair who needs to be helped up steps. And you can tell by the way they look at you, that everything is different.'
Published 20/04/2014 | 17:00
Three old men are sitting on the terrace of a small café near Alcalar in the Serra de Monchique, a small mountain range covered by pine and eucalyptus trees in the Algarve region of Portugal. The thermometer has just touched 26 degrees and they've sought refuge in the shade to chat and drink coffee when it comes into view.
The small red flag draws them from their chairs. It's bobbing rhythmically from side-to-side and edging towards them up the hill.
What is it?
I don't know.
It's some kind of bike!
Why is it so low to the ground?
They abandon the table and walk to the edge of the terrace and suddenly he's beneath them on the road.
"Bom dia," he smiles.
"Bom dia," they reply, gazing in astonishment.
The men - octogenarians all - have seen some crazy things in their lives but a man climbing the mountain with his arms? No, that's a first. They return to the table, smiling and shaking their heads and wondering about the man and where he is going.
The most interesting thing about Mark Rohan is how far he has come.
* * * * *
In the months after his accident, during those long nights at the National Rehabilitation Hospital, when the waft of people soiling themselves was constantly in his nostrils, and the sound of their sobbing was always in his ears, there was a guy on the St Joseph's Ward who always made him smile.
This guy wasn't like other patients; he had no time for physio, was addicted to gobstopper sweets and gave the nurses hell when they chased his friends from the ward after visiting had expired. That's when the ranting and raving about Osama bin Laden would start. Three months before, in September 2001, he had crashed off his motorbike during the national day of mourning for the victims of 9/11.
He should have been working, not riding his bike that day and he held one man responsible: "Fucking bin Laden! If he hadn't blown up the Twin Towers, I wouldn't be in this fucking wheelchair now!"
Mark Rohan doesn't like gobstoppers and has never been prone to bouts of irrational rage but if he was, and you poked him, he would vent his fury on the Biffos - those Big Ignorant Fuckers From Offaly. Because if they had accepted him as one of their own, and allowed him to play for Doon that day, he might still be walking now.
* * * * *
It's the summer of 1990. Mark Rohan is nine years old and is hoping to make his debut for the local GAA club in Doon, Co Offaly. His grandfather played football for Doon, Co Offaly; his uncles played football for Doon, Co Offaly; Vinnie Claffey plays football for Doon, Co Offaly and you can reach the club with a driver and a 3-iron from the kid's home in Ballinahown.
But there's a problem. Ballinahown is in Co Westmeath and when the kid turns up this morning for the under-10s league, he's sent packing with a lesson in geography. "We can't take a chance," an official explains. "We know it's just across the border but you don't live in County Offaly."
And in that brief exchange, his life is forever changed.
He will play his first game of football for Castledaly - a Westmeath club.
He will play his first Leinster final for Marist College - a Westmeath school.
He will make his county debut for the Westmeath minors and continue to improve with the Westmeath under-21s until that fateful moment in November 2001 when a challenge game with Antrim is cancelled and the 'butterfly effect' kicks-in.
Because if the game hadn't been cancelled, he would not have stayed with his girlfriend that night. And if he hadn't stayed with his girlfriend, he would not have been travelling that morning from Athlone. And if he hadn't been on his bike that morning, he would still be playing football now. And he can trace it all back to the decision that morning in Doon.
"It's funny how something like that just changes your life," he says. "Maybe I wouldn't have played for Westmeath. Maybe I'd have gone to school in Ferbane and played for Offaly because my mother's parents were Offaly. And my (paternal) grandfather was staunch Offaly and all belonging to him were Offaly and it was all I ever heard growing up: 'Offaly! Offaly! Offaly!'
"But I was now a Westmeath man and he never forgave me. And the slagging used to drive me mad: 'Westmeath? What have they ever won? The only Westmeath men who've played in Croke Park are Foster and Allen!' We were the black sheep but it gave me a great determination to prove people wrong."
The third of five children born to his parents, Denis and Carmel, he was blessed with a childhood cushioned by love and certainty and underpinned by hard work. His grandfather had a dairy farm just up the road from their home and at weekends, when the kid wasn't milking cows or drawing turf from the bog, he was playing sport.
