For Marc Woods, winning the 4x100 metre freestyle relay gold medal in a record time at the 2004 Athens Paralympics was a fitting end to a remarkable career. His medal haul comprises five Paralympic Games and 12 Paralympic medals, including four golds.
But while competing in Athens marked the end of his competitive sports career, it was just one of many challenges that have defined Woods' life and work. It’s an inspirational journey that has taken him from cancer, chemotherapy and amputation at 17 to gold medals and world records. He has also travelled from the Himalayas to the Antarctic, honed his performance in the swimming pool and helped others achieve their potential.
It was just before Christmas 1986 when a 16-year-old Woods discovered his annoyingly swollen ankle was not due to arthritis, as suspected, but bone cancer. His left leg needed to be amputated from below the knee. To say that the diagnosis spoiled the Woods family's Christmas and New Year celebrations is an understatement. Yet Woods was determined that it wouldn't spoil his life – cancer would be the catalyst for a change in attitude.
"I didn't know if I had seven months, seven years or seventy years left to live, but I was determined that, from that moment on, I would life to the full," says Woods. "Sure it felt unfair, but I wasn't going to let life happen to me. I was going to take control of my own destiny as best I could."
Woods was soon back in the pool. Following the amputation, but before completing the last of six sessions of chemotherapy, he went to watch some fellow members of the school team compete in a swimming gala. Woods was asked by other members of the school team if he wanted to take part. With little exercise and no training, weak from his treatment and painfully thin, and with his last chemo session due in three days' time, he swam the 100-metre backstroke in front of the 300 or so spectators – and won.
It was the start of a seemingly endless cycle of training and competing. He adapted to life as a competitive athlete with a rigorous routine of 5.00am starts, swimming for miles on end, a strict diet, injury and rehab, and rest and recovery. The training paid off. Between 1987 and 2004, Woods competed in European and World Championships, and the Paralympics in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. The medals stacked up on the sideboard. Until that day in September 2004.
Life after swimming
No longer a competitive swimmer, Woods needed a new career. Occasionally, he had taken time out from swimming to give talks at local schools, inspiring the pupils with his Paralympic story. That soon developed into delivering hundreds of talks for the Teenage Cancer Trust to schoolchildren across the country.
At the elite level swimming is a highly competitive sport where results are determined by millimetres and fractions of a second. Woods spent years discovering how to be the best swimmer he could be. Every aspect of his life that might impact his race day performance had been examined, re-examined, modified and fine-tuned. Many aspects of that process of continual improvement seemed relevant to everyday working lives. Maybe he could draw on his experiences and help others to improve their performance in a way that encouraged people to see things from a different perspective. In 2000 he was booked for his first corporate engagement. By the time he retired from swimming he was able to take up speaking to organisations full time.
As he began to build his speaking business Woods continued to take on other challenges. Ever since his amputation he had worked with charities such as the Youth Sport Trust and the Teenage Cancer Trust. "I tend to get involved in the charities and organisations where I feel I can make a difference," he says, "even if my involvement is for a limited time – a particular project or assignment, for example."
To raise funds he has trekked and climbed in the Himalayas, the Andes, the Alps and the Antarctic. In 2001, for example, he climbed the world’s highest active volcano, Mount Cotopaxi in Ecuador, with a friend William Deeley. On the verge of abandoning the trip with severe food poisoning, Woods made it to the 5697-metre summit, raising a sizeable sum doing so.
Athletes are used to pushing their bodies past the point of physical endurance, where the mind screams for you to stop. But Woods nearly pushed too far when he attempted to follow in the ski tracks of Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott on the 100th anniversary of their race to the South Pole. He hoped to become the first amputee to ski to the South Pole while pulling his own kit, but he began feeling ill a few days into the race.
Just as he had many times before, Woods forced himself forwards, motivated by the desire to reach the Pole and not let his teammate, family, supporters and sponsors down. Fortunately, with the help of his teammate and the race doctor, Woods finally realised that even the most resilient have their limits. "I was flown to the Russian base in Antarctica," he says. "They took some x-rays and explained that I had double pneumonia and would have 'most certainly died' if I'd carried on."
As well as the charitable activities, Woods also remained involved in the Paralympics – primarily as a pundit and commentator on radio and television. Work for the BBC, Radio 5 Live, and Channel 4 took him back to successive Games, most recently to the Paralympics in Rio.
Allied to a compelling life story, and thoughtful presentation, Woods’ idea to start a speaking business proved more effective than he imagined. Today, 16 years after his first corporate presentation, he racks up air miles travelling the world, speaking to people from front line employees to senior executives at organisations ranging from small start-ups to giant multinationals and from non-profits to the public sector. He has given talks in 32 countries to some 350,000 corporate delegates and more than 100 nationalities. Along the way he has written several books, including Personal Best, and been awarded the prize for best speaker at the British Excellence in Sales and Marketing awards.
Woods describes his work as "engaging with groups of people to help them think about how they live and work, and helping them to choose the behaviours that they need to be successful". The stories that Woods recounts include insights that he found useful during his swimming career and afterwards, and that are applicable to everyday aspects of organisational and personal life. He talks about needing the team around him to work well so he can achieve his own aspirations. Woods also covers aligning team goals, the benefit of humour in challenging situations and the need to take personal responsibility when leading others.
"I try to encourage new and different perspectives, to challenge assumptions and give people an opportunity to think about and consider some of the things they don't normally get the chance to consider, either on a business course or at work," says Woods. "They are often personal things about life choices, what motivates them, how they behave and communicate with people around them – a lot of people don't give themselves time to think about those things."
Woods may not be breaking records, chasing up mountains or racing across frozen wastes any longer, but he still finds his work a challenge. "In some ways it's similar to when I raced. I knew I'd prepared well and could swim fast, but I still had to perform on the day. There were always nerves and adrenaline. When I'm speaking, I know have the stories and can deliver them, but I have to do it on the day for the audience. The adrenaline is there because you want to deliver for the crowd."
Unlike swimming, however, assessing performance is not as simple as identifying who touches the wall first. "I always ask for feedback from my clients. Not because I want people to say it was good – although that's always appreciated and reassuring – but because my clients can help me improve what I do. It helps me get a sense of whether I am doing a good job or not, although being rebooked or recommended by a client is a good indication."
On an individual basis, Woods is always pleased to discover that his presentation has encouraged someone to think about doing things differently. That it has helped give them energy and motivated them to get through their own personal challenges.
"Medals are nice to have, as is money, but that doesn't motivate you on a daily basis,” he says. “You need more than that. For me, hearing that I've made a difference, whether it's through my charitable work or my presentations – that's what really motivates me today."