Mark Zupan rolled into the room, the bright red spokes of his compact wheelchair flashing. His face broke out in a big grin when he saw two other young men parked at the back, also in wheelchairs. They chatted briefly, obvious friends, perhaps teammates in a sport that focuses on abilities, rather than disabilities.
Zupan spoke March 11 to a mostly young crowd of admirers in the Century Rooms of the Millennium Student Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis on “Murderball: Smashing Stereotypes One Hit at a Time.” Paralyzed in a car accident when he was 18, Zupan began playing “quad rugby” in college. He was captain of the 2004 and 2008 quadraplegic wheelchair rugby team in the Paralympic Games for Team USA, winning a bronze medal in 2004 and the gold medal in Beijing in 2008. He is probably best known for his appearance in the 2005 documentary “Murderball,” a critically acclaimed film that was nominated for an Academy Award. His book, “Gimp: The Story Behind the Star of Murderball,” celebrates Zupan’s triumph over unimaginable adversity. His appearance at UMSL was sponsored by the University Program Board.
Zupan recalled his accident in detail, a night of heavy drinking with friends when he was thrown from the back of a pickup truck into a water-filled ditch in Florida. He hung on to a tree branch for 14 hours with only his face and one arm out of the water. He talked of his fears: “were there alligators in the water?” He talked about his hospitalization, the realization he would never walk again, visits from his rowdy friends, and the despair in those early weeks and months.
He gives a lot of credit to sports for instilling in him the belief that “you just can’t quit.” His raw, competitive attitude kept him alive that night and propelled him to get into quad rugby.
Now 34, Zupan travels the country telling people his story. He works full time as a civil engineer, maintains a rigorous conditioning and competition schedule, and fits in appearances at college campuses and veterans groups whenever he can.
“You’re pretty much a new person in this life,” he said pointing to his chair. “I discovered going from Point A to Point B was no longer a straight line.”
That new person willingly shares his enthusiasm for life with others. As he notes in his book, he enjoys proving “that a guy in a chair can do amazing things: have sex with his girlfriend, party with his friends and even crowd-surf at Pearl Jam shows.”