Overcoming Adversity: Transcending Your Own Limitations
Posted by Fernando Grajeda on Aug 18, 2014
Jess Markt is a remarkable individual who has not only overcome his own physical challenges but has risen up to create avenues and platforms for others to do so in the same manner. And in order to achieve this, he has crossed cultural, gender, religious, language and even armed conflict barriers.
He suffered a spinal cord injury in a car accident while in college at the age of 19 when he wa s a competitive track star at the University of Oregon. After spending two weeks in a semi-conscious state, the first words he heard at the hospital were the following:“You were in a car accident and broke your back. You are paraplegic as of now. With the medical technology that exists you won’t be able to walk again. That’s the reality and this may change, but that’s what you're dealing with right now”.
This is a lot of information to process for any 19 year old, but Jess decided to approach this new reality with a forward-looking “next step” perspective. “OK, my next step is to learn how to be able to get around, to move my legs enough so that they can let me out of the hospital because I won’t be eating recycled scrambled eggs every morning”. That’s how he thought about it. The next step after that required him to find a way to get stronger, to go back to college, to get his degree and then move on from there. “I just sort of approached it like that from that moment onward and that allowed me to have a very positive outlook. In the moments before the accident happened this would have seemed like an unsurmountable challenge to me”.
In this Awakin conversation, Jess shares how this turning point in his life led him to realize he actually had a choice about how to face this reality. He thought, “I can handle this in one of two ways. I can either feel resentful and feel like this was some sort of unfair transgression against me. I could ask myself, why did this happen to me and not another person. Or just look at it like, this is the situation and I have to deal with it. I can see this just as another challenge, like becoming good at a sport or trying to make the track team at Oregon”.
Asked how he was able to respond so positively, Jess believes that the influence of his family and friends was paramount. “My folks and my three brothers were there for me every step of the way. To have the model that my mother and father set for us, always helping us realize we can always overcome our challenges - even though we had never dealt with something as physically traumatic as what I went through - I think that through their example, how they raised us, they taught us that you can achieve anything you set your mind to”.
Six months after he was back in school, in the University of Oregon, his friends and father - who is a remodeler - had worked together to completely renovate the fraternity house he was living in so that he could move back in in a wheelchair and get right back to his normal every day life and finish school. “That was huge!”, he says with excitement. “That accomplishment really was, from both a social and an academic perspective, 90% of getting me all the way back to who I was”.
He reflects on the fact that he had spent the previous three years leading up to the accident having a lot of personal spiritual dialogue with himself. He started having introspective conversations about his place in this world and about how he viewed all the different esoteric components of the Universe and the world, both spiritual and physical working together. “Whilst I was not by any means at any point I had come to definitive answers, just having gone through that process allowed me to look inside and realize what I was capable of. I realized that I wasn't going to have those things anymore (the ability to walk or jump and do all these things athletically). It was clear to me that those were not at all core. I loved them but the thing I’m so fortunate to have is my personality, my true self”.
During this recovery and healing process, Jess was introduced to wheelchair basketball, a sport which would become a huge component of his work and personal life. He was approached by a wheelchair basketball coach in Portland to come out, try the game and have a tryout. “Initially I was a little skeptical. I sort of avoided getting back into athletic competition after my injury. I was a little bit nervous that having played sports at a relatively high level and so competitively growing up, that playing a disabled sport wasn’t going to measure up to that same level of fun and competitive outlet as I was accustomed to”. He decided to accept the invitation to play and went with the Wheel Racers and realized that it was a completely different game. “I immediately fell in love with it and came to the realization that instead of assuming that his was a pale shadow of the game I was used to, it was a much more challenging sport. That’s how I first started my love for wheelchair basketball”.
In 2009 he was invited to travel for a one week coaching visit to Afghanistan. Jess believes that the best things in life always seem to happen through a strange kind of series of random interactions. And this was not the exception. He was living in New York at the time and playing for the Rolling Knicks, the amateur wheelchair basketball team affiliate of the New York Knicks, when he received an email from a woman based in Brooklyn who had just come back from a trip to Afghanistan. She had been doing non-profit work making a film about women’s issues. During the making of the film she traveled to the north of Afghanistan to a small town called Maimana, in north central Afghanistan near the Pakistan border. While doing her film, she made her way to an orthopedic center where a local European NGO was making prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs and different mobility aids for disabled people in the community.
