When Mark Arendz was seven years old a farm accident cost him one of his arms and left him fighting for his life.
Almost 14 years later he has two Paralympic medals, a world cup championship and is trying to give back to the community by inspiring people to do better.
Sochi, Russia is a long way from the farm in Hartsville, in central Queens County, Prince Edward Island, where Arendz grew up and lost his left arm to a piece of equipment as he tried to help push some grain into its hopper.
Arendz lost his balance and within seconds his arm was caught in the machine’s blades up to his shoulder.
His left arm was amputated in Halifax and for the first few weeks his family didn’t know if he would make it.
Not only did Arendz survive, but he has gone on to become an elite athlete with two medals — silver and bronze — in the biathlon at the Sochi Paralympics.
Arendz said it wasn’t long after the accident that he realized he might have to change how he did some things, but there were very few moments when he thought he wouldn’t be able to do anything.
“It never really slowed me down.”
There were adjustments and Arendz said some simple things became a lot harder like eating cereal from a bowl or tying his shoes, but he found ways do to them and even years after the accident he is still adapting.
“The way I’m tying my shoes now is probably not the way I’m going to be tying my shoes when I’m 80.”
In those early days after the accident Arendz and his family had help, whether it was from neighbours or the War Amps, which was an organizations he would develop close ties with.
The War Amps help amputees through support programs and Arendz said it was about a month after the accident that he attended his first seminar.
From there it seemed natural to be able to give back to the organization, he said.
“That’s kind of one of the things I’m big on, if I can I will give back when I can.”
One of the ways Arendz gave back to the organization was through a documentary the War Amps filmed about him several years ago.
Jennifer Hall worked with him on that documentary and said she could see that he was very strong, determined, independent and wise beyond his years.
“He was just amazing, even back then.”
Hall said it has been amazing to see Arendz work hard, strive for and achieve his goals.
“It’s incredible. He’s an inspiration to so many people.”
Arendz has been eager to share his experiences and Hall said she has seen the impact he has had on younger amputees.
“He’s an incredible role model for these children and they look up to him.”
Janny Arendz, Mark’s mother, said the family was devastated at first after the accident as they wondered if he would survive, but once he recovered they never treated him differently.
“I think in the long run that did more good than harm because he had to think for himself and find ways to do things.”
Janny described him as a go-getter before the accident, saying he was stubborn back then and still is.
“After the accident he was probably more so because he wanted to prove to himself and other people that he could do it.”
It wasn’t surprising for the family that Mark achieved his goals and while Janny said they were proud of him as an athlete, they were more so because of the person he has become.
“Not everyone is as giving with their time as he is.”
With a strong sense of community in P.E.I., Mark said the biggest impact for him was on the day of his accident when neighbours picked up his brother at the hospital and went to the farm to help his father.
“That was the first sense of really what community meant.”
It was also where Mark said he developed his desire to give back to the community.
“This is my way of giving back is being able to go on the world circuit and prove that P.E.I., as the smallest province in Canada, can produce some of the best athletes in the world.”
Recently, Mark spent time in Nicaragua with the nonprofit organization SchoolBOX where he helped build a school for a community that had to move after a landslide forced them from their homes.
Mark said there is a sense of personal enjoyment in giving back to the community, but he also sees the pride that people back home take in his success.
“I’ll always be giving back.”
Few people reach Marks’s level of success in sport and while he said he was always active growing up, it wasn’t until the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 that he watched the biathlon for the first time with his younger brother Menno.
Two years later they were trying it out.
“We both got hooked and haven’t stopped since,” Mark said.
When Mark started competing in biathlon it was against able-bodied athletes because it was the only way to try the sport in P.E.I. at the time.
After meeting with some success he thought there must have been some opportunities to try it against other disabled athletes.
“I always wanted to take sport to the next level whatever that would be nationally or internationally,” he said.
His first taste of international competition was through the International Paralympic Committee at a development camp in Norway where he had good results.
He raced in his first world cup event in 2007 when he was 16.
That earned him seventh and eighth place finishes in the biathlon and led him to focus not just on doing well but actually winning races.
Lynn Boudreau of Sport P.E.I. said the first time she met Mark was at a barbecue with his family thanks to a connection between her sons and Menno who were involved in biathlon together.
“I was absolutely blown away by him.”
Boudreau, who said her own sons see Mark as an inspiration, doesn’t think he ever uses his amputation as an excuse and thought his success has had a huge impact on other athletes in P.E.I.
“These kids believe that the Olympics are possible and they talk about it and they dream about it and they work towards it.”
When Mark is on the biathlon course, he said everything becomes about the race, breaking the course down and figuring out what techniques he needs to use to go faster.
“You can’t be thinking about anything else.”
He said if everything comes together it’s almost like being in a meditative state, which he was close to reaching in his silver medal run at the Paralympics and felt he attained in his world cup win.
“That’s the peak of race performance.”
Physically, Mark said to be at the top of the sport takes a huge effort.
“It hurts. There are days where it hurts.”
Mark said he always thought he had the characteristics and ability necessary to become one of the best athletes.
“I just always believed that it was possible.”
As for what sort of impact he has on other people, Mark said his philosophy is that if he can help someone become better than he is than he’s done his job.
“As an athlete you just hope that something you do can inspire something greater.”
And while not every athlete wants to be a role model, Mark said he takes pride in being able to share his experiences and inspire someone to do things they think might seem impossible.
“That’s kind of the person I want to be.”
Mark Arendz shares a moment with his parents
Mark Arendz Just the Facts
Years on national team: 7
Sochi biathlon results:
Long – 11th
Middle – bronze
Short – silver
Sochi cross country result: 10 km – 11th
Thoughts on Paralympians: "We're overcoming challenges in daily life."