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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

No Athlete Has Ever Made the Paralympics and the Olympics. Zion Clark Could Change That.

IF YOU’VE NEVER seen Zion Clark wrestling, there comes a moment in nearly every one of his matches when he looks just like every other competitor: in the down position, flexing his broad chest, massive arms, and sculpted back as he fights to escape his opponent’s hold and gain the advantage. But once he does, it becomes clear how he’s different: Clark, 24, has no legs, due to a rare condition called caudal regression syndrome. The Ohio native is well aware that this makes him unique, but he’s adamant about not being treated differently because of it.

“What I’m doing blows most people’s minds,” says Clark, who now lives and trains in San Diego, on a Zoom call in October. “The first thing they’re thinking is: Holy crap, he doesn’t have legs. And then next, it’s: Holy crap, he’s actually beating this dude up.” But in Clark’s eyes, he’s supposed to do that. He’s developed the life philosophy of “Be greater than”—as in be greater than whoever you are today, or your last accomplishment, or your self-doubt. It may sound clichéd, but that mentality has kept him grounded and motivated as he works toward the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, where he hopes to become the first American to make both the Olympic and the Paralympic teams in two separate sports—wrestling in the former, wheel-chair racing in the latter.

Clark practicing wheelchair racing in San Diego in 2021.SANDY HUFFAKER

In the meantime, there are plenty of ways to see Clark’s indomitable spirit in action. You can watch him in the 2018 Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Zion, which chronicles his life and his high school wrestling career at Massillon High School in Ohio. There, Clark, at three feet tall and 88 pounds, wrestled opponents who towered over and outweighed him, yet as a senior, he was one point away from making it to the state championship. You can tune in to his YouTube channel, where he provides a carefully curated look at his world, in which he dives into a pool, expertly plays the drums, crushes battle-rope workouts and box jumps, and even skateboards, all while offering more inspirational maxims similar to what you might hear during his motivational-speaking gigs. And just a few months ago, Clark set the Guinness World Record for the fastest 20-meter dash on two hands, with an impressive 4.78 seconds. In the video he shared, you can see that his first time was actually faster, but he had to run the event again because he accidentally ducked beneath the sensor at the finish line.

Clark continues to cross-train for multiple sports.Sandy Huffaker

Clark’s other motto—“No excuses”—is tattooed across his back. And while he might lean on platitudes, his authenticity and depth surface when he talks about past experiences and future goals. He grew up in Ohio’s foster-care system after being put up for adoption as an infant. Ohio is a wrestling state, so Clark began competing in second grade, in part to channel his energy and aggression. He lost nearly all of his wrestling matches until 2015, when, during his senior year of high school, he grew strong enough to compensate for his lack of leverage and started to pin opponents. That same year, Clark was adopted by Kimberly Hawkins, his foster mother, and her advice—“If they are going to look at you, make sure they remember your name”—helped motivate him even more. (It’s also featured in his new photo book, Zion Unmatched.) Clark ended the year with a 33–15 record and continued wrestling while pursuing a business degree at Kent State University at Tuscarawas.

The wrestler in high school in 2016.Courtesy Zion Clark

By the spring of 2020, he had bulked up to 121 pounds and was preparing to wrestle in the U. S. Olympic team trials ahead of the Tokyo Games when he tweaked his shoulder, which he has to be very careful with because he walks using his arms. That along with Covid-19 regulations prevented him from staying in wrestling shape, since he couldn’t train with others, so he decided to focus on wheelchair racing, something he’d excelled at in high school. “I had to get creative to reinvent myself,” he says. “I wasn’t competing, but I was advancing my skills behind closed doors.”

He began a cross-training regimen that he maintains today. “All of his sports rely on explosive athletic movement, so [his training] involves replicating a lot of that,” says Craig Levinson, a former professional basketball player who’s Clark’s manager and trainer. For example, Levinson will drop a medicine ball over Clark’s chest and have him catch it, then jump into an upright position. “We’ll do dumbbell presses on the floor, which don’t require as much core instability. It’s upper-body plyometrics, almost: a lot of box jumps that involve exploding with his hands.”

Clark refuses to be defined by any one accomplishment.Sandy Huffaker

In June, Clark competed in the U. S. Paralympic track-and-field team trials for the Tokyo Games, but he might have pushed himself too hard, aggravating his shoulder and back just before the event. Despite having the fourth-best time in the country, he was one spot short of making the team. In response, he opted to change his approach to establishing and reestablishing goals: He’s stopped viewing success and failure as black and white. Instead, he looks for lessons from each experience. “Next race, let’s try to get faster with the hand speed and more accurate strikes on the wheel,” he says. “A lot of people will just think, Ah, I failed and feel sorry for themselves. I think, Ah, I failed—but I’m going to do this better next time.”

Today, Clark says he feels healthier than ever. “In wrestling, I’m faster and quicker in general, my hand speed is faster, and the execution of my take-downs and submissions is faster,” he says. “At the end of the day, my technique is nothing if I’m not fast.” He continues to rely on certain affirmations to keep himself going. “ ‘I’m going to get up today. I’m going to be strong. I’m going after what I believe in—even if I fail,’ ” he says. “Once you get the ‘I am’ mindset, nothing can break that.” But he bristles at the idea that his story fits the kind of archetypal motivational- porn narrative of adversity overcome that’s attached to so many Black athletes. He wants to make clear that he’s far more than the sum of his traumas or whatever exceptionalism surrounds his achievements. “When some people see my story, it’s almost like, ‘Oh, I feel bad for you and I’m sorry those things happened to you.’ And I understand that, but at the same time, I’m not that kid. I really want to be known for what I’m doing and who I am.”

“I really want to be known for what I’m doing and who I am,” Clark says.Sandy Huffaker

So he is looking forward, not backward. In recent months, that’s meant training for javelin throwing—another potential Olympic sport for him—and sparring with some MMA athletes. And he remains clear headed about the fine line between Zion Clark the person and Zion Clark the athlete. “I might be a wrestler, a track athlete, and all these great things, but at the same time, I’d like to say that I’m a decent drummer—or just an all-around decent musician,” says Clark, who also plays the piano and trumpet. And he believes he can still be greater than all that. “The people in my circle expect me to win,” he says. “They expect me to be successful all the time because they’re right there working with me.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Men’s Health.

Julian Kimble
Julian Kimble writes about culture (and a little bit more) for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, GQ, The Ringer, and others.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io

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Michael Davis
Interested in history. In my free time I usually read. I like to listen to music with headphones.

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