A true American champion

Great hardship lays the groundwork for great inspiration. After all, if one starts the climb to glory from greater depths than most of us can fathom, the journey is all the more impressive. Marlon Shirley's climb is just one of the reasons to keep your eyes on him as he plays in his first World Series of Poker main event.

In a tournament that celebrates diversity, it's no accident that this American hero is playing one of the most American of events on America's birthday.

"This is the WSOP main event. An unbelievable, huge sporting event. An amazing competition," the 31-year-old San Diego native said. "It's so hard to explain the magnitude of the event if you don't come to experience it yourself. That's why there are pro athletes, celebrities, businessmen, all playing this [tournament]. It's your one time to go out there to, hopefully, outthink, outsmart and outperform everyone in the world.

"My life kind of had a lot of twists and turns. My mother was a prostitute; she was a drug addict. I was forced to live on the street. I was in a lot of homes, beaten severely, lost my foot, was around the wrong people at an early age, and I didn't let any of that define who I am. She didn't know how to surround herself with the right kind of people, the kind of people who will lead your life down the right path. Unfortunately, it brought us out to Las Vegas, where I was living on the street by the time I was 3 years old. One day, I was walking down the sidewalk, a dark car pulled up and they said 'we have to take you away from your mother.' All I really cared about was that they offered me lunch. I still remember getting the toy at McDonalds. I didn't really get everything that was going on."

Shirley has triumphed over hardship by transforming himself into a multievent world record holder. He was won multiple gold medals in Paralympic track and field over the course of a decade. Despite having his leg amputated below the knee after a lawnmower accident when he was young, he's won gold medals in the 100-meter dash at both the Sydney Games in 2000 and the Athens Games in 2004. He holds the Paralympic world record for the 100-meter dash, running it in less than 11 seconds.

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"2000 was the biggest time in my life because I went into a race that I hadn't won in three years," Shirley remembered. "I ended up having the race of my life to set the world record [11.33 seconds to 11.08 seconds, despite running into a head wind]. Since that race, I never lost the 100-meter dash in any [International Paralympic Committee] sanctioned event, world championship event, U.S. national event or Paralympic event until the only time I've lost, in Beijing [2008], where I had a 5- or 6-meter lead before rupturing my Achilles tendon."

Shirley's remarkable rise was recognized by the United Nations, which named him role model of the 21st century. The recognition has driven Shirley to embark on numerous charitable projects and strive for further greatness.

"When you get an award like that, it makes you want to live up to it and continue to live up to it," he said. "It's not about saying thanks, then walking off and disappointing everyone who saw you get it. You couldn't imagine what that would do to my family.

"I don't think that had as much to do with the charity work I was doing at the time, but with the idea of being able to take such a severe disability and turn it into a product that gave people motivation without having to say anything. I don't have to speak to people to get my point across. When I get into the starting blocks and run down the track, it's not 'Good for you! Thanks for participating!' We're running in the high-10 seconds in the 100-meter. A strong point comes across in those 10 seconds. People see in that time that they can overcome anything."

His rise has been further recognized in the form of multiple ESPYS and sponsorships with Visa, McDonalds and Reebok, among others. In fact, Shirley will sport the Reebok logo on the felt Saturday.

"When I got into the sport, there was an image I needed to portray," said Shirley. "I hate the word 'disabled.' It's a horrible word, but I've kind of gotten to the point where I understand I'll be attached to that word no matter what happens. What people think about when they hear that word, I have control over that. If this is what disabled is, that removes that negative stigma. What's happening with companies like Reebok, McDonalds and Visa stepping up to the plate, they're realizing I'm not just there to participate. They aren't just sponsoring me because they like what I'm doing, they recognize the image, and how elite the Paralympic games are. There were 91,000 people in the stadium when I competed in Beijing. I think those companies are sponsoring the idea that there's nothing in life that should stop you. I'm just glad to be the poster child for that concept."

His family also stands behind his quest for greatness.

"I just think he has an innate ability to face obstacles head on," said his father, Kerry Shirley. "We're just normal people. Sometimes, with Marlon, we have to pinch ourselves."

Now, as Marlon Shirley turns his attention to the poker world, Full Tilt Poker is getting behind him. The online giant is sponsoring Shirley, and entered him into Thursday's Ante Up For Africa charity event and the main event.

"I'm not the guy who'll take $10,000 of my own and buy into a tournament," Shirley said. "That's not me, but I really wanted to find a way to associate myself with an organization that would bring me into an event like this so we could help one another shed a different image on this game. There are people like Barry Greenstein and Phil Ivey who are great poker players, but maybe better philanthropists. Annie Duke, with her foundations … people don't see that side of what poker can do. It's an image issue. Any game is only as good as the competitors who play it. Only as good as the image they portray. It's my responsibility on the track to present myself as elite because it'll forget people's thoughts about the Paralympics. It's the same thing for poker. I can educate people about the skill it takes to succeed at it and the good work its players are doing."

In addition to the charitable side, poker has provided Shirley with some much-needed distraction.

"Poker enriches my life, helps me not focus on the negative things going on in my life," he admitted. "When I play a tournament, I'm not thinking about staph or my Achilles or blowing my knee out or of my other hardships. I'm just playing poker, talking with other players and having a lot of fun. After my injury, a lot of my empty time was filled by playing tournaments online. That's the side of poker people don't get to see. There's so much focus on money won and lost, but for me, it's all about fun … the competition. I've had a lot of fun getting into it."

Shirley displays remarkable confidence about the challenges that lie ahead. The true American champion understands that his personal battles and initiatives with charities are only a few parts of his life because he has so much more to offer.

"The thing that keeps me going the most is that I haven't had a moment in my life that I've felt defined me," Shirley said. "The thing that will define me when people look back at who Marlon Shirley was … I don't think I've had that moment yet. Track is a tool that's gotten me a lot of places, but I haven't had that defining moment. That's why I keep striving to do what I do through uncomfortable situations. Poker may not provide my defining moment, but it may direct me to a walk of life that will set me up for that moment."

Winning the main event could make that journey a lot easier than the one he has already taken. Personally, I'm glad that journey has led him to the WSOP.

Happy Independence Day.

Gary Wise is covering the WSOP for ESPN.com.