Becoming the Man in Motion

Becoming the Man in Motion

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Becoming the Man in Motion

Canadians are people who care about each other and constantly give of themselves. This generous spirit has helped me overcome adversity and chase my dreams. It continues to inspire me, every day, to be determined to make a difference.

Rick Hansen

I thought my life was over. I was alone in a stuffy hospital room hanging face down and strapped to a bed that was flipped over every few hours to relieve the pressure on my spine. I was fifteen years old.

A friend and I had skipped volleyball camp and gone fishing. It was such a perfect summer day; we couldn’t resist the chance to celebrate our freedom exploring the wilderness around Williams Lake. I loved to explore, I loved sports, and I loved fishing.

We hitched a ride home in the back of a pickup truck. It was 1973, and riding without seatbelts in the back of a pickup, or having a few beers—which we later discovered the driver had done, was no big deal. Until the truck swerved and flipped over, catapulting us out the back. I landed against a metal toolbox. Although I realized I couldn’t feel my legs, it didn’t occur to me anything serious had happened.

Later, I learned my spine was shattered, and I would never walk again. After four months in a Vancouver hospital and another three in rehabilitation, reality slowly set in. Then anger. I couldn’t believe this had happened to me, that it wasn’t possible to recover, that I wouldn’t become a famous athlete, that my life as I had known it, was over. I lashed out at my family and friends, at the nurses, doctors and therapists.

Back home in Williams Lake, I learned how hard it was going to be to get around in a wheelchair. One day, I went with my brother and our friends to our favourite swimming hole, but I ended up staying alone in the sweltering truck. Unable to make it down the steep riverbank alone, I was too proud to ask for help. When I finally realized my pride would keep me away from people and experiences I loved, I let my brother piggyback me to the river’s edge. The rushing water soothed my aching heart, and for the first time since the accident, I enjoyed myself.

Allowing others to help was a turning point. I realized my attitude was the biggest barrier I had to face. How could I expect others to see my potential if I didn’t see it myself? What was my potential if couldn’t realize my dream of being an athlete? I couldn’t yet see myself anywhere but on the sidelines, watching.

Then, my high school coach, Bob Redford, asked me to coach the girl’s volleyball team. As I worked with them I became faster and more agile in the chair. Then, Stan Stronge arrived. Stan had been assigned by the BC Paraplegic Association to help me adjust, but when he learned I was an athlete, he encouraged me to move to Vancouver and compete in wheelchair sports. I was already accomplished at table tennis—enough to compete in the 1975 Wheelchair Games in Montreal. The level of competition and the toughness of the players blew me away.

As high school ended, I wondered what to do. My goal of being a phys ed teacher seemed no longer possible. Bob urged me to apply to the University of British Columbia, anyway. When I was rejected, he asked me to choose between defeat and challenge. I convinced the faculty to let me try, and, four years later, was the first person with a disability to graduate with a degree in physical education.

While at UBC, I met Tim Frick, who coached me in wheelchair track and marathon. With his help and friendship, I began marathon training, and resultantly won nineteen international wheelchair marathons, many track medals and competed for Canada in the 1984 Olympics.

Shortly before the Olympics, I crashed, dislocating my left shoulder. But Amanda, my physiotherapist, took such good care of me, I managed to qualify, and was able to compete. That injury was a wake-up call, as I tried to picture my life without being an athlete. I knew I wanted to travel, and do something to make a difference in the world.

Once I was late for class at UBC. I was speeding up a hill and noticed a girl jogging behind me. She sped to catch up and was gasping when she reached me. “Can I help push you up the hill?” she sputtered. “Well, actually, you’re the one who’s out of breath,” I laughed. “Maybe you’d like to sit on my lap, and I’ll give you a ride.” This is just one small example of what people with disabilities faced, every day. Whenever I encountered a limiting attitude I thought, “I’ll show them . . . somehow.”

When I was first in rehab, I daydreamed about wheeling around the world, but I didn’t think it was actually possible. But as I became stronger, the idea took hold. Then I met Terry Fox. Someone told me about this kid who had just lost a leg to cancer. So I called him and invited him to come out and play wheelchair basketball. We became roommates, good friends, and trained together. When Terry ran across Canada, I was in awe of how people responded to his courage—and how public perception changed as a result.

I realized my dream of wheeling around the world could make a difference for others. And so the Man in Motion Tour was born.

On March 21, 1985, I left Vancouver accompanied by my friend Don Alder, Tim Frick and my cousin Lee Gibson. Wheeling south across the border to Washington, the world lay ahead. We had romantic notions of the adventures we’d have and no idea of the enormous challenges in store. It took everything I had every day just to keep going . . . over mountains, through scorching deserts, freezing snow, and torrential rains. After two years, two months and two days, we had crossed thirty-four countries, four continents and I had wheeled 40,000 kilometres, doing the equivalent of two marathons a day, seven days a week.

Mostly, people either thought we were crazy or they were apathetic. During one difficult phase, Amanda came out to assist with her skills as a physiotherapist. When I felt like quitting, she pulled me through with her grit and strength, and her love.

When we landed back in Canada at Cape Spear, Newfoundland, Canadians rallied. As we made our way back home to British Columbia, the whole country became ignited. We were overwhelmed by the support and enthusiasm of the people who came out, by the thousands, to cheer us on, to give money and to volunteer in countless ways.

Our arrival in Vancouver was beyond anything I had ever dreamed possible. I thought my heart would burst. The streets were lined with wildly cheering people, all reaching out to me. BC Place Stadium was filled to capacity with people welcoming me home. As I wheeled onto the podium, I saw a banner proclaiming: “The End is Just the Beginning”. My heart lurched, as I realized, despite the unspeakable hardships we had just overcome to reach the end of this journey, it was true.

When we began, we hoped to raise $1 million. By the time we arrived back in Canada, we set a new goal of $10 million. The total was a stunning $24 million, enabling me to start a foundation. We’d been tremendously successful in raising awareness of the potential of people with disabilities, to show that anything was possible if you put your mind to it.

To date, we have provided more than $130 million to spinal cord injury research, rehabilitation, injury prevention and wheelchair sport programs. Now we’re about to embark on a new journey . . . to accelerate the discovery of a cure for spinal cord injury. Research has advanced so rapidly in the last ten years scientists believe, for the first time in history, a cure is possible. It’s an amazing thought.

When I think back to when I was first injured, I remember my despair, and how I mourned the loss of all life’s possibilities. But, today, I truly feel it was meant to happen. I wouldn’t trade the life I have created, for the use of my legs. I feel so lucky. That accident began a journey to accomplishments beyond my dreams—as an athlete, a husband (yes, Amanda and I married), a father to three beautiful daughters, a business leader and an ambassador for what happens when you dream big dreams. My life was far from over . . . it had actually just begun. And, I believe, my best work is yet to come.

Rick Hansen
Vancouver, British Columbia

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