Mark Colbourne MBE is a Former World and Paralympic Champion, and an International Speaker.
Born in Tredegar in South Wales in 1969, Mark was an international athlete by the age of 21, playing volleyball for Wales between 1990 and 1993.
Mark was also an accomplished tri-athlete and an experienced paraglider but his life changed forever in May 2009 when he broke his back in a near-fatal paragliding accident.
Following painstaking recovery, Mark began cycling through Disability Sport Wales where he pursued a dream that would take him to the London Paralympic Games 2012 and ride to gold medal glory.
Now six years on and 210 conferences into a career as an International Speaker, Mark’s astonishing life story and message continue to inspire audiences across countries and continents.
Mark is also ambassador of numerous charities and organisations, including Cancer Research UK, Ty Hafan, Dreams and Wishes, British Paralympic Association, and Disability Sport Wales. In spring 2019, Mark also became ambassador at HUB XV.
We caught up with Mark recently to discuss his life as an elite athlete and his transition from pro sport into a successful second career.
What was your sporting career highlight?
Winning that gold medal in London 2012. Beyond the pride of representing my country and delivering two world records in one day, it was about knowing I’d made the right decision from two and a half years previously, when I decided to give up my job, my career, big salary and a company car for training for London 2012.
London 2012 was actually part of a childhood dream, which I never imagined I could be a part of. Unfortunately, it was breaking my back that changed my circumstances, which then allowed me to become part of history in that regard.
How did you get in the zone mentally as an elite athlete?
It was that London 2012 was only going to happen once. It wasn’t a case of having six months of qualification, followed by potentially another six months if you didn’t make it.
Every day for two-and-a-half years I had to focus and think logically, not emotionally, concentrating on the process, not the outcome.
That’s what British Cycling is really good at – taking people who have the skill and ability and then introduce the winning mind-set as a tool because the mind is all part of the process too.
How did you relax from the highs you experienced as an elite athlete?
Part of my relaxation was actually cycling, it’s a great way to relax. You can cycle and converse with people and stop for a coffee, whilst seeing so much of the world. I read books and listen to audio books. I like to educate myself instead of just watching trash TV.
My friends and I did the Birmingham Velo recently – it was 100 miles of cycling and I loved it; I switched off, but cycling also switches you on if that makes sense?
Did your accident change your mental approach to new challenges in your life?
Yes, I think so. I stop and think so much more now. Physically because of how I walk, drive and carry things, I’m definitely more aware of my surroundings. But I think [the accident] has given me more of an awareness of the world and a greater appreciation; I’m more grateful now than I’ve ever been for life, health, fitness, friends and family – just the world around us.
I’m just so grateful to be here, because in 2009 I should have ended up in Ebbw Vale cemetery. I sit down now and contemplate that life could have been much much, worse, so technically these days I never have a bad day.
Do you reflect on how the human body and mind can adapt to different environments in light of the magnitude of your journey?
Most certainly. To quote Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
For me it’s about accepting your circumstances, dealing with change, and then moving on. If curve balls happen in your life – and certainly in my life – it’s how quickly can I accept it, whether I can change it, and if I can’t, then move on quickly.
Do you feel there are attributes that you developed as an athlete that are helping you in life after sport?
In terms of moving from sport to business, I think of what I’m trying to achieve – what the outcome needs to be – and then I work backwards.
Many people focus on retirement, but forget the journey. The outcome will happen eventually, so you have to plan, but in a way that makes the journey enjoyable. There’s no point in working 15 hours-a-day for 40 years only to retire and discover that you don’t actually enjoy that retirement, and forget to enjoy the 40 years of what you’ve done.
I think it’s about doing what your love really is, doing it authentically, with passion and with respect for others, but never forgetting what the final outcome is.
What can elite sport teach business leaders about being competitive and having focus in high-pressure environments?
Basketball legend, Michael Jordan, said: “It’s ok to fail; everyone fails at something, but what I cannot accept is not trying.” Many people overthink failure; they never apply what they want to try and do because they’re too afraid of falling short.
Having that get-up-and-go attitude and being prepared to fail are important, because failing is fine as long as you give 100%.
