Paralympic swimmer stared down death, now hopes to compete in Rio

By Michelle R. Martinelli

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks, 25, suffered bilateral hip injuries during a tour in Iraq, endured four surgeries in 18 months and almost died from respiratory distress in a British hospital. She said swimming saved what she cherishes most — her military career. It also saved her life.

The U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee (U.S.O.C.), named Marks to the 2016 U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Team on January 13. One of 11 resident Paralympic swimmers at the Olympic Training Center, she practices in Colorado Springs — hoping to make the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team to swim in Rio de Janeiro this summer. While training, she also reports to the Army at Fort Carson during the day.

When Marks first slides into the pool, she concentrates on improving her stroke technique. But as time passes and Marks sinks deeper into practice, her workout pushes her body’s limits. Although she finds swimming therapeutic, with every stroke, she grows more aware of the brutal pain she inflicts on herself daily.

“As it gets harder and you go on autopilot, that’s when I start to have to draw on things like mentors and the reason I’m there and the people I’m swimming for, because it does become very painful for me,” said Marks, adding her Vietnam War veteran father often comes to mind. “When I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can make this last 50 [meters], but my dad would make this last 50.’”

In the SB7 division — a Paralympic swimming classification — Marks shattered the world record in the 50-meter breaststroke with a 41.21-second time at the Jimi Flowers Classic in January. She also broke the American and Pan American 200-meter breaststroke records with a 3:17.89 swim.

She is ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke with a time of 1:30.44, according to the International Paralympic Committee.

“When I’m in the pool and when I’m working hard and it hurts and when I can’t breathe and all of those things, that’s when I’m happiest,” Marks said.

Soldier first, swimmer next
But Marks didn’t always dream of becoming a member of the U.S. Paralympics Team, and she wasn’t always a world-class Paralympic breaststroker or even a swimmer.

The U.S. military’s World Class Athlete Program allows soldier-athletes to train in their respective sports while continuing as active duty soldiers. (Michelle R. Martinelli/MEDILL)

As an Army combat medic, she was deployed to Iraq in 2009. There, Marks sustained bilateral hip injuries in 2010, though she would not discuss the specifics of her deployment or injuries.

The Army evacuated her and flew her to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where she began a grueling recovery process, which she said included physical therapy and her multiple surgeries. Her final operation was in November 2011.

More than anything, Marks wanted to be cleared for duty to continue as an active soldier. So in January of 2012, she hopped in the pool for some extra physical therapy and cardio work because running was no longer an option.

Two months after that first jump into the water, Marks entered her first competition, the Texas Regional Games. She worked with a variety of coaches and mentors who taught her proper stroke technique — including breaststroker and six-time Olympic medalist Brendan Hansen, who she said watched her compete in the meet.

“I was very slow, and it was so hard, and [Hansen] just yelled and cheered the whole time, and that was extremely encouraging and humbling for me,” Marks said. “I wasn’t a very good swimmer, but I loved it. I fell in love with the sport at that swim meet.”

A stroke of happiness
Marks initially swam in a variety of events to see which ones she liked best, and while she continues to compete in the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter individual medley (IM), she called breaststroke her “happy stroke.”

But to succeed as a breaststroker, Marks had to adapt the leg-driven stroke. She said because of her hip injuries, she has reconstructed limbs and lacks general leg strength, so she morphed her technique to make it an upper body stroke, finding a unique body undulation using mostly her core and arms.

New to competitive swimming, Marks underwent an extensive classification process evaluating her body’s capabilities — something all Paralympic athletes must do.

For swimmers, Marks said her classifiers analyzed how her body moves in and out of the water, looked at her complete medical history and labeled her on a number scale for each stroke. The physical scale is between one and 10 — the lower the number, the more severe the disability.

“It’s trying to put everyone on an equal playing field because you have such a variance of disabilities,” said Brianna Tammaro, the Paralympic communications coordinator for the U.S.O.C. “They try to [put] them into certain groups so they can compete against like injuries.”

In breaststroke, Marks currently is classified at SB7, which means her lower body and muscles possess the same deficiencies as U.S. Paralympic National Team member Jessica Long, a double amputee, so they compete in the same group.

The system allows multiple people to hold records in the same event but for different classifications, Tammaro said.

‘Don’t call it a comeback’
Six months after learning proper swimming techniques, in July 2012, Marks said the military accepted her into the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), which allows athletes to train in their sports while still working for their respective military branches. That same month, she was also found fit for duty.

U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks hopes to continue representing her country abroad by qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team to swim in Rio de Janeiro this summer. (Michelle R. Martinelli/MEDILL)

After a couple years in the program, Marks traveled to London for the 2014 Invictus Games, a Paralympic, multi-sport competition, but she had trouble breathing and was admitted to a hospital, as her conditioned worsened. Expected to die, she was on life support for two weeks with a machine breathing for her.

When she woke up, her first concern was about whether she’d be able to compete in the upcoming Can-Am Para-swimming Championships, but the life support changed her physical wellness, leaving her with less sensation in her limbs, a smaller lung capacity and neurological issues, such as not being able to see the wall when swimming.

Not only was Marks able to swim in the Can-Am Games three months later, but she also remained a strong competitor and earned a personal best time in the 200-meter breaststroke.

“One of the things that came out of life support that [doctors] told her was the reason that she made it through and was able to come back was because of swimming,” said Queenie Nichols, the high performance director for U.S. Paralympic Swimming and Marks’ current coach.

“It had strengthened her lungs so much, so I think part of why she’s come back with such a determination to keep swimming is that she knows that’s what kept her alive.”

En route to Rio
Marks dreams of temporarily trading in her Army uniform for a Team USA jacket as another way to represent and serve her country abroad.

The U.S. Paralympic Team Trials begin June 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. This year’s Paralympic Games — September 7-18 in Rio — is expected to be the largest of its kind to date, according to

Because of her top worldwide ranking, qualifying for the Paralympic Games in the 100-meter breaststroke is her priority, Marks said. But she also would like to make it in the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter IM.

“It would be a phenomenal representation of an injured soldier just because it helps to show not only the world, but other soldiers, when you are injured, it doesn’t mean that you are completely taken out of the game,” Marks said. “There’s a lot of us that consider ourselves broken, and we’re not broken. We’re just different, and I would really like other people to grab onto that.”

Photo at top: U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks poses at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.(Michelle R. Martinelli/MEDILL)