The Big Paralympics Interview: Mark Rohan
JOE recently had an opportunity to speak to Mark Rohan the current World Handcycling Champion and medal prospect for the Paralympics at Sky’s offices in Ireland.
It’s a pretty hot Monday afternoon in Dublin city centre and Mark Rohan, a former Gaelic footballer, is meeting the media.
He is one of Ireland’s elite sports people and is the current world champion in handcycling; Mark probably doesn’t need too much support from people as he has overcome many obstacles that make everyday problems seem trivial in comparison.
At the age of 20 he suffered a spinal injury that meant he was paralyzed from the chest down, over a decade later he is a world champion and likely medallist in the Paralympics.
Nevertheless he is getting support from Sky Sports Scholarship Programme and his media mentor, broadcaster Sean Fletcher.
With the Olympics still a couple of weeks out they’re discussing Mark’s life and career sincerely in-between general chit-chat when you arrive for the interview. They genuinely seem to be getting on.
Inversely from the prescribed mentor-pupil Sean tells JOE that he’s probably learnt more the Westmeath man than the other way around.
“You’re clearly going to say this - but he’s a really great guy, but also a ferocious competitor. We really clicked quite quickly. You don’t normally meet people like him. Some people who are great sportspeople and ferocious competitors aren’t very nice people, but he’s a genuinely nice person,” says the British broadcaster.
...when I had the accident it was a massive shock.
You’re in hospital for seven months depending on people to shower you and teach you how to do a hundred and one things again.
Over the course of the conversation, Mark’s incredible journey is told in detail to JOE by the man himself in a reflective, easygoing manner contrasting his determined nature on the road.
On a cold November morning 2001 Mark was a very promising under-21 Gaelic footballer for Westmeath, his family with a background in Offaly GAA. That morning Mark’s life changed drastically.
Mark came off his motorbike and fell into a ditch. The bike was laid up against the ditch as if it had been placed there purposely.
For that reason many passed by and didn’t find an unconscious Mark in the ditch. Jim Dougherty was walking the ditches and found Mark two hours after the incident.
Sean interjects, “Had he not done that?”
“I probably wouldn’t be here – no,” answers Rohan starkly.
Mark’s injuries put his life on hold, but it was sport that restarted it.
He managed a few teams and retrained in his job, but at 23 he missed competitive sport. He was too young to give it up. He began to participate in wheelchair basketball and other activities. Sport was therapeutic.
“I suppose if you’re good at something, and I was good at sport from an early age, if you’re lost you always go back to what you know best,” he explains.
You ask Mark to describe the person he was before the accident and the person he was after.
“I was from a small village in Westmeath, just a couple hundred people or so. There was a Gaelic football team and soccer team and that,” he begins.
“I would have done a lot of physical jobs around the place on my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s, my auntie owns the shop in the village. I really would have known everybody.
“I would have done the physical jobs – I was working with the ESB as an apprentice electrician. I really enjoyed that kind of lifestyle – out in the fresh air and meeting people every day that kind of thing,” describing a near idyllic scene in his small hometown of Ballinahown.
Then the accident happened, the paradise was lost or at least disrupted.
When times are getting tough you’d love to hit someone a belt, or a good shoulder.
“Then when I had the accident it was a massive shock.
“You’re in hospital for seven months depending on people to shower you and teach you how to do a hundred and one things again.
“Plus your job, your sports career, your employment career - everything had to stop and you needed to start again from scratch,” recalls Mark earnestly.
“At 20 you’re full of juice; you think you’re the bee’s knees. That was a bit of a shock to the confidence and I took a while to come around, understandably so,” continues describing his early confusion, before he resolved to get himself out of the slump.
“So once you slap yourself and stop feeling sorry for yourself, you seat yourself up and set a few challenges.”
Rohan re-skilled and went back to an office, he also took up different sports. Though he was now active, he knew sitting behind a desk wasn’t for him.
“Then the recession hit and I didn’t have money to compete so I went back to work with the ESB, who were great.”
Despite this he had come through the worst end of things and Rohan had a new resolve.
“I suppose you do build up a bit of resilience when you go through something like – simple, mundane things that annoy people are less of a deal, you build up a resistance.
“Even I was back in the hospital a couple of weeks back, just for a check up. You meet some of the patients there going through the same stuff you went through and you think to yourself ‘Jesus you’ve come a long way in ten years.'
“I think you enjoy the simple things more so, like football matches, or the coming days competing. You appreciate things a lot more - friends, family and all the new experiences that come your way.”
At the same time Rohan missed the physical release of Gaelic football and that way of dealing with frustrations.