He liked soccer but loved football and burned with the ambition to shine for Westmeath. "My uncle had a farm-feeds store and I'd be lifting bags of cement over my head as a form of training. Or I'd bring chairs to the bedroom and do bicep curls and sit-ups and really crazy stuff. Talent wise, I wasn't the best footballer in the world but I was very strong and determined."
They called him 'The Bull.' He never considered disability.
"I remember my Granny got her hip done, and there was a wheelchair lying around the house and we used to jump into it and build an obstacle course and time ourselves around it. But that was it. The only person I knew in a wheelchair was Matt Connor. I'd never heard of the Paralympics."
In September 1999 he left school and started his first 'proper' job in Portlaoise as an apprentice electrician with the ESB. "The money wasn't great but it was a really nice job - out and about, climbing poles and a different site every day. I couldn't afford a car, or car insurance, but I needed something to get me around so I got a (motor) bike - an NRD 80cc. It was a hairdryer of a thing but it did the job.”
Two years passed, and by his 20th birthday he had ticked all the boxes and was living the dream. He was dating a beautiful girl, set for Croke Park glory with the Westmeath under-21's and had traded-in the hairdryer for a proper machine - a 400cc Honda Bros.
"I thought I was a man," he says. "I thought I knew everything; I was playing county football, tall, six foot, no problem with women. Then, suddenly, you're this little guy in a wheelchair who needs to be helped up steps. And you can tell by the way they look at you, that everything is different."
* * * * *
The day it changed, the day everything changed, was a damp Sunday morning in November 2001. The Antrim game had been cancelled and he had decided to spend the night with his girlfriend in Athlone and travel home first thing for his breakfast and to play soccer for Ballinahown.
The morning was clear and crisp. His bike was damp with condensation. His girl brought him a tea towel to wipe it down and he reached for his helmet - a new £400 Shoei acquired with a loan from the Credit Union - and told her he loved her. It was a quarter-past-nine.
Ballinahown was a ten-minute ride from her apartment. He had travelled the road at least a thousand times and knew every rut and pothole and still can't fathom how he lost control. One moment, he was cruising up the hill and everything was normal and the next he was swinging from a tree and drifting in and out of consciousness.
If it wasn't for Jim Dockery, he might not have survived. A member of the Farm Relief Service from Shinrone, Co Offaly, he was travelling to a month's mind for his father in Elphin when he spotted Rohan's bike by the side of the road and decided to investigate.
"If you were driving past you wouldn't have seen me," Rohan explains. "I was buried in the ditch about 40 metres back and suspended in a tree. My phone was ringing and I couldn't get to it - it was in a pouch in the front of my jacket and had broken my ribs. And then Jim arrived and asked where I was from and called an ambulance.
"There was no realisation that I couldn't move my legs. I know you hear some people saying that, but I just remember being on the spinal board, and the road being real bumpy, and the doctor and the nurse having a fight in Tullamore about whether I was well enough to be flown by helicopter to Dublin."
His sister, Nicola, was flown home from Italy and there was a real concern, when he arrived at the Mater in Dublin, that he wasn't going to make it: 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.
But it was nothing compared to the mental torture he was about to endure.
"I had a lot of internal damage," he says, "but the fact that I was paralysed never really occurred to me and the first time I realised that something was seriously wrong was the smell: 'Holy fuck, what's that?' I had shit myself! That's when it started to hit home.
"Then this doctor arrived with a dickie-bow and a load of junior doctors (in tow). I had about five compound fractures and a broken bone in my foot and twigs and stuff, stuck in me everywhere and somebody asked: 'Will you be operating?' And he said: 'No, there's no point,' just like that. And it was heartbreaking because there was no empathy or subtlety about it. I was just another one of those young fucking idiots who had crashed off a motorbike."
His family and friends eased the pain. They'd spend hours at his bedside plying him with cheer but he could tell from their eyes that they'd been shedding a lot of tears. Tom Claffey was one of his closest friends.
"The first time I actually broke down, Tom came to visit," he says. "I said: 'Tom, I think I'm fucked here. I don't think I'll ever play football again.' That was my whole focus, football, but I was also starting to realise that it meant a lot more. Everything I did - mowing somebody's lawn, wiring somebody's shed - was physical and now everything was different and I was very frightened: 'How is this going to play out?'"
