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Why blind adventurer Mark Pollock told Ireland players to ‘think like explorer’ for All Blacks game

Blind adventurer Mark Pollock is a true miracle man, and the inspirational figure gave Ireland's rugby stars a pep talk before Saturday's triumph

By Stephen Beacom

Published 08/11/2016

True inspiration: Mark Pollock with his fiancee Simone George at their home in Ranelagh, Dublin
True inspiration: Mark Pollock with his fiancee Simone George at their home in Ranelagh, Dublin
Ireland's Rory Best celebrates winning
Mark with the Ireland squad
Mark Pollock talks to the Ireland team before their win over the All Blacks
Terrible tragedy: Mark Pollock in hospital in 2010 after a serious fall which left him paralysed, spending almost a year and a half in hospital
Mark Pollock at the south pole team
Mark Pollock with his robotic legs and trainer and south pole team mate Simon O'Donnell

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.

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.

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.

Mark was an inspiration across the globe as he continued his mind-boggling adventures like the Round Ireland Yacht Race.

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."

Few on this planet show more of that quality than Mark Pollock, now fiercely determined to succeed on his latest quest to cure paralysis and spinal cord injuries.

For several years, this impressive character with a sense of fun as well as a sense of purpose has been fighting to walk. Using an aggressive physical therapy programme and robotic technology, and with the help of medical experts and researchers in Trinity College and UCLA in America including renowned Professor Reggie Egderton, the proud Ulsterman believes he is getting somewhere and last year was able to stand on his own unaided for the first time since the accident.

Now with electrical currents sent into his back, Mark walks in his San Francisco made robotic legs.

He really is a miracle man.

A guinea pig at the moment, 12 other paralysed people and 12 able-bodied people are coming on board as part of the project with a research centre in Trinity College in Dublin, in partnership with UCLA in Los Angeles, being set up in the anatomy and sports physiology lab so studying can intensify.

"Apart from standing I walk in the robotic legs and I have the second intervention which is the electrical stimulation," he says.

"The robot is designed in such a way that if I put any effort in, which I can do with the stimulation on, the robot knows to do less dynamically as it is happening.

"That's a really important change in the last couple of years. If the robot was just doing everything there would be no progression. As I do more my muscles engage more and the idea over time is that the robot does less and less.

"As someone who is paralysed from the stomach down I'm really interested in my legs and I'm interesting in walking. That's my area of focus and the electrical stimulation is good for me combined with the robot.

"For people who are paralysed from the neck down and have a desire to use their hands, arms or their biceps they are less interested in the robot but the electrical stimulation is really interesting for them because it helps hand function, arm function and cardio-vascular health right through to want I'm trying to do and stand and walk. Eventually you would like to see a time when the robot could be dispensed with.

"In the next 12 months I would hope that we would have a full-scale clinical trial with people walking in robots and having their spines electrically stimulated replicating in a proper clinical trial what I've been doing as the guinea pig.

"I have this incredible personal opportunity and every day I do it I feel better and better. I have also got a responsibility to support the scientists and push them harder and ask them why it's not moving quickly enough to get it out of the research lab and into the clinic.

"Great research is great research but it is useless unless you get it to people who need it. We have a chance of making a difference and I'm excited by that and from a personal point of view I want to be fixed as well."

By his side all the time is the equally inspiring Simone. They remain engaged and hope to get married in the next couple of years. As Mark points out "we have been busy".

On November 16, 25,000 people in 55 cities around world, including Belfast, will be getting busy taking part in Run in the Dark in aid of the Mark Pollock Trust, which raises awareness and funds.

Already over 2,500 people have signed up to the Northern Ireland event at Stormont, starting at 8pm. The money raised goes to finding a cure for a paralysis.

If anyone can do that, it's the amazing Mark Pollock. He makes the impossible possible.

  • 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

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