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Born without legs, Zion Clark is now a wrestler, MMA fighter and Olympic hopeful

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Posted at 11:51 AM, Dec 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-19 11:54:33-05

(CNN) — “You don’t need legs to leave your footprint on this planet” is a motto by which Zion Clark lives his life.

Since birth, the American has continuously and ferociously defied the odds, navigating every challenge in his way and creating a legacy to be proud of.

The 26-year-old was born with a rare condition called Caudal Regression Syndrome, which left him without legs. Despite the obvious obstacles that presents, he has gone on to set three Guinness World Records, win in his mixed martial arts (MMA) debut and has become a source of inspiration for millions across the world.

“I just like to enjoy myself,” Clark told CNN Sport, explaining what motivates him to keep pushing his limits.

“You know, a lot of people get stuck in stipulations that you have to go work this 9-to-5 job every single day. When in all reality, once you find something that actually makes you happy, you know, the sky’s the limit.”

Early life

Clark was dealt a difficult hand in life.

Given up for adoption by his biological mother at birth, Clark says he spent years bouncing between foster homes where he suffered from mental and physical abuse. It was a childhood that eventually led Clark to experience suicidal thoughts.

It wasn’t until he was 16 that Clark found a loving family who gave him the foundations to start building his life.

But Clark is not one to dwell on the past and, in his interview with CNN, the athlete was reluctant to spend time looking in the rear-view mirror, instead wanting to talk about how he managed to turn things around instead.

He says it was through sport, notably wrestling, that he started getting to grips with life.

The ancient sport taught him discipline, widened his social circle and gave him a sense of self-worth as he learned to navigate the world on two hands – Clark dismissed the use prosthetic legs because of how uncomfortable they made him feel.

Wrestling also inspired Clark to hit the gym, which saw a major transformation in his body. After years of training, the American became a force to be reckoned with on the mat, where he regularly faced and beat fully abled athletes.

In his senior year of high school, Clark finished the season 33-15 and only narrowly missed out on making the Ohio High School State Wrestling Championships.

He went on to compete at the collegiate level with Kent State, getting better and stronger every year. Once he got his opponent down on the mat, very few could find a way out.

“There’s a saying that once you’ve wrestled, everything else in life becomes easy and I wholeheartedly believe that,” Clark said.

“It’s a sport for everybody. Anybody can join and do it. Anybody can be successful. It takes a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of time. But if you can find peace in it, find joy from being in a combat sport like that, the sky’s the limit."

Dreams of Paris 2024

The sky really was the limit for Clark, who wasn’t content with just wrestling success.

In a hunt for new challenges, he tested his athleticism in new arenas, notably in wheelchair racing and the gym.

Unafraid of setting the bar high, Clark dedicated his life to representing his country at both the Olympics in wrestling and the Paralympics in wheelchair racing.

He still holds hopes of making it to Paris 2024 next year and is following a dedicated and grueling training schedule in order to make that dream a reality.

Alongside his Olympic and Paralympic ambitions, Clark has also delved into the world of professional MMA. Incredibly, he won his first fight in 2022, beating a full-abled athlete. It was a feat that put his name in lights and gave him an appetite for more.

Over the years, Clark has also set three-time world records: the fastest man on two hands, highest box jumps with the hands (33 inches) and the most diamond push-ups in three minutes (248).

Clark is set to try and break one of his records again next year, bidding to go even faster than the 4.78 seconds he clocked for traveling 20 meters with his hands.

“Who doesn’t like to keep setting the bar higher? I already set the bar really high. Why not push it a little higher,” he said, smiling, adding that he’s had to take a bit of time off due to a hand injury earlier this year.

Speak to Clark now and you find to a man brimming with confidence, willing to learn, but also not afraid to speak up his abilities.

He’s certainly not camera shy either, signing up for and reaching the semifinals of America’s Got Talent this year, where he demonstrated his physical and musical talent – yes, on top of everything else, Clark can also play the piano, guitar and drums.

When asked what drives him to keep up such intensity in his life, Clark’s answer is simple.

“Nothing makes me happier than throwing a punch in somebody’s face or beating somebody in a race or picking somebody up and throwing them down on a mat or sitting on a drumset making music for hours or piano or guitar,” he said.

“It makes me happy first. You go back five, six years when I was doing all this, I wasn’t making no money, but I was still doing it because it made me happy.”

Finding a mentor

Clark has made the conscious decision to surround himself with good people in his adult life – one of whom is Craig Levinson.

The pair met in a rather memorable way, backstage at the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and have since traveled the world together.

They hit it off straight away, bonding over their shared interest of fitness and their ambitions to make the world a better place.

Levinson is now Clark’s manager and has watched his friend grow both as an athlete and as a man.

“He’s a kid at heart, so he likes to laugh and play video games and joke around. And, you know, he’s a pretty ordinary human outside of the camera. Just likes to live a very simple life,” Levinson told CNN Sport.

“Through his upbringing, building trust with people is something tough.

“Our bond stemmed from this friendship, where he could really trust me and know that I have his best intentions and interests and I’m going to help him. We succeed and fail at things together.”

Now wanting to inspire others, Clark has become a keynote speaker where he shares the lessons he has learned throughout his life.

The public speeches are his way of giving back; motivating people in whatever they desire to do in their lives.

“I always like to say in my speeches that you don’t need your legs to leave a footprint on this planet,” Clark said.

“It’s a very literal statement and a metaphorical statement because, you know, everybody has the ability to make an impact.

“Are you going to wait for an opportunity or are you going to force the opportunity? Either way, once you do that, that’s when you start leaving your imprint. Anybody can do that anywhere.”