On November 14, the day Ireland qualified for the World Cup finals in Tehran, he was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire and slowly, during the weeks and months that followed, the reality of his new life began to dawn. They had put him in a full-body cast and he couldn't feed or wash himself and he dreaded the humiliating ritual of being cleaned and wiped and showered.
"Everything is totally different," he says. "When you should be going it alone, and doing your own thing, you're back to square one and learning to depend on people for everything. I had a really good life, I had a great life and to know what I was facing into... well, I didn't know what I was facing into but I knew what I had lost and that was tough."
One day, his girlfriend came to visit and started bitching about her sister. "It was something really trivial," he recalls. "Her sister had taken her clothes or something, you know the way sisters fight, but I remember listening and 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.'
"I always tried to stay strong, and never cried in front of any of them but that night I was in bits. I was trying to cry without being heard but one of the nurses, Siobhan O'Driscoll, a lovely girl from Castletownbere, heard me and came over and was really comforting.
"But it was the first time I really got time to myself to think: 'What is going to happen to me? This girl's life is going to go on regardless. People's lives go on regardless. Will I be giving out about someone wearing my clothes in six months time or something irrelevant?' It was the first time I got a bit of space to think about the situation and how much impact it would have."
His instinct was to end the relationship; they had been seeing each other for a year and this was not what she'd signed up for, but she seemed happy to stick around. And he really liked her. She was cute and sweet and made him feel good about himself.
On June 7 2002, seven months after his accident, he returned to Ballinahown and began his new life. The ESB had offered to retrain him as a draughtsman; his friends had set up a Trust fund; he had a car to drive, a team to coach (the soccer team), and his girl. Yeah, mostly he had his girl.
"We decided to build a house. A woman had donated a site and with the Trust fund I thought: 'Yeah, I can be independent here' and her father was a builder. It was stupid, I was only 23 but that's what she wanted. She was training as an accountant and used to come out from her job in Athlone for lunch and we were very close.
"Then she came out one day in bits and said she wanted to take a break. I didn't see it coming but thought: 'Yeah, go ahead and cool off', and we got back together. I'm not sure what it was - maybe when the house went up she realised: 'This is forever', but it dragged on for a year before she moved to Dublin."
He hasn't spoken to her since.
"I was almost suicidal," he says.
"I thought: 'Jesus if this person - the closest person in my life - decides to leave, how will anyone ever stick me?' My confidence was shattered. How do you face going back to a nightclub to chat up women? What do those women see? I was drinking back then and used to wake up some mornings thinking: 'How did I get home last night?' Without sport, I don't think I'd have got through it. I don't think I'd have survived."
He pauses for a moment and the gravity of the thought lingers.
"No, I wouldn't have," he says.
* * * * *
It started with an hour each day at the NRH in Dun Laoghaire; the choice was table tennis, basketball or archery and he'd gone down the first time, just to get out of the ward. A month later he was selected to travel to Glasgow for the Inter-Spinal Unit Games — an event held annually to introduce newly-injured patients to wheelchair sports.
"You have to compete within a year of your accident," he says, "and I had shown some ability at archery. You travel with doctors and nurses and stuff and it really opened my eyes: 'Wow! You can actually get on a plane.' I won a gold medal in archery and reached the final of the lawn bowls and came home with a new focus."
The Athens Olympics were two years away. He had the potential to make the archery team but it wasn't ringing his bell. "I was doing laps of the house to stay fit and had bought a target and stuff to train but it was boring. I needed something a bit more physical so I got a basketball ring and set about playing wheelchair basketball."
In 2003, he joined the Dublin Celts team and played a couple of games in England. A year later, he earned his first green vest at the European championships in Lisbon. He was buzzing again, living again, The Bull from Ballinagown. And then the break-up happened with his girlfriend, and he was forced to start again.
"I remember sitting in the office in Athlone one day thinking: 'This is not what I want to do.' I was updating lines and maps (for the ESB) and doing a lot of soul-searching: 'What makes you happy? What would really make you happy now?' I'd managed the soccer team for a year and a half and really enjoyed it. Sport made me happy. I applied for a sports management course in UCD and had three really good years in Dublin."
Part of the course was a three-month internship with the Australian Paralympic Committee in Melbourne. He brought his basketball chair, joined a local club and started playing wheelchair tennis. He'd never focused that much on individual sports but there was something about the game and playing for himself that was becoming more and more appealing to him.
