“It is my happy place,” the swimmer says. “It is peaceful and painful, and it gives me an outlet to just pour myself into. It’s such a different and amazing feeling to have people believe in my athletic ability when I didn’t know I had any.”
Marks, who is “25 going on 72,” has traveled a long, rough road to get to this moment, just a handful of weeks before she enters the trials for the U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team and then, if she’s fast enough, Rio de Janeiro. Even six years ago, she had no idea she would be a world-class swimmer, who would break records, win multiple gold medals and be ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke.
In 2010, she was a U.S. Army combat medic stationed in Iraq. Then, her world was shattered.
An Arizona native, Marks didn’t really bloom until she began, at 16, to work with the Arizona Project ChalleNGe. The National Guard program provides a military-based educational program for at-risk youth.
“I fell in love with the military and the mentors there, the structure that it provided me,” says Marks, as we talk on the bleachers in Colorado College’s Schlessman Natatorium. “It just fit, just clicked.”
Marks, whose friends call her Ellie, joined the Army at 17 and by 2009, found herself in Iraq.
“For six months and one day,” she says.
A bilateral hip injury ended her deployment. Marks won’t talk about the details though. It’s too personal. She will say that she was terrified of being forced to leave the Army, which she loved.
“I called my dad, and he told me to take out piece of paper and write down what I wanted most,” she says. “I wrote down ‘fit for duty.’ I still have that piece of paper.”
She shifts her long legs and looks out at the empty pool.
“A lot of people thought it was a long shot,” says Marks, who endured four surgeries in 18 months. “But I had a case manager and chain of command that believed I could do it because I wanted it so much.”
To Marks, obstacles are just opportunities. The harder it is, the more she wants it and the more she’s willing to do to get it.
She discovered swimming during physical therapy. Turns out, Marks had talent. In 2012, she tried racing and did well. She moved to Colorado Springs, one of 11 resident Paralympic swimmers at the Olympic Training Center. And on the day she found out she was fit for duty, she also received word that she’d been accepted into the World Class Athlete Program, which lets athletes train while working in their respective military branches. She is the first Paralympian swimmer to join the elite program.
But Marks was torn. “I was afraid that swimming might be selfish of me, because it is so individual,” she explains. “I realized that it was a different avenue that I had to provide support to soldiers, especially those who were ill, sick or injured.”
Marks absentmindedly rubs her bare right leg, which is almost completely covered with what she calls her military memorial tattoo. Twenty-eight hours in the making, it includes a billowing American flag, an agitated crow holding dog tags, a tiny red cross, and Athena, the Greek goddess of strength, among other things. A snake-coiffed Gorgon, who could turn people to stone if they looked at her, will eventually be on her knee.
“I left the dog tags blank on purpose,” she says. “For all the people who won’t be coming back.
“Every time I get in the pool or do an interview or enter a race, the first thing on my mind is soldiers. They really drive me to get to any point in my life.”
Marks was happy. She was swimming and a medic again. But in October 2014, she suffered another setback.
Just before flying to London to compete in the Invictus Games—an international Paralympic, multisport event for wounded warriors—Marks lost her voice. It wasn’t until reaching her London hotel that she knew something was seriously wrong. She collapsed and was sent to the hospital. The IV antibiotic didn’t help, and it looked like she might die.
“My lungs began to fail. My body couldn’t oxygenate,” she says. “Papworth Hospital put me on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) life support, which circulates everything through [an] external lung.”
After 10 days, they brought her out of the induced coma and removed the intubation tubes. Marks was weak, thin and frail, and unable to speak. But she had beat the lung infection. Doctors credited her swimming with her survival.
But her illness brought lingering changes to her body, including decreased lung function, difficulty with vision and disorientation when swimming. Today, swimming takes a team of people. “When I get out, I’m not sure where I am,” Marks says. “I have limited vision for a while. But people have just shown me so much love.”
Nathan Manley, head coach of U.S. Paralympic Swimming, says he’s continually surprised by Marks’ ability to perform in spite of her physical challenges. “The average person might not have even survived all she’s been through,” he says. “She’s thriving.”
Two months after the infection, she won the gold at Can Am Para-Swimming Championships and broke the American world record in her classification in the 50-meter breaststroke. Marks practically glows when she says it.
“I don’t do what-ifs,” she says. “I just handle life as it comes.”
You wouldn’t know Marks has any disability at all, except for the below-the-knee brace she wears on her left leg, which has little feeling. Or perhaps if you watch her swim. As she crashes through the water in a freestyle stroke, the right leg kicks slightly, almost like an afterthought. Her left moves slightly. Most of the kicking comes from her abdomen and the movement of her body, what she calls a transformation of motion.
“Ellie never gives up,” says Queenie Nichols, high performance director of U.S. Paralympics Swimming, who works with Marks twice a week. “She has accomplished a great deal for someone so young. She has met many challenges in her life and has weathered them all with a quiet strength. She aged beyond her years with no complaints about what she has had to endure.”
In May, Marks returned to the Invictus Games—this time in Orlando—and won gold at every one of her events. But when Britain’s Prince Harry gave her the medal for the 100-meter freestyle, she gave it back to him, asking that it go to Papworth Hospital, which saved her life two years earlier.
Yet even with the recent wins, Marks is nervous about the trials for Rio June 30 to July 2.
“Rio will be a new challenge for her, but I’m confident she’ll be ready,” coach Manley says. “She hasn’t let anything else beat her.”
“I’m still learning. I’m learning every single swim meet,” Marks says. “The amazing athletes that share the pool with me, they’ve been swimming since they were kids. Most are younger than I am, but they take me under their wing. It’s fun. I feel good, happy and wonderful.”
But ultimately, Mark’s life as a swimmer is about honoring the men and women who came before and will come after her—military or not.
“I just hope that anyone who sees my story who is facing challenges knows that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” she says. “They just have to see it. If they start going toward it, start striving, they’ll have support and love along the way.
“There’s always someone that cares, whether it’s a physical, mental or emotional challenge. Always.”