A Perfectly Remarkable Paralympian

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

Military Times has chosen its 2024 Soldier of the Year, and her name is Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Marks. She grew up in a military community, and her father was a Marine and a Vietnam vet. When she was a kid, Elizabeth was known simply as Ellie, and she had no idea she would one day become a role model by pressing through pain, and finding her purpose.

Elizabeth enlisted in the Army in 2008, and served as a medic in Iraq. Two years later she found herself recovering from injuries suffered in theatre, and recovered in Ft. Sam Houston’s Army Medical Center. Part of her recovery involved being back in the pool. At first it was miserable, and she said that most of what she accomplished was managing not to drown.

But then, “a very nice master sergeant and a very nice spouse” showed her “how to swim the right way.”

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

Elizabeth had several goals, including being able to return to her career as a soldier, and do all she could to help her fellow soldiers. She also joined swimming events that are referred to as “adaptive,” and first competed in the Warrior Games before she started to enter paralympic competitions. She added, “The only reason I became or have stayed a swimmer or stayed in the military wasn’t because of medals and accolades. It was because of my brothers and sisters in the military and my hope that they could be afforded opportunity and support.”

In 2012, Elizabeth was declared fit for duty, and became involved in swimming full time for the Army. In 2014, while she was on her way to London to compete in the inaugural Invictus Games, her lungs failed and she spent a month in a medically induced coma. She was also kept alive by a machine that filtered her blood and oxygenated it while she was in the coma.

When Elizabeth came out of the coma, she was determined to get back to competing, and in 2016 went to the Paralympic Games in Rio, and came home with a gold medal. A year later, complications from her injuries necessitated her leg being amputated. She knew she wasn’t done, and in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she medaled again.

When Elizabeth competed in Tokyo, she won gold in the 100-meter backstroke, silver in the 50-meter freestyle, and bronze in the 50-meter butterfly. I cannot imagine how it would be possible to do the butterfly stroke with only one leg, but clearly, this is one remarkable soldier.

In a few months, Elizabeth will be heading to Paris to compete again, and once again she will make us proud, whether or not she places. And, I have a feeling she’ll be tougher and stronger than ever because of the choices she has made.

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner