Sunday 18 February 2018

'Think like an explorer' - The rousing pep talk blind adventurer Mark Pollock gave before All Blacks game

Stephen Beacom

In his Dublin home on Saturday night blind adventurer Mark Pollock listened to history being made. He smiled as the commentary streaming through his phone relayed the news that Ireland had defeated mighty New Zealand for the first time ever with a stunning 40-29 victory in Chicago.

After 111 years of trying, the impossible for the Ireland rugby team had suddenly become possible.

It's a motto that Holywood native Pollock lives by. And one that the remarkable 40-year-old had spoken about with the Irish team before they travelled to the Windy City.

Read more: Comment: It wasn't a tournament fixture - but it's nonsense to say that Ireland v All Blacks was just a 'friendly'

Mark, who is paralysed from the waist down, was invited into the Ireland camp to talk to coaching staff and players ahead of their trip to the United States.

You could have heard a pin drop inside the carpeted room as captain Rory Best and his team-mates listened intently to their guest's staggering story of hope and inspiration detailing his desire and dream to one day help find a cure for paralysis.

Sports loving Mark Pollock has been blind since he was 22. He lost the sight of his right eye when he was five with his right retina detaching. Seventeen years later the left retina did the same.

Having slowly and painfully come to terms with not being able to see again, the former RBAI pupil left his mum Barbara's home in Belfast and moved to Dublin to find work taking his guide dog Larry with him.

He didn't want his life or degree in Business and Economics gained at Trinity College to go to waste. Mark also competed in sport again, winning medals for Northern Ireland with partner Brendan Smyth in the 2002 Commonwealth Rowing Championships confirming his reputation as a talented oarsman.

Read more: After finally beating the All Blacks, Ireland are poised to equal one of rugby's most historic achievements

Determined to challenge himself and raise funds for charity, the following year Pollock, with a sighted friend, ran six marathons in seven days in the Gobi Desert in China and in 2004 competed in the North Pole Marathon. Ten years on from losing his sight he became the first blind man to race to the South Pole.

Engaged to solicitor girlfriend Simone George, who he met when he took up salsa dancing, the happy couple were just weeks away from their wedding when tragedy struck in 2010 with Mark falling from an upstairs window at a friend's house, fracturing his skull and breaking his back, resulting in him being paralysed and spending almost a year and a half in hospital.

Six years on the author of Making it Happen - a book about rebuilding his life - is now a respected public speaker around the world and a pioneer in medical research into curing paralysis.

No wonder the Irish rugby players were hanging on Mark's every word.

With the meeting arranged through Ireland team manager Mick Kearney, Mark, who had worked with players Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip before on other projects, admitted he felt like a kid in a candy store as he entered the international camp.

"I was in with them for about 30 minutes. I gave a pretty short focused talk of about 10 to 12 minutes followed by some discussion with the guys," said Mark.

"I shared my story and it overlapped nicely with what they were about to do with facing the All Blacks.

"The line I used was that up to this point in history it was proven to be impossible to find a cure for paralysis but history is filled with accounts of the impossible made possible through human endeavour... the type of human endeavour that took polar explorers to the South Pole 100 years ago, astronauts to the moon 50 years ago and human endeavour that I hope will uncover a cure for paralysis.

"The message I suppose fitted well in that they had never defeated the All Blacks. The message was that if you think like an explorer then you can be the first to make things possible.

"I don't want to overstate it. I gave a talk and if they got something out of it, even in a small way, then that would be fantastic.

"As a supporter of the team it was an absolute privilege to get one minute in that environment which was so professional and perfect for what they did on Saturday night. At the end Rory Best presented me with a signed jersey which meant a lot to me.

"When Ireland beat the All Blacks I was delighted just like everyone else here. What Ireland did was push the boundaries and it confirmed what I believe that what people think is impossible can be made possible through human endeavour."

For more information about The Mark Pollock Trust see www.markpollocktrust.org and to take part in the Run in the Dark on November 16 go to www.runinthedark.org

Belfast Telegraph

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