Injury, illness & Paralympic gold: What moves Ellie Marks?

by Vern Evans

Before the injury, before she found purpose in the pool, before the amputation, before the gold medals, before there even was a Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks, there was Ellie, the girl who grew up surrounded by Marines.

Marks, who is Military Times’ 2024 Soldier of the Year, said her childhood featured “100 grandpas who had all served in the military,” thanks to her father James’ job as the maintenance man at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona. Her father, a combat-wounded Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, managed to talk her out of joining the Corps after graduating high school at 16.

She enlisted in the Army in 2008 as a combat medic — partially due to her father’s love for corpsmen, but also because women weren’t allowed to join the infantry, she explained. Her father and his friends gave her “a lot of warnings and life lessons” that she “wasn’t ready for” yet.

Barely two years later in 2010, Marks injured her hips in Iraq. The injuries, bad as they were, nearly broke her spirit, too.

“All I ever wanted to be was the best medic. All I ever wanted to be was there for my guys,” she said. “When that rug got pulled from under me, I didn’t know what to do. I was 19 years old.”

During her recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, her driving motivation was to get back to duty, to get back on the line with the soldiers. She feared losing her Army dreams to medical retirement.

Then she found the pool. The self-described “accidental athlete” jokes that her first visits resembled “not drowning” more than they did swimming.

Marks credits “a very nice master sergeant and a very nice spouse” with introducing her to “how to swim the right way.” It changed things.

“During that process — and their kindness — I found so much more than swimming. It was the first time that I felt purpose and quiet. And it was extremely painful, but it was the first time in quite some months where I got to dictate my own pain and push as hard as I wanted.”

Swimming also diversified her goals. In addition to fighting for her career, she now competed in adaptive swimming events like the Warrior Games. After the Army declared her fit for duty in 2012, she joined the service’s World Class Athlete Program to pursue competitive swimming full-time while remaining in uniform.

Throughout it all, Marks said, she’s remained motivated by a “more important focus: being the best for the people around me.”

When first injured, “I wasn’t treated very well,” Marks said. “So I wanted to stay [in the Army] in spite of that, and to make sure that I could live up to my own expectations of taking care of people the way I should have been.”

Her path since her initial recovery, while interspersed with moments of great accomplishment, hasn’t been easy.

In 2014, Marks’ lungs gave out while she was in London for the inaugural Invictus Games. She spent a month in a medically induced coma, saved by a machine that pumped her blood outside her body to replenish it with oxygen. She again recovered through swimming.

Two years later, Marks won a gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Paralympic Games, setting a world record for her classification in the 100 meter breaststroke. She also took home a bronze medal in a medley relay. ESPN recognized her with the Pat Tillman Award for Service that same year.

Another setback struck — but this time, Marks was in control. Less than a year after winning gold in Rio, she opted to have her disabled left leg amputated below the knee in 2017 due to chronic pain from her Iraq injuries and complications of her respiratory failure.

“I got emotional because immediately after the surgery, I felt so much better,” she later told Amplitude magazine.

Back into the pool Ellie went, though her amputation put her into a new competitive category.

When she competed in the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Summer Paralympic Games, Marks cemented her status as one of the most decorated Paralympic athletes in U.S. history. She won gold in the 100 meter backstroke, silver in the 50 meter freestyle, and bronze in the 50 meter butterfly.

And Marks is far from done yet. She claimed four top-5 finishes at the 2023 World Championships (winning two bronze medals), and is considered a favorite to qualify for the 2024 Paris Paralympics to add to her record-setting resume.

In her eyes, winning is great. But it’s never been about her.

“I’ll share any information or lessons learned … there’s no gatekeeping,” Marks said. “I want someone to come beat me in the pool. That’s the dream.”

See all of Military Times’ 2024 Service Members of the Year honorees.

Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

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