One leg? It's no big deal

Astonishing sporting success despite loss

PETER WATSON
Last updated 12:00 15/03/2014
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

One-legged golfer Marty Clark in action.

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Marty Clark is a one-legged wonder. Since losing his left leg in a horrific motorcycle accident more than 30 years ago, the Nelson recreation adviser has simply refused to let his disability slow him down or stop him living life to the max.

In an astonishing sporting career, he's skied and sailed for New Zealand at the Paralympics, won a national surfing knee-board title and marathon kayak races against able-bodied rivals and biked some of our toughest mountain trails. And now he's got the golfing bug.

Locals have grown accustomed to seeing him hopping around their course on his crutches, golf bag slung over his back. However, they still marvel how he can smash the ball more than 200m down the fairway with his driver or soar an iron into the green while balanced on one leg.

It's prompted inspired strangers to rush up to high-five or hug him.

But for the chirpy 53-year-old with the can-do attitude and cheeky sense of humour it's no big deal and just another challenge to overcome.

It started back in 1980 when he had his left leg, hip and pelvic bone ripped out in a crash with an oncoming car that was passing another, leaving him with no place to go. It severed his femoral artery and he only survived because a nurse who lived across the road held her fist in the gaping wound to stem the bleeding.

He was 20 but immediately decided he wasn't going to retreat and mourn what he had lost.

"It was a no-brainer really. My only ambition was to get back to my passion for surfing."

He recovered indecently quickly, due in large part to a positive attitude and using the hospital stairs to build up his fitness.

"I've got a photo of me on the beach at Mt Maunganui in my hospital dressing gown trailing tubes along the sand while I coached my young brother out in the surf."

He was also keen to regain mobility.

"I knew being stuck on my crutches wasn't going to cut the mustard and that I needed a faster mode of transport." He worked out he could still ride his bike if he turned his seat on a 45-degree angle and strapped in his foot.

"I felt like I had climbed Everest when I worked that out."

The extent of his injury to his hindquarters means it is too uncomfortable to wear a prosthetic limb, although he did once as a joke at his wedding to wife Karen in a bid to confuse her as to who the groom was.

It didn't stop him throwing himself into snow skiing and surfing. Within three years of his accident and after several seasons training in Europe and the US, he was the top amputee skier in the country and off to the Paralympics.

He soon after won a national title for knee boarding, and then in 2000 sailed a three-man keel boat for New Zealand at the Paralympics in Sydney, one of the few athletes to have been selected for winter and summer games.

While living in Hamilton, he got involved in kayaking and found he was good at it, winning a 120km race down the Waikato River. That eventually led to a long stint of waka-ama outrigger canoe paddling after a move to Nelson.

"I really loved it but it's quite punishing on my back because my seated stability isn't that great."

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The Saturday training also began to interfere with his new passion - golf.

His parents were avid golfers and he remembers as a kid trailing around various North Island country courses after them searching for balls.

But it wasn't until he was almost 40 that he started to dabble in the game, first in Hamilton and then more seriously over the last few years after shifting to Nelson in 1990.

Initially it was another way of staying fit, but soon the physical and mental challenge of mastering what can be an infuriating game for all but the best took hold.

"Maybe it's the way I approach life. I don't focus on what is difficult, I focus on what I think I need to do."

Staying steady over the ball has been his biggest hurdle. "Luckily I have always been quite fit and have good leg and core strength and natural balance from having done a lot of skiing, surfing and bike riding." And by bike riding, he doesn't mean a gentle trundle down the Railway Reserve, but full-on climbs around Nelson's many hill tracks several times a week. He's also knocked off the Heaphy and Queen Charlotte tracks, as well as biked extensively in the US.

"More than most I'm faced with a ‘use it or lose it' body. If I was to stop being active I would fall apart."

This fitness regime serves him well on the golf course but he still struggles in wind and on slopes and finds the extra effort of lugging his crutches, bag and himself around a whole 18 holes taxing. However, it hasn't stopped a steady improvement in his golf game.

His handicap has fallen from the high 20s to 15.4 and he reckons he has the ability to get as low as 12.

"I'm always learning and thinking about the game and I know what the fundamentals of a good swing should look like, but I struggle for consistency because I play with more variables." They include nagging back and hip pain, while the medication he takes for it can affect his vision and balance.

Still, he regularly pumps his drives out beyond 200m and is an accurate iron player.

Good equipment helps, and he was mortified several years ago to lose a favourite driver out of the sidecar of the motorbike he rides in summer because he forgot to strap his clubs in. It's only recently that he found a suitable replacement.

He finds shots requiring a bigger swing easier, and chipping and putting much more difficult.

"Take away that full swing and I'm wobbling around. I don't know if it's legal or not, but I've taken to throwing a crutch under my butt while I'm putting which allows me to be stable and read the line a lot better."

He cheerfully admits to being competitive and likes nothing better than beating his mates whether it be a social haggle, club competition or tournament. Last month he added to his growing list of achievements by finishing second in his grade at the 27-hole Maitai Masters.

A member of the Waahi Taakaro Golf Club, his best round - gleefully shot in the company of his 85-year-old dad whom he had never beaten before - was a stunning three-over par 75 off the white tees.

After finishing as the top non-prosthetic golfer at a national tournament in Wellington last year, he harbours ambitions of playing overseas.

"I'm disappointed golf isn't going to make it into the next Paralympics like it has for the Olympics in Brazil. Maybe I'm getting a bit old to compete internationally, but it's something I would love to do." More than most other sports, golf - through its handicap system - is a game where he can compete on a reasonably even footing with others, he says.

"The fact that I have a physical disability is irrelevant. It really is a game for everyone.

"Some give you a hard time for being a burglar, but you play with a lot of good people and meet some real characters.

"It teaches you a lot about life too." About patience, judgment, risk-taking, planning and "not kicking your ball out from under a tree when someone's watching", he jokes.

"Nothing beats hitting a sweet shot. Every golfer knows the feeling of selecting the right club and pulling the shot off. It's a cliche, but it's what brings us back."

- The Nelson Mail

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