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“I wanted to give back” 

by Darcy Rhyno

Hailing from tiny Hartsville PEI, Mark Arendz won six medals at the 2018 Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea—one gold, two silver and three bronze—setting a record for the most medals in a single Games by a Canadian athlete. For his achievement in biathlon and cross-country skiing, he was made Canada’s flag bearer at the closing ceremonies, and the Canadian Paralympic Committee named him Best Male Athlete of the Games. His home province recently honoured him with the Order of PEI and named a park near his home after him. Saltscapes spoke with Mark Arendz about the importance of community, the challenge of shoelaces and the accident that made him a world class athlete. 

Tell me about the accident that changed your life.

My parents emigrated from Holland just before I was born. They began a hog operation in Huntsville. My younger brother and I grew up helping my dad on the farm. One day in August 1997, they were unloading a truckload of grain. I saw some that wasn’t flowing into the machine. As I pushed the grain in, I lost my balance and was pulled into the auger. That resulted in the amputation of my left arm. I was seven.

What happened then?

The day after, people from the community showed up on the farm. Some were good friends and had their own farms. Others had never been on a farm before, but they wanted to help my dad in whatever way they could. My mom was with me in the hospital in Halifax. Hearing that story made me realize the power of community. Right from the beginning, I wanted to give back. 

Did the accident affect you in other ways?

Everything that I am today starts from that accident—the need for resilience and determination when relearning how to do everything. Tying my shoes was a struggle for a long time. A can opener, learning how to cut fruits and vegetables, even getting things out of my car—all those skills I had to learn growing up, just in a slightly different way as
an amputee.

Did the accident impact your younger brother too?

He saw it happen. We were always close. The accident made us closer. If I ever asked for anything he would be there for me. We were good friends, good brothers and looked out for each other.

How did you get into biathlon?

We always enjoyed cross-country skiing through the fields on our property. After the accident, sports took on a different role. It allowed me to show my ability, not just my disability. In summer, I focused on soccer, track and field. Once I realized I had a stronger arm than most kids, I went into javelin, shot put and discus. Watching the Olympic Games in 2002, my brother and I saw the biathlon and both fell in love with it. 

What do you like about the sport?

It’s the contradiction that intrigues me; me: pushing your body to the limit skiing, but instantly having to become very calm, serene and focused. My best shooting is almost a meditative state.

What makes you grateful?

We travel to amazing locations all over the world. Being named flag bearer is a dream of every Canadian athlete. The Order of PEI was a shock and a tremendous honour. I see it as outside of sport, as more what I’ve done in the community. I want to live up to that title and give back to the community even more. I would not be a three-time Olympian had I not had that accident. Not that I’m glad I had it, but I see the outcomes.
It’s just been incredible to have those opportunities.

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