Viewers may not realize it, but Netflix has been releasing documentary shorts for the past few years, and one of 2018's most anticipated is Sundance Film Festival selection Zion. The moving doc comes from director Floyd Russ about a young wrestler born without his lower limbs. So who is Zion Clark? The Columbus, Ohio native has an amazingly compelling story.
He was the subject of a 2016 ESPN profile and photo essay which followed him through the final days of his high school wrestling career. Reporter Michael F. McElroy predicted that the moments after his last match could have been something out of a movie. Zion is that movie.
Now 21, Clark was born with caudal regression syndrome, a congenital disorder than affects the development of the lower spine. In Clark's case, he was born without lower limbs. Given up for adoption after he was born, Clark was shuffled from foster home to foster home — about seven or eight in all, he estimates in the trailer. During his time in state care, Clark says he was starved and beaten, a detail that wasn't mentioned in the 2016 profile. In fact, the ESPN feature specifically noted that "he doesn't like to say much...about his childhood." It was clearly a very painful period of his life.
"He had no family," Coach Gil Donahue explains in the trailer. "He had no stability in his life. That was a recipe for disaster." But when he began wrestling, Clark discovered new ways to feel embodied and empowered. And he also found a family along the way.
Clark began wrestling at two years old, and it was the only activity that remained constant in his life throughout his multiple relocations. It all built up to his senior year at Massillon Washington High School in northeast Ohio, where he finished the season with a 33-15 record. It was enough to send him to the district finals.
Donahue told ESPN at the time:
It made me look at coaching in whole new perspective. How do you coach a kid with no legs? We experimented with Zion throughout his career at Massillon. We found out what techniques made him successful and what techniques he could not use. We began to exploit his positives and rigorously drilled the techniques he could use with his condition. And that's how Zion's wrestling style was born.
And just as the post-season began, Clark's adoption by his foster mom of two years, Kimberly Hawkins, went through. He was eventually eliminated in the district finals, but as you can imagine, it didn't feel like a loss to anyone who watched him get there. "He worked so hard and he thought he failed, but he was one of the biggest successes I've ever had," Coach Donahue reveals in the trailer, choking up partway through.
It's always a good idea to remain mindful of "inspiration porn" narratives about disabled bodies but it's clear that this short made an impact on audiences. Zion drops on Netflix Friday, August 10.