Paralympic medalist and more

September 2004

Robert Balk graduated from the School of Management in 1988.

He had played on the UB Mad Turtles rugby team and was training that summer to play for the Boston Men’s Club. He was looking forward to the exciting world of opportunity ahead when life took a tragic turn. He fell from a roof and became paralyzed below the waist.

Balk didn’t return to sports immediately. “At first I just started going back to the gym for exercise. That was a lot of fun and helped me work my way back socially,” he says. “I made a lot of friends and realized being in a wheelchair was not going to isolate me from the world.”

Eventually, Balk started playing wheelchair basketball. In his first year, he was named “Rookie of the Year” and made the state All-Star team. “Being involved with a larger group of people with disabilities also helped me realize that I did not need to view myself as different because of my disability,” he says. “It was a great learning experience for me as well as being a lot of fun!”

He went back to school for his MBA at the University of Rochester in 1992 and graduated in 1995 focusing on finance, international business and operations. He also studied for a semester at Sydney University.

Despite a rigorous schedule, he continued playing basketball and did some wheelchair road races (5K-10K). Then he met Mark Wellman from the U.S. Disabled Cross Country Ski Team who encouraged him to give skiing a try. After only a few months of skiing, he qualified for the Nationals in 1994. “I managed to ski well enough at Nationals to make the Paralympic team. From there I was hooked and just got more involved with more sports.” Balk says.

Balk landed a job at Boeing through a friend he had met at Sydney University. “It definitely pays to network!” he says. He started in business development for a Boeing organization called Information & Communications Systems in Seattle, Washington, where he was part of a team looking for commercial opportunities in which Boeing could leverage some of its technical skills and assets. Following a reorganization after the purchase of McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell, Balk was relocated to Southern California to work for Space & Communications Group, one of three groups established at the time, the other two being Commercial Aircraft and Military Aircraft & Missiles. His next move was to the Venture Capital investment team within the advanced technology program of Boeing, Phantom Works, and he is currently the manager of that group.

Balk enjoys the global nature of his job and the exposure to technology. “I work with incredibly talented people within and outside of Boeing,” he says. “And we’re investing to gain access to great technologies around the world.”

Balk attributes his driving ambition mostly to his personality. “The accident was a very devastating event. I felt like I let a lot of people down and would not be able to live up to all that was expected of me,” he says. “That is part of why I have worked so hard, but it is probably just my nature to be a bit of an over achiever.”

In addition to racking up an impressive array of Paralympic medals, Balk has won gold at World Championships and set both national and world records. He coaches skiing, and has been very involved with sport administration at the U.S. Olympic Committee where he served on the Governance and Ethics Task Force. “It has been a tremendous experience which has provided me many unique and exciting opportunities,” Balk says.

When asked about his plans for the future, Balk is uncertain. “My life has changed a lot over the past five years, and I am unable to predict the future based upon historical results,” he says. “I’m off to a late start, but I’d like to have a family and a whole bunch of kids.” Professionally, he says that he’ll go where the most exciting challenges are. And, though he thinks Southern California is great, he is very interested in living overseas and being immersed in other cultures.

Balk sees a definite transfer of skills between sports and business. “Working together with people on a team toward a common goal is the most obvious,” he says. “But both also require discipline and dedication to develop the skills you need to be successful.” He also says that although some people talk about “natural athletes,” athletes at the highest level work extremely hard to complement their “natural” talent. “Life requires hard work and you usually reap what you sow,” he adds.

Written by Jacqueline Ghosen