What experiences did you have as an athlete that demonstrated the importance of teamwork and having the right people around you?
I think the first thing is to let the experts do what they’re good at, then look at them and learn from them.
When I joined British Cycling, I was a get-up-and-go person; I was happy to pump up my tires, grease the chain and clean the bike. But then I was told that that was not my job or responsibility. My responsibility was to ride the bike, so when you have somebody do things for you – it was almost embarrassing, but that was not my position. My role was to follow the programme and ride the bike to the best of my ability.
Even following the 12-month diet plan to get me as fit and strong as possible for London –that was the job of the nutritionist. In the gym – what I lifted, when and how much – that was down to the strength and conditioning coach.
This mentality and proven process meant British Cycling could turn me from an “OK” cyclist into a professional world-class cyclist. I wasn’t born a world or Paralympic champion, I was born as a normal person who was known as Margret’s boy, but I had to become that person if I wanted to win at the very highest level.
So, in business, allow the experts to do what they do best, but learn and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Bring in experts who can do a better job than you, as this will then save you time and eventually money.
How much did you have to work on your mental approach to reach London 2012?
I think I was maybe 50% there, both mentally and physically, because I had always raced triathlon, rock climbing and paragliding, but all of that was just for fun.
When you’re given a position to train full time, you never realise what 100% actually feels like, until you have nothing else to do besides eat, sleep and cycle.
Some days it felt like a cycling prison; you were tired, carrying lots of lactic acid, oxidative stress, sometimes dehydration if you had not drunk that extra bottle. And you ask why you’re doing it – it’s emotionally and physically painful, but that’s when you focus on the process because you know the outcome in 3,4 or 500 days will turn up.
That extra 50% related to getting preparation of food right, being bacteria-free, getting your clothes right, always being on time; it was applying everything that you learn off the bike. Making sure that you stay away from negative people who didn’t understand the process to win.
If the programme says go to bed at 10, then that’s what you do. I had faith in the process and in the knowledge of British Cycling. It was about sacrifice – giving up chocolate, giving up alcohol – knowing and understanding that it would all be worth it.
British Cycling has a great philosophy: When you’re training and you’re finished, why would you stand up when you can sit down, and why would you sit down if you can lie down? If you can lie down, why stay awake when you can sleep?
The marginal gains around rest and recovery is where that top 1% is decided. I used to spend half my life on my sofa, not because I was lazy, but knowing that sleep was another form of medicine to improve my physical state.
Who inspires you?
He has passed away, but I think my dad will always inspire me. He was part of my life for those 42 years and he’s always with me. He’s always looking over my shoulder and helping me know that I’m doing the right thing. If you can become what I regard as an accomplished person in that regard, then you can live a life of freedom and mental happiness.
I live by Plato’s words: “For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories”. That mentality is very important to me in terms of becoming that accomplished person.
I’m also inspired by an incredible speaker from Australia called Nick Vujicic, who features in a famous YouTube video called “No arms, no legs, no worries.”
Nick was born with no arms and no legs, so you just can’t imagine what he went through as a child growing up. He came to the conclusion that he’d have no life in comparison to his friends. What he did have was the humility to share his disability, and he was grateful for being alive.
He has a great humour and the ability to laugh, and talks about accepting who you are and how you are. He goes fishing, he goes to waterparks, he has a beautiful wife with four gorgeous children. You have to think when people complain – are you really having a bad day?
Is there a maxim that you live your life by?
I’ve got a couple but the message to myself is to always be the best I can be, even if that’s not necessarily being the best. Plus, “The best dreams happen when you’re awake.”
What does the future hold for you?
For me right now, it’s working for the company that I’m an associate with, which is a global health and wellness company. They have an amazing vision to impact world health and to free people from physical and financial pain. That’s very much part of my life – helping other people to improve their health because when you have health you can achieve so much more.
Secondly, I hope to inspire other people to inspire themselves – that’s what I try to teach people when I talk on stage. It’s important to be able to inspire yourself and know you’re doing the right thing. In other words, be the best you can be.
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