"We'd hosted the European Championships the year before and they were a disaster," he says. "Basketball is a team game — you live and die by teamwork - but the lads weren't doing what they were supposed to be doing and I thought: 'This is bollocks.'"
He bought a bike that summer on the internet, to supplement his training. Two of the friends he shared a house with in Stillorgan liked cycling and there was a circuit around the Beacon hospital that was safe and well-lit.
There were no hand-cyclists on the national Paracycling team and he was invited to Blessington for a training camp in June 2009. Three months later, he travelled to Milan for his first World Championships and finished last in the time-trial, and last in the road race.
"Talk about a baptism of fire," he smiles. "We arrived at the circuit and they said: 'The bike isn't safe. It doesn't have a chainguard.' So my father went down to the local DIY store and got a potted plant (holder), sprayed it black and cable-tied it to the frame. Then we put too much pressure in the (front) tyre and it blew when I was sitting on the starting line.
"I was blown away by the equipment being used and the aerodynamics of the bikes. They had disc wheels and skinsuits and I spent the whole weekend taking photographs and talking to the guys about training techniques. 'Where do you train? What do you do?' I was blown away by the level of commitment."
He returned to Dublin and began his march on the summit with some tests at the Institute of Sport and a ride in the Dublin mountains. The 2010 season opened in Dubai and on a circuit that really suited him (flat), he decided to shadow Wolfgang Shattauer, the Austrian World Champion.
"I didn't know anything about racing," he says, "but he was the world champion, and obviously knew what he was doing, so I hung on, and hung on, and suddenly he's spitting water back at me and waving his fist. I thought 'What's going on here? Who does this?' And then 100 metres out, I sprinted by him after scrubbing all day. (laughs)
"I crossed the line and couldn't believe it. I had won my first ever medal and it was the first time the (Irish Paracycling) team had ever won a medal, so they were delighted."
Six months later, he rode his luck again and captured his first world title in Canada. "Two of the favourites - a Canadian and a Frenchman - hit a kerb early in the race and punctured. I was with Wolfgang and an Israeli with two laps to go and then we dropped him (the Israeli) on the final climb.
"We were 500 metres out and I heard this crunch as Wolfgang was flicking his gears and just went. That's what I loved about road racing - I seemed to know where to be and what to do, instinctively, without having massive experience."
A year later, he won both the time-trial and the road race at the World Championships in Denmark and was signed by Sky for a major campaign to promote the London Olympics. His grandfather would have smiled - he was bigger than Foster and Allen - and in September 2012 he became a double Paralympic champion.
"I've always hated the fanfare of coming home after a win," he says, "but it was only after London that I realised how important it was. It was a massive chance to promote the sport and show what you can do if you have the right support. People with disabilities are reserved and don’t push themselves to do stuff but the amount of self-confidence and health benefits you get from cycling are phenomenal.
"They had this 'come-and-try' day at UCD after the Games and I think there was a thousand people through the doors. It was brilliant to see the effect the Games had had on people and great to see the next generation."
A month after the Olympics, he spent a week in London with a girl he had met during the Games. "I was flying from there to Barcelona," he says, "and something really odd happened in Gatwick as I was sitting on the plane. Usually my legs are kicking like mad (spasm) but it was as if I had taken a drug.
"I sat there, reflecting on the medals I'd won and the beautiful woman I'd spent time with in London 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."
* * * * *
Three hours and 15 minutes have passed since he left Portimao. He has climbed 902 metres (almost 3,000ft) to Foia, the highest point of the Serra de Monchique, and has pulled off the road to admire the view. He can't see Ballinahown from here but he's thinking about it now and how much he has changed.
"Am I a different person now? I don't know," he says. "I think I'm a better person now. I think it's made me a more rounded individual with an urge to travel and experience new things. And it's easy for me to put things into perspective. It's very easy to get caught up in a bubble at home. You fall into that routine of football and the pub and that was all I was interested in. And it was great.
"But there's more to the world than Ballinahown and Westmeath and I'm reminded of that world every time I come-up here. You look down and think, 'that's a city and that's a town and all these people are flying around like ants.' It doesn't last forever but you make the most of it when you can."
And he smiles.
"Right, let's go down."