By Joe Medley The Anniston Star, Ala.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Sgt. Elizabeth Marks suffered bilateral hip injuries in Iraq in 2010 and endured four surgeries in 18 months. Determined to fight off unfit status, Sgt. Marks took to the pool at Brooke Army Medical Center and emerged fit for duty. Today the pool also provides her a unique platform to inspire other wounded veterans.
The Anniston Star, Ala.
Elizabeth Marks talked to a riveted room Thursday night, youthful swimmers who can only imagine her experiences as a gold-medal Paralympian and U.S. Army combat medic but who at least share her experience of a pool.
Then again, maybe the YMCA of Anniston's Blue Dolphins team can only imagine Marks' experience of a pool. Not everyone experiences it the same.
"When I found the pool, I found a peaceful, happy, very painful, very cold place, if that makes sense to any of you," the 26-year-old Marks said to a room transfixed as much by her mettle as her medals, "and it has gifted me with a lot of really great experiences, ones I didn't ever think I would have."
The pool is a ball-field equivalent for the Blue Dolphins, their place to learn life's helpful truths through sport.
For Sgt. Marks, the pool provides life- and career-saving water and her platform to inspire other wounded veterans. Marks suffered bilateral hip injuries in Iraq in 2010 and endured four surgeries in 18 months.
Determined to fight off unfit status, the daughter of a U.S. Marine, Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient took to the pool in 2011 at Brooke Army Medical Center and emerged FFD -- fit for duty.
On July 3, 2012, the same day she was declared fit, she was also welcomed into the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. It led to her triumphs in the Paralympian-styled Invictus Games and 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
She's the subject of an essay penned by Britain's Prince Harry, who connected with veterans worldwide by starting the Invictus Games in 2014. The prince also delivered her fourth gold medal, won at this year's Invictus Games, to the staff Cambridge's Papworth Hospital.
Marks dedicated the medal to the hospital's staff, who induced her to coma and reoxygenated her with an external lung after she suffered respiratory distress before the 2014 Invictus Games.
Marks has been selected as one of ESPNW'S Impact25 honorees, a list of the top 25 people who made the greatest impact for women's sports this past year. She also received the Pat Tillman Award at the 2016 ESPY's.
"To me she epitomizes the courage, resilience and determination of our servicemen and women," Harry wrote in an exclusive sneak peek of the essay, published by People Magazine on Tuesday. "Using sport to fight back from injury in the most remarkable way, she sums up what the Invictus Games spirit is all about."
Marks, who gives inspirational talks to groups around the county, also is scheduled to speak Friday at 4 p.m. at the city of Anniston Barracudas swim team at the Anniston Aquatics and Fitness Center.
Marks also inspires other Paralympians.
"She is a very strong person to be able to put up the fight to stay in (the Army) and not get med-boarded out," said Tuscaloosa's Jennifer Schuble, Paralympian cyclist for the Army team who has competed in Anniston's Sunny King Criterium and Foothills Classic, now called the McClellan Road Race. She met Marks at this year's Invictus Games in Orlando and again in Rio.
"She is definitely not forgetting her roots and what the Army Warrior Care Program has done for her," Schuble said. "I think she will always have some kind of involvement with Invictus Games and Army warrior care transition to help soldiers overcome the obstacles that they are facing."
For Marks, it started as a simple fight to stay in service after her injuries.
She called her dad, James Marks, with news that the Army might declare her unfit to serve because of her injuries. He told her to take out a piece of paper and write what she wanted most.
She wrote "FFD."
Even as superiors tried to keep her prepared for the possibility she could be declared unfit, she said she remained "hell-bent on it."
"I was a soldier," Marks said. "That's where my heart was. That's where my head was. That's what meant the most to me in the world was being with my guys and doing my job."
Her injuries meant that running was out of the question, so she took to the pool for extra physical therapy and cardio work while recovering at Brooke in San Antonio. She entered her first competition two months later, in the Texas Regional Games. She swam different events to see which she liked best. She competes in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley but most enjoys the breaststroke.
You know she would. It's a challenge.
Marks had to adapt her stroke for the leg-powered event. She has reconstructed limbs and lacks leg strength, so she changed technique to emphasize her core and arms.
Marks is classified SB7 on a scale of 1-10 in the breaststroke, meaning her lower body and muscles possess the same deficiencies as U.S. Paralympian Jessica Long, a double amputee.
Six months after Marks learned her technique, the military accepted her in the WCAP, which allows athletes to train in their sports while still working for their military branches. She was also found fit for duty.
Two years later, she traveled to London for the Invictus Games but experienced breathing difficulties and was admitted to Papworth. Her conditioned worsened, and she was on life support for two weeks.
The life support left her with less sensation in her limbs, a smaller lung capacity and neurological problems. She can't see the wall when swimming.
"When I get to a certain point of exertion, I can no longer see," she said. "So, when I'm swimming, when I'm on the back half, when I'm coming back in off of the wall, so my second 50, I rely very heavily on the familiar pressure and the rhythm of breaststroke and how I can feel the pressure of my water.
"When you come out of the pool and you hear things, all it is is this loud, booming, static noise of the crowd. When you're underwater, it's completely quiet, so it's a little bit disorienting, at least for me, and so I just kind of rely on the pressure of my hands through breaststroke."
Still, doctors credited lung strength gained through swimming for her survival. That stoked her determination to get back in the sport, swimming on through what she calls "chronic pain."
She calls the pool a way to "repurpose my pain."
"Instead of just being in pain, there's a purpose behind it," she said. "There's a community I'm trying to reach out to, that I'm trying to appeal to, that I'm trying to show we can still mean what we want to mean, that we can still achieve.
"So, when I'm in the water, it's a very special feeling for me, because I feel like I'm in my happy place. I'm breathing hard.
I'm working hard. It's painful, but it's pain I'm bringing on myself, and it means a lot to me, because there's a lot of people who don't have that opportunity anymore."