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Jun 22, 2018

GB Paralympian Ian Marsden talks about battling adversity and aiming for gold

Tony James speaks to GB Paralympian Ian Marsden about his career and achievements

Ian Marsden has a carbon cage inside his body which covers a plate that fuses together his spine. He has a rare motor neurone condition which affects his legs and arms and which took a dozen neurologists to diagnose and to come to the conclusion that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Sometimes it can take an hour before his medication works sufficiently to allow Marsden to get out of bed at his Stoke-on-Trent home and drive for an hour and a half for up to eight hours of gruelling training.
You might have guessed by now that Marsden is a sporting phenomenon. He is also an astonishingly brave and stubborn man, who when told a challenge is beyond him, promptly replaces it with an even harder one.

He has reached world-class level in four sports, three as a disabled athlete. He won bronze in the Rio Paralympics 200-metre paracanoe finals, less than a second behind the winner and at 44 was the oldest competitor in the race.

“That was a pretty special moment,” Marsden says, in a masterpiece of understatement. “I wasn’t disappointed not to win gold because it was my first Paralympics. Now I’m training for Tokyo 2020 and I hope to do a bit better!”

That’s typical of the man. The litany of setbacks and disappointments which have followed Marsden since the day in 1993 when he was told he would never walk again, would plunge most mortals into terminal despair.

To Marsden they were merely a signal to reinvent himself yet again and crack on with the next challenge.

As a lad he was fit and tough. Power-lifting in his dad’s garage to get fit for cricket, he found he liked it and was good at it. He won his first British title at 17, becoming junior world champion and breaking three world records.

At 21, Marsden’s world changed forever. After winning the 1992 world championships, a spinal injury abruptly ended his weight-lifting career and set in progress a steely resolve to find a new sport.

“I still had strength in my arms and shoulders so when someone suggested hand cyling, I had a go and loved it.” Soon he was racing on the European circuit while based in the Czech Republic and became British number one handcyclist, with what he hoped was a long career ahead.

It wasn’t to be. Neck problems took him back to hospital for treatment for what was thought to be a prolapsed disc. “I had a couple of plates and a carbon cage put in which acts as a sort of scaffolding,” Marsden says matter-of-factly, as though discussing some MOT work on his car, but doctors were not happy, and Marsden was moved to a neurology ward where after extensive tests it was discovered that he had a rare motor neurone condition which was affecting various parts of his body.

“I realised that I would no longer be able complete in hand cycling at international level and it was time to look for yet another sport,” Marsden remembers. Indoor ten-metre airrifle shooting seemed a possibility.

After trials he was fast-tracked into the UK team for the 2012 London Olympics but further health problems forced him to drop out.

“Someone told me about paracanoeing. I went to a talent identification day at Nottingham National Water sports Centre in 2012 and was asked to join their programme. It combined power lifting and hand cycling in one explosive sport and was just what I was looking for.

“I was determined not to give up sport and cycling and power lifting, combined with gym work, give you the endurance, speed and strength you need for paracanoeing.”

Coaches say that from the beginning Marsden took to his new sport literally like a duck to water, winning silver in both the 2013 European senior sprint championships in Portugal and the world championships in Germany.

In 2015 he won gold at the European championships in Brandenburg with a new world record and came second in the Moscow world championships, missing gold by literally half an inch.

Rio was the ultimate goal for the man who doesn’t know what it means to give up, but ironically admits that he doesn’t remember much about the actual race. “I didn’t know I had a podium place until afterwards.

“Everyone told me about how close it was - I remember everything went quiet before a massive cheer for the result of the photo-finish. I have since watched the race back and still find it hard to believe I was in it - and within a whisker of winning.”

Three years ago Marsden made the decision to go fully professional, finally giving up his day job as a veterinary microbiologist. “The truth is you are not going to reach your full potential unless you’re absolutely committed and full-time,” he says. Marsden is now training six days a week from eight in the morning until 4pm. “In winter you do about 70 per cent gym work and 30 per cent on the water, and in summer it’s the other way around.”

Capsizes in canoeing are frequent and Marsden is well aware that a partially paralysed man strapped into his boat could literally be in deep trouble. “When a sprint boat goes over it normally chucks you out and it’s a question of undoing your straps while hanging upside down. “It has happened to me and it’s not pleasant, but we’re trained to cope with it. A frequent problem when training on a lake is being swamped by the wash from water-skiers’ speedboats. They neither know nor care that you are disabled.”

Recently Marsden became the latest ambassador for award winning Pulse Fitness gym equipment specialists, joining a team of ambassadors which includes Dame Kelly Holmes and the world’s strongest man Eddie Hall.

“I spend so much time in the gym it seemed a logical step to become involved with Pulse,” he says.

“Having been involved in sport and physical activity from a young age, both as an able-bodied person and someone with a disability, I know how difficult it can be for a disabled person to step into a gym environment.

“I’m really looking forward to helping create more opportunities for those with disabilities.”

“We are delighted to welcome Ian,” says Pulse Group chairman Mo Chaudry. “We are truly inspired by the determination he has as an athlete and his passion for creating more opportunities for those with disabilities. His expertise and knowledge will help us with the way we create our equipment.”

Father of three, Marsden finds time in his busy schedule to talk to school children - recently he returned to his old school to answer questions about his life and achievements - and makes a point of encouraging disabled people to become more active.

“It’s also important to get into places like hospital spinal units and encourage people to use sport as part of their rehab. Many paralympians started that way - taking up sport to aid their recovery and then finding that they liked it and were good at it.

“The good news is that there are so many more organisations now who can help people rehabilitate themselves through sport and exercise.

“Twenty years ago, when I did my back in, things were very different - you were told to lie down and rest. Today everything is keyed to keeping you motivated and on the move.”

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