San Diego athlete Zion Clark, who has the words “No Excuses” tattooed across his back, doesn’t let anything get in the way of his success — not even missing limbs.
Clark, originally named Zion Zachariah Daniels, was born with Caudal Regression Syndrome. The condition, which impairs the development of the lower half of an individual’s body, left Clark with no legs.
His birth mother was unable to care for him, which landed him in the Ohio foster care system, where he bounced around between seven or eight foster homes, Clark said. During that time, he experienced mental, emotional and physical abuse, including starvation, he said.
In second grade, Clark was introduced to wrestling but began taking it seriously in high school. His coach, Gil Donahue, saw potential in Clark and pushed him to keep at the sport, despite the obvious challenges.
Just as he was about to age out of the foster care system, 16-year-old Zion was adopted by Kimberly Clark Hawkins. With the support of Hawkins and Donahue, Clark went on to have a successful wrestling career at Massillon High School, ending his final season with a 33-15 record.
“Life is going to be challenging, it’s going to try to break you, it’s going to try to make you fold,” he said. “But that’s what makes us human — all of our trials, all of our hardships that we go through. And what’s special about us (as humans) is that we’re able to overcome and bounce back even stronger.”
Zion went on to study and wrestle at Kent State University at Tuscarawas for two years. In 2018, he was approached to be the subject of a documentary, resulting in the 12-minute short film “Zion.” The award-winning documentary short, available to stream on Netflix, was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and won numerous awards in the festival circuit.
Now, 23-year-old Clark has his sights set on becoming the first American to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Clark had planned to compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for wrestling, but was forced to take a break from the sport due to a shoulder injury. Instead, he shifted his focus to wheelchair racing, and spent the pandemic training for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track & Field.
Because of COVID-19, the 2020 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan were delayed a year and rescheduled for 2021. Last month, Clark competed in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Track & Field, held in Minneapolis. Though Clark did not make the team this year, he ended up finishing fourth overall in the country.
With just five years experience, he notes that it is “still a learning process” and is proud of his progress thus far. In the tight race, he clocked in one of the best times in his career during the trials — only 0.5-0.7 seconds away from the time he needed to qualify, he said.
“I feel pretty accomplished, and I’m going to come back next year smarter and stronger,” Clark said. “Next year I think it’s in the bag for the world championship.”
Clark plans to keep training to qualify for the 2024 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris, along with continuing his work as a motivational speaker and content creator.
A typical day of Clark’s training routine starts off with a morning of weight lifting. After a short break to eat and recover, he hits the track for a few hours to practice his wheelchair sprint races until he wears himself out.
He is also on his way to becoming a published author, recently landing a three-book deal with Candlewick Press. Clark’s first book “Unmatched,” a kid-friendly photo essay, will be released in August.
While he plans to write about details of his life’s hardships in subsequent books, Clark purposely shies away from those topics in his debut. He says “Unmatched” can be enjoyed by all ages, but the self-described “picture book” was created with children in mind.
“I still tell my story, but it’s more of an inspirational book because it’s for kids — I don’t want to hit them with all the dark things that happened to me in my life,” Clark said.
“When it comes to sports, speaking or anything (else), I always make time for the kids,” he continued. “Because it’s important to me that kids … experience that there are good people in the world that want to help them and want to do things for them to make them successful, so when it’s their time to go out and change the world, we know that we left it in good hands. I didn’t have that opportunity (to learn that) until it was almost too late.”
Clark’s inspirational story has earned him national media coverage, including a segment on The Ellen Show — which led to a new career venture. After his talk show appearance, he was approached to partner with Real Deal, a new health supplement business. Since then, Clark has been helping grow the San Diego-based company; the product will soon hit the shelves of local stores.
Over the last two years, Clark has been staying on and off in San Diego for work. Four months ago, he moved to Pacific Beach with his girlfriend, and the couple recently relocated to Little Italy.
“I just love the weather in San Diego. It’s not too hot, not too cold — good weather year-round. I’m not pushing my wheelchair through snow anymore,” he said, laughing.
Though many people come to San Diego for the relaxed lifestyle, Clark notes that he has always had a calm approach to life, which helps him manage his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and avoid overstimulation.
“I try to stay more laid back because I can focus more,” Clark said, adding that he’s a fan of meditation.
“Before I go do a sporting event, competition, or even just going to a practice, the more cool and collected I am, the better I perform,” he said.