Wondrous Warriors: Mark Woodbury – Accepting No Limits
By Marianne Hamilton
Back when Mark Woodbury was a member of the Dixie High School class of ’73, the closest he could get to joining the football squad was shooting game photos for the yearbook. In those days, when Woodbury’s inhaler was never far from reach, it seemed impossible to contemplate a transition from “asthmatic” to “athlete.”
Today, the 62-year-old St. George resident has summited Mount Whitney and other peaks and leads Boy Scout troops on extreme backpacking outings. In September of this year, he also mastered the “Utah Triple Crown,” a grueling trio of open-water swims. Woodbury’s story is one of inspiration and dedication—with a healthy dose of perspiration mixed in.
Throughout his childhood and young adulthood, Woodbury’s asthma controlled virtually every activity. “I really couldn’t do much of anything,” he confirms. “I took swimming lessons, but I hated them. There were days when I could barely get around.” As a child, Woodbury endured weekly immunotherapy injections; in his teens, he became increasingly dependent on his inhaler.
Despite overwhelming odds, Woodbury still found ways to push himself physically. When his BSA Explorer advisor, Bart Anderson, declared his intention to take his charges on a 50-mile backpacking trip, Woodbury didn’t waver. “I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ But somehow, I made it the whole way…and I’ve loved hiking ever since,” Woodbury says.
By the time Woodbury reached his early 30s, asthma treatments had changed dramatically. For Woodbury, the new medications his doctors prescribed were miraculous. “Within months, I was feeling so much better! For the first time, I actually had hope that I could be active and do the things I’d always wanted to do.”
With his newfound health and energy, Woodbury—by then a dental lab technician—set up his own shop in St. George. In no time, business was flourishing, and Woodbury was married and the father of three. Still, his desire for an undergraduate degree never left him. “Once I got my health under control, I realized, ‘Gosh, I can do stuff!’ I kept nagging Becky, my wife, about going back to school…and she finally said, ‘When the last one’s out of high school, you can go back.’”
Sure enough, Kristen, Woodbury’s youngest daughter, graduated from Dixie High School in May of 2010. In September of that year, she and her father both entered Dixie State University (DSU). Given career demands, it would take dad seven years to complete his degree, but in 2017, Woodbury emerged from DSU with a degree in business administration with an emphasis in information systems.
He matriculated with a new-found zest for athletic pursuits as well. Even as he was beginning his college coursework, Woodbury had begun a swimming regimen at Sand Hollow Aquatic Center (SHAC), aiming to condition himself to lead Boy Scout expeditions. He quickly caught the attention of Lynne Lund, a former multiple international record holder and coach of SHAC’s US Masters swimming program. Lund took Woodbury under her wing, helping him to perfect his technique. “My swimming changed drastically after that. Once I could swim and breathe—and I could actually breathe because my asthma was under control—I started swimming longer and longer yardage.”
Over the next six years, Woodbury swam almost daily. Then, while researching upcoming meets, a unique challenge caught his attention. “The word ‘Alcatraz’ kept cropping up. I thought, ‘Open water, sharks, jellyfish…cool!’” Thus, Woodbury trained for the 2017 Alcatraz Swim, completing (at the age of 61, and just days after his graduation from DSU) the grueling 2.2-mile slog through frigid, unforgiving San Francisco Bay waters.
After that achievement, Woodbury would have been forgiven for never swimming another stroke, but more open-water swims were in his future: Mere weeks after his Alcatraz adventure, Woodbury dove into the first of the three events comprising the Salt Lake Open Water (SLOW) Mini Triple Crown. In this contest, participants complete one-mile swims in the Great Salt Lake, Bear Lake, and Deer Creek Reservoir. Woodbury found the events easily manageable—and one year later, he set his sights on the ultimate prize: the 2018 Utah Triple Crown, also hosted by SLOW.
There was just one catch. “As I was registering online,” Woodbury says, “I saw that each of the events—which must be completed at the three lakes within one year—had different distances. I thought they were all 10K swims, but I did the math, and the one at Deer Creek was 10 miles! Again I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
But do it Woodbury did, earning the Bear Lake medal in mid-July and completing the Deer Creek 10-mile swim and the Great Salt Lake event in September. But that wasn’t all that occupied Woodbury’s time during the summer and fall: Between strokes, he managed to climb Mount Whitney and continued the training necessary to conquer the Grand Canyon’s notorious 24-mile rim-to-rim hike in October.
Still, when it’s suggested that Woodbury is in extraordinary shape for anyone at any age, he demurs. “Life has its challenges, and we just have to deal with what we’re allotted,” Woodbury advises, slowly tracing the wording on his medals. “If I had one wish, it would be that those who haven’t been able to, can, and those who are able to, can continue.”