Could you offer a deeper understanding of where you get your motivation from, especially how you managed to continue your post-graduate studies after losing your sight?
I went blind in my final year, literally a month away from sitting my finals and I had a job offer to start in London after graduation. I went blind in the space of two weeks and didn’t sit my finals. I had a couple of operations in June running into July. All my friends went away for the summer or went to Australia for the year, starting jobs in New York or London. I had this great sense that I was being left behind, I was going to be left in my bedroom at home where I grew up and life was going to be disastrous. So I think in part that was one of the big factors, at least it got me searching for some kind of future beyond blindness.
Were you searching for independence again or did you just not want to be left behind?
Independence was one element, I think your independence feeds into your identity and when I lost my sight I was no longer a student, I was no longer a guy with a job and I was no longer a sportsman. Along with losing my sight I lost my identity and I had a great fear of having nothing and being no one so I wanted to go back and play sport again, get back into rowing. I wanted to work and get a meaningful job, not just a job that blind people did, whatever that meant. Of course I wanted to go back (to university) and Trinity gave me my degree. I wanted to go back and prove I could get a degree so I did a Masters in Business Studies in the Smurfit Business school in UCD.
In terms of athletic achievements what inspired you to return to that? What got you into adventure sports?
It was phase two of my rehabilitation post-blindness, summer of 2002, four years after I had gone blind. I had gone back rowing and eventually won silver and bronze in the Commonwealth games for Northern Ireland. It all came together in the August of 2002 when I handed in my Masters, I had my medals and I had proven to myself I could work. Suddenly it felt like a new start, it got me thinking about careers, I then met a motivational speaker who was an adventurer and I started to look at my own possibilities. I’d never heard of adventure racing, then I started meeting people which culminated in my first event: The Gobi March, then six marathons in a week in the Gobi desert and North West China. Things really started to take off then as I was meeting investment bankers, who then invited me to do motivational speeches.
Is that where you got the idea for your motivational speaking business?
Yes, it was strange because as far as I was concerned in my early twenties I had gone blind, I had to rebuild my identity for no other agenda, just in order to cope with the blindness. I had to start living my life again, by rebuilding my identity. As a result of being successful at rowing, people started asking me to come in and share what I’d learned from bouncing back from the disaster of blindness. That’s when I started to get paid for my own analysis of my situation. I started to actively analyse what I was learning from the challenge of blindness, the challenge of eventually going to the South Pole. Put it like this: being a motivational speaker and adventurer never came up in the careers department in my school. I must admit, it has been amazing. The point I’m trying to make is that, I look at the before and after and the significant contrast between the way I was feeling in the months after I lost my sight. I honestly felt nothing was possible, it was such a drastic contrast to the experiences I’ve now had. I have looked back on it and thought why did I even feel bad at all post blindness because there was a life after blindness. It was great, I loved it!
You mention “conventional wisdom” in your blog (markpollock.wordpress.com)what would you say to students that are not completely enamoured with following the academic route to a career? What alternatives do you see there?
I think I would probably fit into the category of someone who wasn’t that interested in academia or school in my undergraduate until I got a bit older in my masters, maybe you get more and more interested when you find the thing that excites you. So often, there seems to be one way of going about things, as I know from my own experience, people who didn’t even try and get the points, went back as mature students with great drive and determination. The pressure is immense when you’re eighteen whereas there’s a lot more to life than just one single moment in time, one single set of results.
How has your outlook on life changed since losing your sight and after your accident?
It became very clear to me that no matter how capable I think I am, I can’t really achieve the things I want to achieve without the help of other people. I think what I’ve learned from both disabilities is how important it is to acknowledge your own limitations and to acknowledge the incredible capabilities of the people around you.
What advice would you give to students both on a general scale and especially those who are experiencing difficulties?
I think it’s important to acknowledge that everyone’s challenge is unique to themyou don’t have to have a spinal cord injury or be blind or have some massive obvious difficulty in your life to be going through a tough time. The important thing is that you are in control of how you respond to the challenges. I would suggest that people acknowledge what’s going on - so deal in facts and reality.When you are going through a tough time you can’t deal with it on your own. You have to ask for help even if you don’t want to, reach out and get people around you to help out in whatever challenge you’re going through.
Do you have any future plans to do more motivational speaking?
It’s at a stage where I’m analysing now what I’ve learnt over the last year and a half. So yes I intend to go back speaking and test myself physically again.
What has been the extent of your involvement with NUIG’s rowing club?
I was involved with NUI Galway since I was in school. I know a large number of NUI Galway rowers and I’m hoping they will participate in this run.
Where did you get the idea for the run from?
We wanted to cover the four provinces: Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast. We wanted to get as many people as possible involved in something bigger, which in fact is walking again and recovering from spinal injury.
The Run in The Dark for Mark will take place in Belfast, Cork, Dublin and Galway simultaneously on 16 November at 7.30pm, and ranges from 4 - 10km. Galway’s is a unique 2 mile time trial/fun run! Each location also has a walking option, so everyone can participate. The cost of the event is €25 per person for this very worthwhile cause. Log onto www.run4mark.comto enter.
Trust me if I can do it, someone who hasn’t so much as jogged in years, anyone can! It’s for an incredible man and a life changing cause.
The Sports’ Unit is also looking for fifty volunteers for the event to act as marshals and help with registration on the day. A commitment of four hours and one meeting is required.
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first featured in Issue 5 of Sin newspaper. Written by Martina Gannon.