Former soldier Mark Smith's life was transformed forever when he was shot seven times in a horrific live fire training accident in Canada resulting in the amputation of his leg.
Seven years since disaster struck, the former 1st Battalion Grenadier Guard has transformed himself from a soldier who was looking forward to his second tour of Afghanistan to being crowned Britain's Strongest Disabled Man, twice.
Mark holds no blame towards the young man who fired at him. He was behind a wall made of MDF which did little to shield him from the barrage of bullets.
Forces Radio BFBS broadcaster Hal Stewart paid a visit to Mark's home and personal gym to chat about his career which, had it not all been true, sounds like the stuff of fiction.
Hear Mark’s remarkable story below plus how he fought back from his injuries to become Britain's Strongest Disabled Man and what he is passionate about doing now.
Following a medical evacuation from the scene, Mark was treated first in Canada then back in the UK at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Birmingham with his wife Natalie and five-month-old son Ellis by his side.
“I was desperate to see my son again, that was all I could think about really on that day.”
Mark's right leg took six of the rounds so had to be amputated and suffered serious damage to his right shoulder, in which the other bullet landed. He would undergo 20 operations in 63 days.
“A lot of this is my wife filling in the blanks because I’d been put into a coma and I had drains coming off the leg that had black fluid coming away from them because the leg was dead.
"The leg was beginning to give me organ failure which is when they brought me back round and said they needed to take the limb. Every part of me when they pinching the toes, wanted to say that I could feel it but the reality was that I couldn’t. Had they not taken the leg that day they said that I wouldn’t have seen the day out.”
Mark technically died three times during his initial recovery.
“The longest I flat-lined for was five minutes… I had to be resuscitated on the helicopter on the way to the hospital and then on the operating theatre.”
Following his time at QE Hospital Mark was sent to Headley Court where it would be two years before he would learn to walk again. Mark lost a lot of weight and was told he may also never be able to have any more children.
“Because of the severity of my injuries at the time they weren’t sure at the hospital whether I’d be able to have any more children and so the perfect way to find out was to try once I got out of hospital.
"My wife fell pregnant pretty soon after that and now we have Ethan, I consider our miracle boy. Had I not lived, he wouldn’t exist.”
The news of another baby boy joining the family was tempered by Mark looking at current photos of himself, which he hated seeing. The strong, physically fit soldier was no more; he’d lost so much muscle and looked, by his own admission, skeletal.
He decided to transform his body.
Following Mark’s official medical discharge from the British Army in 2013 he hatched a plan to become a bodybuilder. Despite only having one leg and a seriously impaired shoulder Mark threw himself into his new hobby. This was something he quickly fell in love with and thankfully excelled at.
“I didn’t want to have a desk job or anything like that. I wanted to challenge myself.”
Mark relished the structure, time management and discipline required to compete at a high level in bodybuilding, key attributes he acquired during his time in the British Army.
“It was all about proving a point that despite how ill I looked in hospital and how much weight I’d lost that even with one leg I could get to a condition that would be admirable.”
He won multiple awards, in fact, Mark was recognised by winning his first ever competition. This initial success prompted an invite to Houston, America to the globally popular ‘Phil Heath Classic’ at a sold-out 5,000-seat arena.
Mark was initially disappointed that he was the only disabled athlete in attendance so he didn’t treat it as a competition more of a guest pose but his disappointment would quickly transform into a lifetime highlight.
“When they announced I was a British soldier I got a standing ovation from the whole crowd and the judges.”
The organiser then spoke to Mark off stage and told him that evening they had a special surprise in store for him but it was to remain a closely guarded secret.
“That evening I did my guest pose and security told me to stay on stage, all the lights went down, music went on and Phil Heath came out, he’s now seven times Mr. Olympia.
