Mark Barr hasn’t let a little thing like his leg being amputated stop him from doing what he loves to do, and that’s swimming. He’s overcome cancer and having his leg amputated from the knee down, prevailed with a positive attitude and wants to share his story with others like him.
Born and raised in Davis with his two brothers, Paul, 25, and Todd, 23, who are also Cal Poly alumni, Barr says he’s swam as long as he can remember.
“My family is really athletic and loves competition,” Barr says. “My mom is a PE teacher and I can remember watching my brothers swim from the sidelines and couldn’t wait to get into the pool.”
Because he was the youngest, Barr had to wait until he was 5 to learn how to swim, but the coach who got to know him and see his enthusiasm threw him in the pool at 4.
“The youngest competition age group is 8-and-under, so I was swimming against kids who were much older than me, and beating them,” Barr says.
Barr also played soccer and baseball. By the time he was 10, he had set a National Reportable Times record and was ranked eighth in the country in the 200-meter individual medley, a combination of the breaststroke, butterfly, freestyle and backstroke.
“When you reach a certain age, people start to put pressure on you to concentrate on one sport, and when I was 12, I was bored with swimming, so I concentrated on baseball and soccer more,” Barr says.
Little did Barr know he would face his most life-changing event when he started to feel muscle tightness and couldn’t run as fast when he was 14. He chalked it up as just a minor setback and worked to build up speed, but it got to the point where he had no flexibility in his leg, and that’s when concern set in.
“My dad is a vet, and knows about ailments, so I asked him to look at it, but he couldn’t figure it out,” Barr says. “We went to our neighbor, who is a physical therapist and he said to go to the doctor.”
It seemed to Barr that almost overnight, he woke up with a huge lump on the inside of his knee. After several visits to the doctor, Barr learned he had osteosarcoma, also known as bone cancer.
All that Barr knew of bone cancer was that his dog had died of it. Doctors had given Barr a 75-percent chance of survival. He also noticed his father drawing away and becoming more silent, and he was afraid he wouldn’t live.
“Teenage cancer is not genetic, and no one in my family has had cancer, so I was confused and frustrated,” Barr says. “I can remember the look on my dad’s face and I knew it wasn’t good.”
Barr visited an orthopedic surgeon and then a pediatric oncologist to help him decide what options were available. Learning what advances in technology there were, Barr was more positive about his chances of living.
On Sept. 24, 2001, Barr had his right leg amputated.
“It was bittersweet losing my leg, because on one hand I was getting rid of the thing that was killing me, but I wanted my leg,” Barr says.
He had the option of an artificial knee, but wanted to amputate because it would provide more mobility and less probability of injury.
“The nurse who took care of me in the hospital was an amputee, and she was the one who told me about the Paralympics,” Barr says. “She was my angel.”
After rotating chemotherapy schedules, going through physical therapy and learning how to walk again, Barr returned to school.
“I had so much support from the community and received cards every day,” he says. “My mom has a trunk full of them that we kept and the town honored me with the Golden Heart Award.”
Barr wanted to return to his roots and get back in the pool, and soon his coaches worked with him on how to learn to swim again. Even though he was a natural, the first time he got back in the water, he had to surround himself with buoys to float.
“I remember that day well,” Barr says. “My coaches cried when they saw me struggling, but I kept going.”
It took two to three months for Barr to get back into the fast lane.
“When I got to Poly, it was really different,” he explains. “I wasn’t sure how my coaches were going to deal with it, and I had more insecurities. At first people were really standoff-ish and wouldn’t talk about my leg. And I was insecure about hopping from the locker room to the pool, but then I said, ‘screw it,’ and I just hopped.”
His coach, Tom Milich, tells of Barr being an asset to the team and how excited he is that Barr has an opportunity to break or set new world records.
“He never lets anything get in his way, and he sets and meets his goals,” Milich says. “The tangible thing is that Mark likes to compete and race, and that’s something you can’t teach.”
Barr started to look into Paralympics on the Internet, and to his surprise, discovered how big they were.
“At the preliminaries, I only won one race, and that really humbled me and pushed me to train harder,” he says. “I am a competitive person and I really saw how much potential there was for swimming, and how far I could take it.”
Barr competed at the Paralympic games in Athens four years ago. His family was there on the sidelines cheering him on, and he placed fourth in the 100 fly and in the 400 free.
At this year’s trials in Minneapolis in early April, Barr won two events in the S9 class, taking the 100 free at 59.3 seconds and the 100 fly in 1:04.33.
He leaves in late August to Beijing for the upcoming Paralympics held Sept. 6 through Sept. 17.
“Opening ceremonies is the most awing experience, and the lighting of the torch is the sweetest thing,” Barr says. “Then the competition comes and your emotions turn to focus and drive.”
At the Big West Conference Championships in February, Barr set three American Paralympic records, with a 27.15 in the 50 fly, a 57.68 in the 100 fly and a 2:06.17 in the 200 fly.
Swimming isn’t all Barr brings competition and drive to, though. He loves playing golf and poker with his family and friends to relax. He also plans on taking up surfing.
“I think it would be really cool if I could do it after I get back from China,” Barr says. “I have always wanted to learn how to surf.”
For now, he says he’ll stick to training for the games and school.
Barr says he wants to either get into prosthetics or become a nurse practitioner, and also wants to be a motivational speaker for others who have to go through what he had to.
As he walks away, Barr waves and talks to people as they pass.
He has an open personality and has plans to go far in life, one leg at a time.