Mark Barr: Bone Cancer Survivor with a Prosthetic Leg Wins ESPY Award

August 24, 2019
Hanger Clinic

After surviving osteosarcoma as a teen, Mark Barr learned that his right leg would have to be amputated above the knee. Although there were setbacks as he adjusted to life with a prosthetic leg, he chose to keep a positive mindset and continue pursuing his passion—sports. Custom prosthetics, coupled with sheer determination and support from his Hanger Clinic team, helped him reach his goals of becoming a Paralympic athlete, triathlete, and winner of the 2019 ESPY Award for Best Male Athlete with a Disability.

At age 14, life held many uncertainties for Mark. At a time when he was supposed to be enjoying life as a teenager, Mark and his parents received the unfortunate news that he had osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. After one year of chemotherapy, Mark underwent amputation above the knee of his right leg. It was a difficult time for Mark and his parents. The loss of mobility was heartbreaking, especially since Mark was an active teenager and very involved in sports–baseball, soccer, and swimming. His parents were grateful yet worried what life would hold for him in the future.

Beginning Life Again

While recovering from surgery, Mark was cared for by a nurse who was also a Paralympic swimmer. She shared the benefits of prosthetics with Mark, encouraged him to pursue sports, and helped him see the light at the end of the tunnel. It wasn’t easy, and many doubts entered Mark’s mind. His first major goal was to receive an above-knee prosthesis and learn how to walk. “There were successes and setbacks. I knew walking was going to be extremely challenging, but I kept a positive mindset and pushed through.”

Getting Back in the Water

With the encouragement of his family and coach, Mark got back into the water and began swimming again. He continued to gain more function and confidence living as an amputee. “I needed to figure out how to get my self-confidence back. I used sports to help with my body image.” Mark gave this new life his all, later swimming Division I at Cal Poly University and competing in two Paralympics – Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. He then retired from swimming and started pursuing triathlons.

A New Adventure

Mark’s new venture into triathlons required him to run, swim, and bike. After getting a new prosthetic running leg, Mark worked with the team at Hanger Clinic both inside and outside of the office to get it right. The team helped him learn how to run and made continuous improvements to his prostheses to optimize socket fit and improve performance.

Then came a prosthetic cycling leg. The team had Mark bring his bike into the clinic, where they molded a custom stump cup and made his leg lightweight, aerodynamic, and stable.

In 2009, Mark completed his first triathlon. From there, he went on to race in world championships, even going undefeated in 2018. Mark credits the team at Hanger Clinic for helping him get his running and cycling legs dialed in. “Whenever something wasn’t going right, I could tell the frustration was mutual. The Hanger Clinic team sympathized and empathized with me, wanting me to succeed as much as I did. The team did everything they could to make sure I was at the top of my game, going above and beyond to make sure I was taken care of and ready for my next competition.”

Winning the ESPY

“Sports, like life, can be an emotional roller coaster. When things are good, it seems nothing can go wrong, and conversely, when things are bad, it seems there’s nothing you can do to get yourself out of the rut. For me, coming up short of the podium at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janiero was my low. I knew deep down I was capable of more than a 4th place finish, and I used that disappointment as the fuel to stay motivated in my training as I moved forward into the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Gradually I got better, and in 2018, I was fortunate enough to experience an entire season where everything seemed to fall perfectly into place.” For Mark, winning the 2019 ESPY Award for Best Male Athlete with a Disability was icing on the cake, and he is forever grateful to those who stood by him through it all.

Life Outside of Sports

Outside of Mark’s passion for sports he is also a nurse, working towards becoming a nurse anesthetist. This type of profession is challenging, requiring him to stand and work 12 to 16-hour shifts. Having a good socket system is crucial in allowing him to pursue his professional goals.

He also gives back to the amputee community through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, an organization that gives individuals with physical challenges access to sports and an active lifestyle through adaptive sports grants, camps, clinics, and mentorship, and Catapult, a non-profit entity that aims to catapult physically-challenged individuals over adversity and into the world of endurance sports. Mark appreciates everyone who has been there with him in his journey and feels blessed to be able to help support others.

Through it all, Mark feels his life circumstances have brought him closer to his family, made him appreciate life, and not take things for granted. “Every day I appreciate the support I received from my family, friends, support groups, and the team at Hanger Clinic. I tell other amputees to immerse yourself in everyday community activities and amputee support groups. My goal was to compete in sports, your goal may be to walk again. Don’t give up and always remember you can ask for help. There are a lot of people out there who have been in a similar situation, you just need to reach out.”

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