If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Nat King Cole
If 20 years in a wheelchair teaches you anything, it’s that you have to smile. Ask Mark Rohan. A couple of months ago, he had just parked his car at a restaurant near his home on the Algarve, when he was accosted by a fellow diner.
“Hey! Ronan! You can’t park there.”
“It’s Rohan,” he sighed.
“Yeah, well, you can’t park there.”
“It’s not a disabled spot.”
“There’s no blue sign.”
“Listen, if we can’t park in your spots, you can’t park in ours!”
A few weeks later, they sparred again at a café in Loule.
“Hey! Ronan! ”
“You’re getting great wear out of those shoes.”
“F**k off Johnny.”
“Don’t be touchy, Ironside. Will we get a table? I see you’ve brought your own chair.”
Last week, on a sweltering morning in the Algarvian hills, they were cycling together with a group when the conversation turned to the bike race at the Tokyo Olympics, and the preparation required to race for six hours in such brutal conditions. “What’s the best Irish performance at an Olympics?’ someone asked, as Rohan reached back for something in his bag.
Then the bullet came: “No, no, Ronan. Stop!”
“We know what you’re at.”
“You’re going to show us your bleedin’ medals!”
It hasn’t always been a laugh.
Twenty years ago, on a crisp November Sunday in 2001, he left a girlfriend’s apartment in Athlone on a 400cc motorbike for a football game in Ballinahown. At 9.23 that morning he was ‘The Bull’ Rohan, an apprentice electrician and a gifted minor from Westmeath, with his hand on a throttle and the world at his feet.
And at 9.24 he was a limp piece of meat swinging from a tree: four crushed vertebrae (T-2 to T-5), four compound fractures of his right leg, a broken left foot, four broken ribs, a torn aorta, a broken sternum, a broken clavicle, and a bleed on his spinal cord.
He had spent a week in the Mater when he realised he was paralysed. A boyhood friend, Tom Claffey, was sitting by his bed. “It was the first time I actually broke down,” Rohan says. “I said ‘Tom, I think I’m f****d here. I don’t think I’ll ever play football again.’ That was my whole focus — football, but I was also starting to realise that it meant a lot more. And I was frightened: ‘How is this going to play out?’
“I thought I was a man. I thought I knew everything. I was tall, six foot, playing county football, no problem with women, and then suddenly you’re this little guy in a wheelchair who needs to be helped up steps. And you can tell by the way people look at you that everything is different.
“I had a really good life — a great life, and to know what I was facing into was . . . well, I didn’t know what I was facing into, but I knew what I had lost and that was tough.”
It’s a Thursday afternoon. He is sitting in a small café in Almancil on the eve of his departure for Dublin, and a two-week shift on the Paralympics as an analyst for RTÉ. He was 40 last month, 20 when he was paralysed, and an ideal time to reflect on his life.
“Twenty in (the wheelchair), twenty out,” he smiles. “The same person but two lives.”
“When is the last time it hurt?” I ask.
“The last time I was upset?”
“About being disabled?”
“Jesus, a long time ago. You’ve seen me here. My life is good.”
“I used to always mark the anniversary — November 4 — in some way. It was emotional. I’d go to America to watch a basketball game, or a football game, because I always loved American sports and everything is so accessible — transport, hotels, restaurants, Everything is . . .
“Yeah, probably due to Vietnam and the war veterans.”
“When did you stop ‘marking’ it?”
“Probably when I started to race — the focus was on different things. You’re just busy, and it doesn’t seem as important. For those first five years, everything (about your old life) is still fresh: the football you played, the job you had, and there’s a part of you still thinking, ‘Maybe they’ll find a cure.’ So initially, your only thoughts are for yourself but I think about it differently now.”
“I think about the police — the guards that knocked on the front door to tell my parents. What a hard job! I think about Jim Dockery, the man who spotted my bike by the side of the road and who stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. And I think about my parents, and what those first weeks must have been like, the heartbreak of seeing your kid in a hospital bed, helpless. And you become much more grateful.”
“For the doctors, the nurses, your family and friends, because I wouldn’t be here without them guiding me in the right way. I’m definitely a better person. At the start, you have to let people help you. You have to ask for advice and you have to start again, and that’s a hard thing to do when you’re 20. But it teaches you patience. It teaches you tolerance and you learn the importance of mental strength, and putting things into perspective and just being grateful for what you have.”
His gratitude to sport cannot be overstated. It started with a game of table tennis at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire and a trip to Glasgow in 2002 for the Inter-Spinal Unit Games — an event held annually to introduce newly-injured patients to wheelchair sports.
In the seven years that followed he played lawn bowls, archery, tennis and basketball until June 2009, when he was invited to join the national paracycling team at the World Championships in Milan. He finished last in the road race, and last in the time trial but had found his tribe.
“I was blown away by the equipment being used and the aerodynamics of the bikes. They had disc wheels and skinsuits and I spent the whole weekend taking photographs and talking to the guys about training techniques: ‘Where do you train? What do you do?’ I was blown away by the level of commitment.”
Three years later he was a multiple world champion and had won two gold medals at the London Paralympics. But what he loved — and loves — about it most is that it’s not about the medals.
“You heard Johnny (his friend, John O’Gorman) slagging me on Saturday, but the truth is that I never take them out. I might bring them if I’m giving a talk, or if there are kids that want to see them, but it’s not about the medals. You asked me yesterday why the Paralympics matter, and the word that comes to mind is ‘hope’.
“It’s not about medals or this ‘super-hero’ thing; it’s about the eight-year-old sitting in a wheelchair; the 13-year-old with a head injury; the 15-year-old who has just had a limb amputated, to help them live and hope and dream. And it’s for their families.
“When I think back to that day when my parents got that knock on the door and were fearing the worst. They didn’t know anything about wheelchair sports. They thought my life was over. But through the Paralympics it has become more normalised. It’s given me a community of people who have made my life better.”
Filipa Viera is top of that list.
They met at a training camp in Coimbra before the London games and have been dating since 2015. “She was working for the Portuguese events company that were hosting the Irish team,” he says. “She’s the reason I ended up in Portugal, so I suppose it was fate, but you make these things happen. We bought a house recently and we’re working things out like normal couples. I’m happy. Content.”
“What about your identity?” I ask.
“Yeah, how do you see yourself?”
“I’m an ordinary guy,” he says. “An ordinary Joe.”
“You’re not a ‘double Paralympics gold medallist’?”
“No (laughs) . . . I was looking at a clip yesterday with Sean Lock and Jimmy Carr. And Carr says: ‘If we were to look up Sean Lock in the dictionary, what would we find? What would be the definition of Sean Lock?’
“And Lock says, ‘Well Jimmy, I don’t think a dictionary would have enough words to describe me, I’m more of a fragrance. You’d smell it and go, ‘That’s Sean Lock’. It would be like . . . hot tarmac and a vet’s flannel.’ (He laughs) And that’s me. I think I’m more of a fragrance — hot tarmac and a vet’s flannel.”
For more about Mark Rohan see www.rohancoaching.com