The second chance of the Welsh rugby favourite who broke his neck, lost his career and turned to alcohol

For 25 minutes, Marc Stcherbina had been lifeless from the neck down. The only feeling he had was the searing pain in the back of his head, caused by his skull being pressed against the rock-hard stretcher on which he lay. As he stares at the ceiling of the dressing room at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, his career is almost certainly over but, more pressingly, it’s currently uncertain what the rest of his life will look like.

After pleading with the physios and paramedics tending to him, they agreed to move him to a softer, more comfortable stretcher. As they unstrapped him, one of the buckles whipped across his big toe and he flinched. Immediately his mind goes into overdrive as he calculates: ‘If I just moved my toe, then I do have feeling there and if it’s my toe then, not only am I not a quadriplegic, I can’t be a paraplegic either’.

On the way to the hospital, a burning pins and needles sensation takes a hold over his body as the central nervous system comes alive. “At that moment, I said to myself: ‘I’m going to walk again, I’m going to be fine’,” he recalls.

Marc Stcherbina lies motionless on the turf after breaking his neck

The Aussie arrived in Welsh rugby in 2005 after a stint at the New South Wales Waratahs, Biarritz and Northampton Saints. He was brought in by Dai Young and the Cardiff Blues and unveiled at the same press conference as Xavier Rush and Jonah Lomu.

An inside centre, Stcherbina did not possess the punch of a Jamie Roberts, by his own admission, but could truck it up when required. However, he was brought to the Arms Park to play a leadership role and provide a bit of creativity in the midfield. He featured heavily in his first two seasons, playing 46 times and earning himself a two year contract extension.

But during the pre-season of his third term, he tore his shoulder during a gym session, requiring reconstruction and missing almost the entire 2007/08 season. That summer, the Blues found themselves with one too many overseas players in their ranks and, with a young Roberts emerging, Stcherbina was the man shown the door.

The second chance of the Welsh rugby favourite who broke his neck, lost his career and turned to alcoholMarc Stcherbina in action for Cardiff Blues

He was sent on loan to the Newport Gwent Dragons, whom he was representing on December 6, 2008 against Toulouse. Stcherbina found himself in an awkward position making a tackle when three players landed on him, compressing his neck and cracking his C4 and C5 vertebrae, ‘obliterating’ the disc that separates them.

“One of the best neck surgeons in France performed the operation but he was on his way to a skiing holiday with his family,” Stcherbina recalls. “Apparently, he got the call directly from Guy Noves (former Toulouse head coach). Toulouse rugby club run that city.

“It was a case of: ‘It’s not one of our players but it’s one of the rugby family, it happened on our field, please can you get this done?’ “You’ve got sharp bits of vertebrae ready to do more damage. They removed the disc and took a chunk of bone out of my hip, using that to cause a fusion between C4 and C5.

“Then they screwed a metal plate to the front to hold it in place. “That surgery happened the same night of the match and then I woke up the next day, on my birthday.” Then the recovery began.

At first there would be a spell in a French hospital. The Dragons had flown home but his then-girlfriend was sleeping on the floor of his private hospital room. Players from Toulouse would visit and his old team-mates at Biarritz drove three hours to check in.

Initially, he was told he could not leave his bed until he was able to sit at 90 degrees. Nurses wanted to incrementally sit him up at a rate of 10 degrees per day, which would leave him bed-ridden for nine days. Stubbornly, he cut that timeframe in half.

Motivated by his refusal to use the metal bed pan supplied to him and his desire to use the bathroom, he was out of bed after just five days. Soon he was walking out of the hospital and flying back to his home in Cardiff. “I never take my legs and arms for granted anymore,” he says.

“I always take the stairs now as a little celebration for what I went through. “The following day, the doctor explained just how close I’d come not just to quadriplegia, but death. “That level of neck break is so dangerous, it’s so close to the brain.

“When he put it like that, it was a case of ‘right, let’s start living, let’s start having a look at my life’. “I knew I’d been given a second chance. I’m not religious and I wasn’t remotely spiritual at the time.

“But it’s hard to not feel that sense of there being a different plan for me. It wasn’t my time to be immobile, it wasn’t my time to be dead. “That’s a powerful feeling to connect with.”

For years, Stcherbina refused to watch the incident back. Understandably, he’d never felt the desire to take himself back to that place. But, after overcoming the hurdle of watching it for the first time, he now uses it as a source of motivation.

“Sometimes, whenever I feel like the world has got it in for me – you know, those s*** days – I just put that video on, I’ve spliced together a little highlights package of me breaking my neck. “I just watch it and it brings me straight to the present moment and I think: ‘Don’t you complain buddy, because that could have turned out a lot worse’. “I’m thankful that I can use that as fuel to make sure I’m making the most out of life right now.”

He is able to look back with such positivity in the knowledge that he came through that experience and returned to a normal life. But the outlook was not always so bright. On the contrary.

There was a time when Stcherbina was looking to make a comeback. Through all the rehab work, his neck had become stronger than before. But he’d suffered nerve damage in his right arm and the limb had ‘atrophied to the size of a six-year-old’s’.

The nerves repaired at an agonisingly sluggish pace and the realisation dawned that he would not be able to lift the same weights as before, or make tackles in the same way. Six months after the injury. He knew he was done.

Financially, he was sound. Having been shrewd with his money, he had cash to fall back on and, as fate would have it, signed a new insurance policy just days before his career-ending injury. Even though he was 32 when he retired, Stcherbina wasn’t able to go out on his own terms and he wrestled with that.

It led to a loss of identity that brought on feelings of anxiety and depression, pushing him towards the devilishly gleeful grip of the bottle. “I always considered myself a very positive, upbeat, sociable person,” he insists. “I wasn’t a big drinker and I always had a good level of discipline around that.

