Mark Pollock: 'If I keep on learning, that will bring many more adventures'
Claire Williamson finds out what makes the blind, disabled Ulster adventurer tick, and discovers an inspirational man who is determined to make many more headlines.
Q: What was your life like before you went blind?
A: I was a student at university in Dublin and I was about to graduate. I was rowing for the university and also for Ireland. I had a job offer to start in investment banking. I had found an identity. The template was there, people had done it before. I wanted to live in London and I knew I wanted to go to either New York or Hong Kong because you could move around in those big companies.
Q: Did you have any problems with your sight before?
A: I lost the sight in my right eye when I was five and I had a couple of detachments in my good eye. I had to be careful with my eyes, not being involved in contact sports. There was no inevitability about my blindness. The fact that I had all these detachments in the past was a factor, but they were all due to incidents that happened along the way.
Q: Was your blindness gradual or sudden?
A: I had come out of operations before and you can't see for a couple of weeks, then it starts to clear and you start to see. I remember it being April 10, 1998 and going to the operating theatre and coming back and hearing on the radio that the Good Friday Agreement had been signed.
Q: But things were different this time.
A: Weeks went by and it hadn't cleared and at the end of June I went for a second operation. By that time I knew this was different, it wasn't like it had been before and it just didn't clear again. I was operated on for these final two operations in Manchester.
I went to the consultant and he said: 'Look, we've done as much as we can, we have no more options'. And I shook his hand and left the room.
Q: How did you really feel at the time?
A: I held on to my mum's elbow going across the busy room and we got to the corridor and I remember just doubling over with the physical reaction to the shock of my new reality. That truth got worse as it sank in. Then, over time, I started to accept that this was my reality.
Q: What was the hardest part?
A: That uncertainty between April and that moment in Manchester, of will my sight come back or not, that was the toughest part.
Q: Do you think you were depressed?
A: I don't think I got depressed. But I certainly was in serious bouts of self-pity and eventually, I think because of that desire for competition, I didn't want to be left behind and I eventually came to accept that I was going to be blind and that's the way it was going to be.
Q: What brought you back from those feelings?
A: The driver of that was because my plan was being lived by everyone else. People did go and graduate, guys did go to the world championships in rowing and others went on to work in those investment banks and I didn't graduate, I was out of rowing and I didn't have any prospects of a job.
Q: So essentially you were competing with who you wanted to be?
A: Exactly - also not to be left behind. I could have gone back to Trinity to resit the final year or they would give me a degree; I thought I have to take the degree because if I waste time with another year I'll be left behind, I had to get a job. I went back and did a Masters and eventually, which was the key part of my identity, I got back in a boat and won medals in the Commonwealths.
Q: How did you start rebuilding your life?
A: It was that fear of being left behind which is a version of competition that drove me on. I wanted to do a Masters to put myself in the best possible position but also perhaps because Trinity gave me my degree, I wanted to prove to myself I could actually get a degree without having one given to me.
Q: What was it like returning to areas you were once so familiar with?
A: Nine months after I went blind I was back down in Dublin; I wanted to live on my own, to be as independent as I possibly could.
Q: Tell me about your first journey on your own.
A: It was at a time when I had hair. My first journey was from Fitzwilliam Square to the top of Grafton Street in Dublin, it's about a 10-minute walk to the barbers. That first journey was really nerve-racking, but getting to the door, the buzz was as big as any event I've ever won.
In fact, it's one of those feelings that I've struggled to replicate. It was a vulnerability and an excitement about the small wins along the way.
Q: What about your rowing style?
A: That was what defined me prior to losing my sight and the opportunity came to get back in the boat with the potential prize of making the NI team to row in the Commonwealth Games, which ultimately led to winning silver and bronze medals. There didn't seem to be any reason for me not to do it, except rowing requires you to train 10-12 times a week. So as it was 2002, which was four years after I lost my sight, that potential prize of going to a proper championship was really exciting.
Q: Your first challenge was six marathons in a week in the Gobi Desert in 2003, followed by endurance challenges in the North Pole and the Himalayas. You then decided to become the first blind man to race to the South Pole.
A: On the 10th anniversary of losing my sight I decided to do something that stretched me way beyond what I had ever done. In 2008 I spent 43 days in Antarctica and ultimately succeeded; I came to the brink of failure regularly throughout that process - but that was why it was so rewarding in the end. My feeling wasn't a Champagne-popping moment, it was a much deeper sense of contentment.
Q: Did you feel like things were back on track?
A: I was still content with the South Pole and I was considering what I might do next.