"Phil invited me for a pose down with him and that seemed to be a big turning point for me. When I landed back at Heathrow I was told I was in ‘Muscular Development’, ‘Flex Magazine’, ‘Muscle and Fitness’. I had emails offering me sponsorships and the video footage of myself and Phil Heath had been trending so it was all just a whirlwind.”
When Mark returned to the UK he was on cloud nine and full of confidence.
“I was no longer that bloke who’d been in the Army, I was Mark who’d been onstage with Phil Heath.”
Mark was now ready for a new challenge, one where he could eat, a lot. He had a new goal to become Britain’s Strongest Disabled Man. This would require Mark upping his training and consuming around 8,000 calories a day. Previously with bodybuilding, he’d been eating as few as 1,500 calories.
“I got into Bodybuilding at first as a confidence booster. To be an amputee and to get up on stage in front of thousands of people and be critiqued and to be judged on my three limbs and my torso as opposed to being looked at as just missing a leg. I wanted to feel like an equal.”
But with that achieved it was Strongman that drew Mark in. He could eat more, enjoy strength increases and train at home. Mark adapted his garage into a strongman gym.
“I’d never ever touched Atlas stones before and in my very first attempt I’d managed to lift the one hundred kilo Atlas stone that raised a few eyebrows. I was on such a high, I loved it.”
Very quickly after training both at home and in a strongman gym the organiser of Britain’s Strongest invited Mark to enter the competition. Mark decided to go for it with just six weeks’ notice.
“I went there with an open mind, hoping to place top ten and I won it. I won my very first competition”
Mark had gone from weighing 61 kilos fresh out of hospital in 2011 to 119 kilos by the summer of 2018. Up until that time he was all set to continue in his progress, having now twice achieved his goal of winning the title of Britain’s Strongest Man both in 2016 and 2017 but a painful operation designed to help with his leg led him to stop the sport.
“I had an operation, a clinical trial in the hope of helping me walk better and it backfired massively.
"Gaining weight and muscle for strongman has now really hindered my walking to the point where come our holiday to America I was pretty much confined to a wheelchair for two weeks.”
Mark found on his family trip to Orlando that he was lucky if he could walk ten meters without having to stop due to the pain he was now in. Something had to give and for Mark, after discussing it with his family, it was strongman that would have to go. He simply had to lose his strongman weight.
“I could have carried on in strongman but I realised I wouldn’t be as competitive if I was to lose twenty kilos in bodyweight.
"I made the decision that I need to put my walking first, my own health and that strongman is the one thing that I could do without.”
Now Mark has returned to his first love, football. The Milton Keynes Dons FC season ticket holder is playing walking football in Buckinghamshire every week and loving it. Mark uses crutches to play against able-bodied individuals and like everything else he has attempted he’s excelling. Mark has even been invited by Peterborough United’s Pan Disability team to train with them.
“I think I surprised them the first week I turned up. I walked into the pitches on my prosthetic leg and holding crutches.
"They asked if I’d be alright to play and then just before I leaned my prosthetic leg up against the fence and strolled onto the pitch on crutches to a few gobsmacked faces.”
Mark will continue with the football, he also plans to lose some of his Strongman weight to help with the pressure on his prosthetic and he’s decided to give something back to the Armed Forces by becoming a cadet instructor.
“My wife and I, we sat and made a list of all the positive things and all the negative things. The two things I loved were football and being in the Army.
"I realised I’m not capable of doing that job physically anymore but hopefully there’s things that I’ve experienced and learnt in my time in the Army that I can pass on to cadets.”
Mark has a lot of stories and he can’t wait to share his wisdom with the future of the British Army.
“If there’s something I have taught them that helps them in their career that’s equal to, if not better, than some of my trophies that I’ve won.”
Mark has been supported in his journey by ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and the Colonels Fund. Both have assisted him with things like a new wheelchair, crutches and even a new specially designed private socket attached to his prosthetic leg.
He’s been keen to thank them both and has helped in promotional campaigns for their ongoing work with wounded injured and sick veterans.