After Britain's Prince Harry presented Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Marks with the four gold medals she had earned in swimming at the 2016 Invictus Games here May 11, 2016 ... Marks asked him to present one to the Papworth Hospital in London, where the staff saved her life two years ago while she was there to compete in the inaugural Games.
Prince Harry presents a gold medal to U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla., May 11, 2016. Marks won the gold medal with a time of 42:67 seconds. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Carlin Leslie)
“It was my chance to thank everybody. They ultimately saved my life,” said Marks, who earned gold medals in the 50-meter backstroke, 50-meter breaststroke, 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter freestyle.
During the closing ceremony for the Invictus Games, Prince Harry said he was inspired by athletes like Marks who showed courage to make it to the starting line and give it their all.
“The competition has been fierce, with performances at the highest international standard across a number of events, but what inspired me was the courage to make it to the starting line, to take to the field or to dive into that pool, motivated by the goal of giving your all, medal or no medal,” he said to the athletes. “You showed your families, your friends and yourselves just how far you've come regardless of the results. I know by your nature you all want to win, but these games are so much more than that. Invictus is so much more than that.
“What is the force that drives Elizabeth Marks to return to these games after nearly dying two years ago to compete now at the highest level in a sport that renders her blind and faint, Invictus,” he continued. “You are all Invictus. You are all now ambassadors of the spirit of these games. Never stop fighting, and do everything you can to lift everyone around you.”
When Marks had landed in London for the 2014 inaugural Invictus Games, she had gone into respiratory failure and had been put on life support. She was put on a machine known as ECMO -- extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which works as an external lung -- for 10 days. She was put into an induced coma.
Her older brother, Jacob Marks, was there by her side.
“It was terrifying,” he said. “I felt very lucky to be there, though, to be there by her side. I will be forever grateful. There was a huge team around her, and she received great care at Papworth. I don't know anywhere else where she would've gotten that kind of care. I feel very lucky she was where she was and got the care she got. She may not have made it in a lot of other places.”
Marks said she was so grateful for the care she received that she asked Prince Harry if he would present one of her gold medals to the hospital.
“It's the only way I could really thank them for saving my life,” she said. “These gold medals are a direct reflection of all the love and support I've had. It's not so much that I've earned them, but that the Invictus team has earned them as a whole.”
Invictus Games, Take 2
Marks said getting to compete in Invictus this time was a chance for her to thank her friends and family for the love and support they've shown her throughout her recovery.
Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Marks swims for gold during the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Fla., May 11, 2016. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)
“When I was on life support, they took the time to send me pictures and to send me love,” she said. “When I woke up off life support and out of my coma, it meant everything to me, and I cried like a baby. It felt like I wasn't absent from it. It felt like a part of me was there, because I was there with my friends and the people I love. I consider them my family. It means everything to me to be able to do that again.”
Marks said athletes from many nations have supported her on her journey.
“Athletes from every country have supported me. The French have been super supportive, the Netherlands, the [United Kingdom], they've all reached out and shared love with me on my whole athletic journey and my journey through recovery,” she said. “There's no country or service branch barrier. It's just, ‘You're a soldier, and we love you. We hope you're OK,' and that's meant the world to me.”
Marks's sister, Maggie Cook, said it was a treat to see her sister compete professionally for the first time. “It was indescribable,” she said. “It's a huge treat, and with the Invictus spirit in the air, she's just really incredible.”
Cook said she's proud of how far Marks has come since London. “She's really pushed hard and done a good job,” she added.
Marks said she was happy to have her family in the stands, cheering her on. “At the last Invictus Games, my brother had to watch me in [the intensive care unit] on life support, so this was nice for him to get to see that I'm OK,” she said. “And it's wonderful because my sister is pregnant, so my beautiful baby niece got to come and see her aunt swim. It's really nice I got to share what I actually do for a living now.”
Jacob Marks said he's proud of his baby sister, and that sometimes it feels like she's the older sister. “I look up to her like she's my older sister -- she's a great mentor,” he said. “She's always working so hard and stays positive. It makes me want to be a better person.”
Road to Rio
Marks originally injured her hips during a deployment to Iraq in 2010, while serving as a medical assistant. She's had three hip surgeries, and due to decreased mobility in her legs, she is Paralympic-eligible.
Since London, Marks broke her own American record in the 200-meter breaststroke and won four gold medals and two silver medals at the California Classic meet. In addition to setting the world record in the 50-meter breaststroke in January, she also broke the American and Pan American records in the 200-meter breaststroke with a time of 3:17.89. She broke Jessica Long's SB7 world record in the 50-meter breaststroke with a time of 41.21 seconds.
She was also the first swimmer and first woman in the Army's World Class Athlete Program. She encourages others to join the program. “Now that we have a route, I want more people to come down to it with me. It's life-saving, life-changing and it's beautiful. I want to share it,” she said.
In September, Marks said, she hopes to represent the Army and her country at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, which has been her goal since the very start of her Paralympic swimming career.
“I have the trials at the end of June, and I'm very nervous,” she said. “Hopefully, I'll be able to earn a slot. I've been training very hard and trying very hard to get to Rio. Hopefully along that path, I'll be able to encourage more soldiers to get into the pool because everyone's welcome.”
Marks said she encourages all disabled service members and veterans to give adaptive sports a try. She said she continues to swim as a way to thank her fellow service members for their service.
“There's not a second I get into that pool or under the block that you guys aren't on my mind,” she said. “Every time I swim, it's quite painful, but the pain is nothing compared to the sacrifice that my brothers and sisters make every day, so it's my way to carry them with me. You guys push me and drive me and make me believe in what I'm doing. It's not for a medal or a time. It's for a lot more than that.”
Marks said she thanks everyone who has supported her and continues to support her on her journey.
“I'd just like to thank Prince Harry for the Invictus Games,” she said. “I'd like to thank the U.S. Army for standing behind every second of every recovery I put you through, and for all of the veterans who maybe haven't come out yet. I want to thank you for your service, for your dedication, for your country. I love you and care about you, and I hope you can come join me.”
By Shannon Collins
Comment on this article