My public speaking was going well and I was planning to get married to my fiancée Simone. When I went to the South Pole we were together five years and in the South Pole you have a lot of time to think. In late 2009 I asked Simone to marry me and thankfully she said yes. We were setting about planning our wedding for July 2010
Q: But then, four weeks before the wedding, you suffered a devastating fall.
A: I was on my second night at the Henley Royal Regatta, where lots of crews go from all around the world. It was July 2, 2010 and I had gone back to bed that evening. My friends were out in the garden and sometime after 11.30pm I landed just beside them on the ground and I had fallen from a second storey window.
Q: So, do you remember anything?
A: I remember briefly being on the ground and then I remember being in hospital very briefly. During that time I had a fractured skull, bleeds in my brain, serious internal injuries and broken ribs and damaged my spine in a couple of different places. I couldn't feel or move anything from the stomach done. I was flat on my back for four or five weeks until they operated.
Q: To have suffered the second blow when you had just found where you wanted to go - where was your mind set at that point?
A: There were so many things going on at the time. There was the paralysis, but the main worry was did I have a brain injury. And even ahead of that, they were concerned that I had a small tear or weakness in my aorta, they thought that might have been where the blood was coming from and if that burst I would have been dead. There was lots going on over a long period of time, I was extremely happy that I could use my arms right from the earliest moments. I was glad I hadn't died, but I was facing being paralysed.
Q: Did it feel like you were never going to get out of hospital?
A: Normally you would be out in three months, I should have been back out by the end of September. I didn't get out until the following September because those first six months I had so many infections.
It just felt during that time that I couldn't get moving. I couldn't get anywhere close to rehab, to move out of the acute ward. Any time I made any progress forward I would be knocked out again by these infections. At the best I was making it day to day, maybe half-day to half-day, but as the sickness started to lighten then I started to get to rehab and make some progress.
Q: How did you start to rebuild your life again?
A: Just like after the blindness, I wanted to rebuild that identity. I was an adventurer now. The guy who organised the South Pole race came in to intensive care and said there was a race in Siberia. It was a South Pole-style event. I decided this is it. I went to Norway and we were on the final training camp and the race was cancelled. But I realised I was by no means going to be competing in the way I held so dear.
Q: So the adventurer part of your life was over?
A: I started to look elsewhere for the competition and that ultimately turned in to a quest to find a cure for paralysis, or at least to find and connect people around the world to try and fast track a cure to speed it up.
Q: Is that how you started the Run In The Dark event, where in more than 40 cities people take to the street at night to run to fundraise?
A: It's difficult to separate what I'm able to do on the science side from the run.
Without that support of the thousands who are part of this global community, I would never have had the opportunity to go to California, to follow my exercise programme or to buy the set of robotic legs that I have now become the leading test pilot of in the world.
That has not been facilitated by me, or my extended family only, but it's by the thousands of people around the world.
Q: What was it like to have the film about your life Unbreakable: The Mark Pollock Story shown in Belfast?
A: From a personal point of view, I'm delighted to have that document to remind myself of how bad it was and how good it can be over time. And as a tool to try and help us with the Mark Pollock Trust to get people excited about the topic of paralysis and particularly about the hope for a cure. But it's bizarre having a film about your life.
Q: People often refer to you as an inspiration. How do you deal with that?
A: It's very kind, so I appreciate it. But I certainly don't think of myself in that way. All I've been doing post blindness is live my life, to try to do the things I want to do and as a by-product it has been inspiring to some people. But I haven't set out to be inspiring, I set out to compete and do the things by myself, to challenge myself and put myself under pressure. Not the other way around.
Q: Is your next challenge to be able to walk again?
A: Yes. The reality is there is no cure for paralysis right now. So we have to be very real about it. The fantasy is a total cure and back to normal. Where I've come to position myself is somewhere in between reality and fantasy and exploring that gap. It's going to require lots of small wins over paralysis and it's going to take a lot of them, but it's getting closer.
Q: Where does your resilience come from?
A: Resilience for me doesn't come from individuals, there has to be something within, but the differentiating factor is the support we have around us. From day to day, Simone was by my bed, my parents, sister were there, my friends came and visited. People were encouraging me on Facebook and Twitter and over time that support has turned in to people volunteering in the Run In The Dark.
Q: What do you think when you reflect over what you have come through?
A: Until I'm as old as I will ever get to, if I can continue to be ambitious enough that I question the status quo and challenge conventional wisdom and keep learning, that will bring me many more adventures - I'm probably not finished here.