When she visited this place she saw that they had an outdoor basketball court and realized that there were several Afghan men in wheelchair playing some version of basketball. She went to them and watched them play and when they finished she said: “it’s such a remarkable out of the blue thing. What can I do when I get back to New York? This is incredible and I want to help anyway I can”. They told her that what they needed was someone who could come there to teach them how to play the game. That request made its way to Jess through his team and he was the person who received it and thought “this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. I’m going to go to Afghanistan in 2009 in the middle of a war and find my way up to Maimana and coach some wheelchair basketball”.
The move from player to coach was very organic in terms of this request coming along to his life. He had never coached basketball before but he felt he could do it. For Jess, being a coach required something more than technical knowledge about the sport. He found that the key to make this work was to create personal connections with his players. “The thing I found most important, and have continued to find in the 5 years I have been doing this, is that the personal connection with the athletes is the key to inspire change of how they approach the sport and how well they metabolize the lessons I’m teaching them but also in how they look at themselves”.
By cultivating those personal relationships in every context and in every instance, one of the things he decided was going to be mandatory going over, was to know every player’s name and remember it and have a personal relationship with each of them. “When I’m there I’m probably with at least 80 to 100 players personally and I have met probably close to 200 of the 250 or 300 who are playing across the country at this point. And so maintaining that backlog of names, both Afghan, and now Cambodian and Palestinian as well, has required more mental energy but I continue to make that a priority and I think insisting on maintaining those individual personal relationships has made this so much more than me just going and coaching basketball clinics and coming home”.
To Jess these athletes aren’t just the people he coaches basketball to. To him, “this group is part of this growing global family that I’m building which enables me to improve as a coach, as a mentor, as a teacher, every time I go back. The stronger those relationships grow, the more motivated and the more those players grow to love the experience and grow in terms of thinking of themselves not anymore as disabled people but as athletes”.
Jess has also managed to coach the women’s team in Afghanistan. He says that when he heard the news that the first two women’s team in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif had been formed, he was really excited that those provinces were willing to take that step forward and really step outside the social boundaries of conservative Islam to allow not only women to play sports, but disabled women, another level of marginalization. He never thought that there was going to be any chance that they’d let him work directly with them just because of the very stringent barrier between male non-relatives interacting with females. As he reflected on this, he said that “it just so happened that the combination of me being a foreigner, me being a teacher and me being a disabled person somehow circumvented all those rules so they found that it was OK, that this was not a threat. So I was allowed to be the women’s coach as well”.
Since his first visit to Afghanistan for a week of coaching in November 2009, Jess has, in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross, created a national program in Afghanistan that now includes men’s teams in six provinces and women’s teams in two provinces, with annual training camps and national championship tournaments being held for both. Jess continues to travel to Afghanistan to train the ever-growing group of players (now at over 250 total) and is also the head coach of the first Afghanistan men’s national wheelchair basketball team, which recently participated in its first international competition in Italy. Jess described just a few of the remarkable human stories that unfolded while taking the Afghan men’s team to compete internationally in Italy, which are described more fully on his blog. More recently, he has been involved in coaching teams in Cambodia and Palestine as well.
Asked about the impact coaching wheelchair basketball has had on his journey, he says that the effect on him has been one that he would have never expected. “That first trip, I went knowing that this would be an incredibly important life experience for me and I had no illusions that going to Afghanistan in 2009 would not have a major impact on me or that it wouldn't be one of the greatest memories that I would ever have. But I expected it to be a one-time thing”. But instead, in getting to know that initial group of players it was just so apparent to him from that moment that this was going to become an incredible part of his life and that he would have to find a way to continue to bring more Afghans into this experience and find a way to broaden this which is now a reality with teams being set up in Palestine and Cambodia.
This opportunity of transcending his own limitations by helping others transcend theirs has completely changed the focus of his life. “I can almost not imagine my life without this, and every single day I feel lucky that this completely random opportunity came to me and that I just happened to be in a place in my life where that seemed like a leap I had to take and I just couldn't be more thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it and that I continue to be a part of it”.
Jess’s amazing story will be the subject of a feature length documentary project, “The League of Afghanistan”. His ongoing experiences in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Palestine can also be followed through his blog.