Daniel Clarke was bleeding to death during a medical procedure when doctors decided that saving his life required extreme measures.
First, they broke all the ribs on the Amphitheater High School and University of Arizona graduate’s left side. Then they moved his stomach by anchoring it to his left abdomen wall. Eventually, the bleed — the result of a perforated esophagus suffered during a routine endoscopy — was stopped.
Clarke, a Navy diver stationed in Hawaii, was left with long scars all over the front of his body after the October incident. He spent the next two months in the hospital, where he had to learn to walk again.
While he was there, a representative from the Department of Defense Warrior Games program spoke to the longtime athlete about competing. Established in 2010 as a way to expose recovering service members to adaptive sports, the games include 14 sports ranging from cycling and wheelchair basketball to golf and wheelchair rugby. All competitors are active military service members or veterans who have upper-body, lower-body and spinal cord injuries; traumatic brain injuries; post-traumatic stress; illnesses; or visual impairments.
Clarke took part in events during last month’s DoD Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida. He medaled in team recurve archery and in three events in swimming, was a finalist in archery individual recurve open, barely missed the finals in shooting and finished in the top 10 in his weight class in powerlifting. Cycling didn’t go so well — Clarke doesn’t own a bicycle, and the act of riding a bike aggravates his lingering injuries, and Clarke has very little core strength — but that was OK, he said.
“There was a really dark period of time after that (surgery). I didn’t know how long what I was going through was going to last,” he said. “It’s gotten so much better, but it’s still kind of an adjustment. But if it wasn’t for the Warrior Games, I don’t think that I’d be doing as well as I am right now, to say the least.
“The people that I met through that program are closer to me than people I have relying on to live as a diver the last seven years. I wouldn’t trade those people for anything.”
Clarke always wanted to do more with his life. The 33-year-old Tucson native graduated from Amphi in 2003 and the UA in 2008. Clarke moved to Japan to teach English and then returned home, where he worked at Park Place mall as a store manager. He considered going to law school, but after completing his LSAT and the application process, realized he wouldn’t be able to afford it.
Clarke then came across President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address. In it, the incoming president famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
For Clarke, that meant joining the Navy. He enlisted as a diver in 2012, and has spent the last seven years stationed in Hawaii. During that time, he has deployed to Southeast Asia twice. In 2015, Clarke was one of the divers used to help find AirAsia Flight 8501, which had disappeared over the Java Sea more than a week before. Clarke was also part of a recovery mission after a ferry boat with 700 passengers capsized in South Korea. The disaster killed 304 passengers and crew members; many aboard were children.
Clarke says diving for the Navy “has different layers.”
“When you’re doing any kind of recovery job, there’s the human piece of it and you just try to keep that in the forefront while you’re doing your job,” he said. “As far as diving, it can get pretty hairy. You usually don’t have any visibility, it’s usually really cold and you just self-regulate to the point where you just do what you need to do and don’t think about what you can’t control.”
Clarke’s injuries forced him to lose his enlisted classification, meaning he can no longer dive for the Navy. Clarke’s master diver and warrant officer has decided to keep him at his command anyway, and Clarke has the freedom to go to his medical appointments when needed. On average, Clarke has between six and eight doctors’ appointments per week.
Clarke has also been working toward an online master’s degree from Grand Canyon University. He hopes to complete the classwork in September.
“That’s my job right now — just try to get better,” Clarke said.
Clarke said he’d like to compete for Team Navy in the DoD Warrior Games one more time.
“I don’t think you can really grow as a person without a certain amount of struggle and, even though this was more of a struggle than I would have hoped for, I really do think it’s going to be a good thing,” he said. “And the Warrior Program is the core of that.”