“I started to really notice that I was being the opposite to all those things. I isolated myself, I started feeling sorry for myself, I started to feel a victim mode come over me. “Those emotions don’t serve us but it can feel good in a weird way, feeling sorry for yourself and locking yourself away.

“Then came the medication of alcohol. All it was doing was masking the problems, rather facing what was going on. “I felt a comfort in dwelling in my victim mode.

One glass of wine with dinner turned into two bottles. “I’m not saying I became an instant alcoholic but that was not me. “I was going through a break-up at the time as well, I’m having this existential crisis, my arm still hadn’t recovered and I didn’t know if it ever would.

I slipped into that negative thought pattern. “I knew it was a slippery slope. I knew it wasn’t good and I knew something needed to be done.”

These days, conversations are becoming more prevalent – though there is still plenty of work to do – around the mental health implications of a macho, high pressured rugby environment, where its inhabitants have traditionally been conditioned to mask any weakness. But back then, it remained a taboo subject. However, even in his darkest days, Stcherbina recognised the problem and confided in a team-mate.

“When you’re a male rugby player, there’s a stigma and pressure that we put on ourselves to hold everything together and not show any mental weakness, to carry on and harden up,” he says. “So often you see, over time, that comes to a crash because you’re not dealing with your emotions, you’re not sharing it. “The first step is to bring it to the surface, express it and have someone else hear it.

“Xavier Rush was a good friend and he was very emotionally intelligent, well-read, he’s a renaissance man. Such an interesting character. “I had a coffee with him when I was in the depths of despair and he gave me a book called ‘The Power Of Now’.

“He was assessing my whole way of being, my language and he was like: ‘Mate, this isn’t you, go away and read this book’. “I read it in 24 hours because I was desperate. I knew I didn’t want to be in this state and I didn’t know how to pull myself out of it.

“A light switched on in me and that led to more books about personal growth. When you have that self-awareness, you can pull yourself out of those situations. “It was a pretty quick turnaround from being on the slippery slope, sharing something with a friend that I trusted, reading a book about it and being intentional about changing.

“I saw a therapist on top of that to discuss my situation.”

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That process of seeking help and being willing to turn things around pulled him out of that pit of misery that can, at times, engulf us. With the unshakeable desire not to waste what he deemed a second chance and a renewed vigour, he set about writing his next chapter. He did a 10-week intensive course to gain a diploma in personal training before securing UK citizenship, allowing him, at the time, to travel and work anywhere in Europe.

But the United States always called to him. “I always had this affinity with the US,” he says. “I visited during my off-season and I loved it whenever I came, there was something that drew me to it.” On a trip to Los Angeles, he fell in love with the city and met a woman, which only enticed him further.

But also, there would be no shortage of job opportunities in his new industry. “America is a personal training Mecca, so I decided to give it a shot,” he adds. Things didn’t work out with the woman but he fell in with a rugby community, a group of guys who played on Santa Monica beach.

Mingling with like-minded people, who shared similar principles and values, only helped him feel more at home. One of his newfound connections specialised in arranging visas for rugby players and Stcherbina’s stay in the country was prolonged. “I don’t know how long I would have stayed if I hadn’t met those guys,” he admits.

“I got some work from some of them, I made some really good business connections through that group. “At that point, I realised I needed a visa. One of the guys put me onto a mate who specialises in visas for rugby players.

“They just treat it like you’re an NBA or NFL player coming from overseas, so I got a visa but it meant I had to work in rugby and I didn’t really want to do that. I was done with rugby. “However, if I wanted to stay in the country, I had to, so I started coaching the local Santa Monica dolphins.

That was a great, humbling experience and it got me back into rugby. “I coached for five years with those guys.”

The second chance of the Welsh rugby favourite who broke his neck, lost his career and turned to alcoholMarc Stcherbina with girlfriend Cristen Coppen.

He would go on to coach the USA under-20s side but this wasn’t his calling. From the day Xavier Rush handed him that book, his passion became emotional intelligence.

In early 2017, former Australia international Dan Vickerman committed suicide at the age 37. Stcherbina was a friend and he was driven to writing an article on LinkedIn in a bid to kickstart a conversation around the mental health of professional athletes. He also suggested ways in which athletes’ mental health could be addressed during their career, insisting prevention was better than trying to cure.

The response was huge and Stcherbina was discovering his calling. “At the time, I was right in the midst of this emotional intelligence learning and that really opened my eyes to the prevalence of athletes struggling, that don’t talk about it,” he remembers. “I wrote that article to take a deeper dive and have people think about how we can take this awareness and apply training, education and programmes for athletes.

“I had old coaches contacting me asking me to create programmes for their teams and that was the catalyst. I thought: ‘This is me now’.” In a matter of months, having lost interest in personal training, Stcherbina set up Winning EQ, a company that delivers emotional intelligence and leadership programs for elite athletes, coaches and corporate leaders.

In sporting spheres, he works with athletes to get their mindset right, helping unlock their potential whilst also preparing them for their life post-sports and that treacherous transition into the real world. Much of his work is with college athletes moving into the lucrative world of professional sports and all the pitfalls that come with it, as well as those who have been rejected and are now coming to terms with the fact their dreams are over. In business, he delivers coaching on high performance and takes the team ethic and cultures found in sports, and applies them to the corporate world.

Nine years after making the move, Stcherbina resides in the Playa Vista area of Los Angeles with his partner Cristen. “Now I’ve found a passion, I know what I love doing,” he smiles. “It’s just about getting really good at that and helping as many people in both the athlete and corporate space as I can, however that looks.

“I’m loving the journey.”

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