3-time Paralympian shares journey after losing leg to cancer

ByRudy Villarreal via Localish logo
Monday, August 29, 2022
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From an amputation to an ESPY Award, Paralympian Mark Barr says losing his leg to cancer was "the biggest blessing in disguise."

HOUSTON, Texas -- Paralympian Mark Barr's life has revolved around sports since the beginning. He started swimming when he was just four years old, then started playing soccer and baseball. It wasn't until he was a teenager that he began having crippling knee pain and received a diagnosis he never saw coming.

"At age 14, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma - bone cancer," Barr said.

He went through nearly a year of chemotherapy, but an MRI revealed the tumor had spread too aggressively and amputation was the only option.

"Sitting in the pre-op room with my parents was the ultimate low of the entire experience with cancer," said Barr.

After his amputation, it was a nurse in the recovery room who gave him hope and helped him realize there is life after amputation. She herself was an amputee and a Paralympic swimmer.

"I consider her like an angel," said Barr. "She was put there on purpose to help me get through that hard time."

Barr got back into the pool as soon as he was able and in 2004, he qualified for the Athens Paralympic Summer Games. The same year, he started college at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he competed on the swim team. At the World Para Athletic Championships in 2006, Barr placed second in the 100 fly. He also competed in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing before taking on a new challenge training for triathlons.

"I was hooked." Barr said. "Swim, bike, run, mixing up the disciplines. I love the challenge of it. It was something, I was like, and 'this is my new identity. I am going to do triathlon." At that point, Barr had been an amputee for eight years and had never run. He didn't have a running prosthesis because many insurance companies don't cover sports prosthetics. Challenged Athletes Foundation was the first group to help him get a running prosthesis. Once he received a new running prosthesis, he learned to run all over again.

Since 2015, Barr has worked with Team Catapult, a Houston non-profit that raises funds for disabled athletes and helps them compete in endurance sports.

"Having other athletes out there with Team Catapult, to walk you through that and teach you first hand is invaluable," said Barr, who has become a big supporter of Team Catapults mission. He helps mentor new athletes within the group.

Barr returned to the U.S. Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, competing for the first time as a para-triathlete. In 2018, he had the best year of his career in triathlon. He went undefeated on the World Paratriathlon Series circuit, including a win at the World Championships in Australia. Barr went on to win an ESPY Award in 2019 for "Best Male Athlete with a Disability."

His cancer journey also inspired him to go to nursing school.

"Nursing is something I always wanted to pursue with my background as an amputee and my experience going through cancer treatment," said Barr.

He worked as a trauma ICU charge nurse for seven years before going back to school to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist. He recently graduated and will start a new job this fall. Barr is now recovering from a torn meniscus injury, but is hoping to get back on the racing circuit soon and hopes to qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.