Mark Barr, a student at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth and a three-time Paralympic Games athlete for Team USA, was honored as “Best Male Athlete with a Disability” in Los Angeles at the 2019 ESPY Awards, ESPN’s annual televised sports celebration, in July.
The ESPYs are made up of 41 awards, based on athletic performance and public voting via email and social media.
“The award came as a complete surprise,” Barr said. “Voting is live during the day of the event, and ESPN holds interviews backstage before your ESPY category is announced. My reaction was truly authentic, and I felt star-struck by all the celebrities and athletes I look up to surrounding me on the red carpet before the event.”
The ESPYs celebrate individual and team achievements in the fields of athletics and sports-related performances. The awards also have a charitable role, helping to raise awareness and funds for the V Foundation for Cancer Research, a charity founded by ESPN and the late basketball coach and broadcaster Jim Valvano.
“I didn’t expect to win,” Barr said. “Being a part of the event and nominated for the award was enough.”
Barr’s personal journey of becoming a champion amputee athlete started as a teenager when he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. At 14, his right leg was amputated to stop the cancer from spreading. Barr, a competitive swimmer prior to his cancer diagnosis, was devastated. When he woke up from the surgery, he discovered that his recovery pediatric oncology nurse was an amputee and a Paralympian, who inspired him to continue sports and become a nurse.
“My nurse related to me, and other patients, like no one else could because she is also an amputee and swimmer,” Barr said. “She made what was literally the worst day of my life so much better. I admired that she took a platform as a nurse to change mindsets of young patients like me. I thank her and her team for motivating me to choose a career in nursing and for showing me an intense passion and appreciation for the field.”
An athlete since age 4, Barr used to play baseball and soccer, and was a swimmer. Swimming was the best option after the amputation and he continued throughout college, with his proudest athletic moment achieving a place in a competitive Division 1 team as an amputee. Barr competed in swimming in the Paralympic Games in 2004 and 2008.
“Insurance doesn’t cover prosthetics, and I didn’t have the luxury of purchasing a running leg until eight years after my amputation,” Barr said.
In 2009, Barr was referred to the Challenge Athletes Foundation, which found him to be a good candidate for a prosthetic leg that would allow him to compete in sports. The foundation introduced him to triathlons, in which he started competing in 2012, going to the Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“The Olympic Games in Rio was a frustrating race on the beach, but it motivated me to train harder afterwards. After training for seven to eight years and never winning championships, my most recent years are chalked up to good coaching and perseverance,” Barr said. “I had my best year of my career in 2018, winning my first-ever world title in the men’s PTS2 division at the International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon World Championships and earning the Elite Paratriathlete of the Year for 2018.”
At the time of the 2016 Olympics, he was a part-time registered nurse in the trauma surgical intensive care unit at Harris Health Ben Taub Hospital, regarded worldwide as an elite Level I trauma center.
Cizik School of Nursing was his first choice when he decided to further his education and shift his career path from trauma to anesthesiology, as he knew it was ranked among the highest in the nation and it was conveniently located in Houston.
Even though Barr was in the midst of exams when he won the ESPY award, his professors were accommodating and allowed him to take a leave of absence. Matthew M. Lewis, PhD, assistant professor of nurse anesthesia, understood it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” and supported him.
“The faculty at the nursing school cares and invests in their students. The nursing school is state-of-the-art with great places to study. The faculty gives you the tools to take care of patients and go to clinical sites at some of the top hospitals in the world,” Barr said about his experience at UTHealth.
In addition to his studies, he uses the UTHealth Recreational Center on a daily basis as a resource to manage stress and the day-to-day challenges of graduate school, and to train for his triathlon competitions.
“The program is rigorous, but you are part of a close-knit family of students in a three-year doctorate program. I feel blessed to be a part of UTHealth,” Barr said.