“When times are getting tough you’d love to hit someone a belt, or a good shoulder. Really getting involved in a good physical game when your backs up against the ropes and it’s very hard getting involved in a Paralympic sport like that – so you end up shouting at the TV!” laughs Rohan.
....when you’re in the bike – you’re out in middle of the country, in the fresh air – it gives you such a sense of freedom, it gives you so much
There was a long off-season in his wheelchair basketball season and Rohan wanted to stay fit in the meantime. He bought himself a one of the mobile handcycle machines, not unlike the stationary ones he had always seen in gyms and finally he had a physical challenge he craved.
“The first time I went out on the handcycle it was minus two degrees and I went a mile down the road and came back and I tried to get the keys to backdoor out of my wheelchair and open the backdoor and I couldn’t - it was the first time I cried in a long time,” he says but he wasn’t deterred.
“It was so cold and challenging, you really have to push yourself to compete and pushing yourself to the limit and that’s what it’s all about. It’s a great feeling.”
Rohan explains that, aside from the physicality, the handcycle gave him a freedom he hadn’t had for a while.
“When you’re playing tennis, wheelchair basketball, archery you’re still in the chair like. But when you’re in the bike – you’re out in middle of the country, in the fresh air – it gives you such a sense of freedom, it gives you so much.”
“You forget about your disability you know? You’re just coasting along the countryside, I love it.”
The sense of freedom and enjoyment Mark gets from the bike is clear and can be seen in the Sky Sport adverts he has appeared in as part of the Sky Sports Scholarship programme.
This year the Paralympics is bigger than ever and Sean agrees that it is a broadcaster's dream.
“Some of the stories from the Paralympics are amazing,” he says when you ask him about how he gets to report on not only the athlete’s achievements, but the amazing obstacles many, like Mark, have had to overcome to get there.
“I’ve learnt a lot about personal battles and what you and many other athletes have done to get here in a way I don’t think I could,” he says turning to Mark.
You ask Mark how he has dealt with the additional publicity since the adverts.
Mark says good, he has especially enjoyed meeting school children up and down the country telling them about the Paralympics.
Then he then laughs, “I’ve been enjoying it! But I haven’t been kicking back in nightclubs... or carrying cardboard cut outs like this about!” he says gesturing to a lifesize promotional figure of him in the corner of the office.
I don’t think I’d be disappointed if someone beats me though – I’d be delighted for that person because they’ve obviously been through some serious stuff too you know?
The chat turns to the Paralympics, you mention how he is a world champion like Katie Taylor and the immense pressure she came under to win. Mark says he doesn’t look at his event that way.
“It takes a lot of the pressure off you actually because you’ve already achieved something and you’ll always have that. The Olympics happen once every four years so something could happen on the day and you can't help that – that’s the approach I’m taking,” he says evenly.
“Something could happen – you go out there and if it’s good enough – it’s good enough on the day,” he says before showing a rare, high level of magnanimity for a World Champion .
“I don’t think I’d be disappointed if someone beats me though – I’d be delighted for that person because they’ve obviously been through some serious stuff too you know?
“I know a lot of competitors are cut-throat and it can be dog eat dog, but listen whatever happens, it happens.
“I’ll be fairly confident going in but if I lose?” he asks, “So what I’m a world champion and how many world champions get beaten in the Olympics? It happens all time.
“So what will happen, will happen,” he finishes philosophically.
Mark goes on to say that the reason he is really looking forward to these Paralympics, isn’t the glory, but that his family and friends can finally see him race.
When he won his world championship last year it was in Demark and usually he races in further-flung places like Canada.
There are many tales of athletes and sports people who suffer horrific injuries and then manage to overcome huge obstacles bigger and then sport.
Just look up Alex Zanardi, Rob Summers, David Behre – the list goes on.
You ask Mark if playing sport prior to a traumatic event can help you overcome it?
“That would probably make an interesting study...” he says contemplatively.
“People that haven’t had a disability from birth that have been injured and if they have played sports previously to their injuries," he muses, before pronouncing his theory "You can take a lot from your previous sports I think.
“Hard work, training and tradition it all transfers over.”
It would be an interesting study alright and a lot of lessons not only for sports could be concluded rom it you suspect.
Listening or watching Mark Rohan in action confirms that Paralympians aren’t just overcoming incredible obstacles, they’re pushing the boundaries of what humans are capable of.
Sky Sports Scholar and Hand Cyclist Paralympian Mark Rohan and his Sky Sports News mentor Sean Fletcher were in Dublin to promote the Sky Sports Scholarship programme.
Mark races in the Men’s Individual H1 Time Trial today at 15.55 and the Men’s Individual H1 Road Race on Friday at 10.30.