Wings for Life World Run ambassador Marc Herremans may have been knighted by his king, but if you called him “Sir Marc” he’d probably just laugh. Like a lot of dads, the down-to-earth 42-year-old leads a typically hectic 21st-century lifestyle, juggling the responsibilities of work, raising a lively young family, staying physically fit and giving back to his community. But he does it all from the confines of a wheelchair.
Marc has always been athletic, and he’s pursued goals ever since he was young, from joining the Para Commandos to becoming a volunteer firefighter. When he discovered triathlons, he was sure he had found his mission. At age 27 in 2001 he earned a coveted spot in the most prestigious of all triathlons: the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii – and finished a remarkable sixth.
“I went from almost being a world champion to having to learn how to do even the most basic day-to-day tasks.”
Working even harder, Marc was sure that the next Ironman world title could be his. But while training in Spain in 2002 he took a hard fall on a treacherous descent, and his world crashed right along with his bike. Doctor after doctor pronounced the same diagnosis: complete paralysis from the chest down.
“It was like I was born in a new life,” he remembers. “I went from almost being a world champion to having to learn how to do even the most basic day-to-day tasks.”
Suddenly, Marc had no goals, no mission and – he thought – no purpose. But a visit from a nephew who was overjoyed to see his uncle alive made the injured athlete realize that he did have something important after all, a second chance. That reignited his goals, mission and purpose with more intensity than ever before.
Marc started training every day, developing essential skills like how to transfer in and out of a wheelchair, and, with the ability to use his arms and his hands, taking up Ironman workouts all over again. Only eight months after his accident, he was back on the starting line in Hawaii as part of the Physically Challenged Division, and in the following seasons he earned three consecutive podiums until finally, in 2006, he won the Ironman World Championship. The very next year he became the first wheelchair athlete to start – and the first to finish – Australia’s notorious 870-mile Crocodile Trophy mountain bike race.
And there’s even more going on in his life. Among a variety of pursuits, Marc started a business coaching able athletes, and he’s in high demand worldwide as a motivational speaker. He also founded the nonprofit “To Walk Again Foundation” to offer disabled people opportunities to engage in sport as a way of keeping them healthy and ready for the day when researchers find a medical solution for spinal cord injury.
“When I look at the mindset in Belgium from 14 years ago until now, it’s changed from ‘they’re in a wheelchair and they’re never coming out’ to everybody being encouraged to work out,” he states. “Today people look differently at those with spinal cord injuries.”
Above all those achievements – and honors including the knighthood bestowed upon him for his inspirational attitude and commitment to others – Marc is most proud of being a father to his two young daughters:
"Despite my spinal cord injury, I’m a healthy daddy, and that’s much more important than winning an Ironman.”
“I’ve done three hours of rehab every day, seven days a week, for 14 years in a row, and ultimately that’s about life quality rather than medals. Although I’m in a wheelchair, I don’t take any medication, and I’ve hardly ever been sick. So despite my spinal cord injury, I’m a healthy daddy, and that’s much more important than winning an Ironman.”
Also important to Marc is the Wings for Life World Run. He wouldn’t think of missing it.
For this knight, “armor” is the robotic exoskeleton that he trains with, or the high-tech braces that allowed him to take steps with the help of upper body supports at the very first Wings for Life World Run in 2014: “I competed with a little kid who had been in a car accident, and we were both caught after maybe 100 meters – but I thought it was really important to show people that we are all working for our future. There were four wheelchair participants in Belgium then, and last year there were 75!”
Having such a full life already, why does Marc feel that it’s so important to support spinal cord research by participating in the Wings for Life World Run?
“I believe that a solution will be discovered in the future, and I’m really happy that we can count on an organization like Wings for Life to help find it.”
While saying that it would be a dream to walk and run again himself, he explains, “Even more important for me is that there are so many kids in a wheelchair. It would be so nice if one day a guy or a girl could stand up from the chair and dance or hit a ball – that they could have a normal life again.”
Marc feels certain it will happen, saying, “I believe that a solution will be discovered in the future, and I’m really happy that we can count on an organization like Wings for Life to help find it.”
Marc Herremans will be part of the Wings for Life World Run on May 7 – will you? Registration is open now!
Natalie Hilton, participant 2015