If you ask me about three national athletic heroes of my Canadian childhood
, I will tell you of Ben Johnson
, who ran 100 metres at the 1988 Seoul Olympics on borrowed
legs; I will tell you of Terry Fox
, who ran halfway (5,373 km) across the second-largest country in the world on one leg
; and I will tell you of Rick Hansen, who circumnavigated the globe
(40 thousand 72 km; 34 countries on 4 continents) on no legs
. (My countrymen-peers may well amend mutterings about the traitorous 1988 defection of Wayne Gretzky
from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings...)
Any way you look at it, 1988 was a hope-deflating year, but considering the unreal heights reached the previous year with the conclusion of Hansen's Man in Motion1 tour (a fitting coda to Vancouver's transportation-themed Expo '86 the year before that but, uh, that's another node) a grounding was perhaps inevitable. I still remember standing with my Grade 3 class eagerly at attention for hours by the Oakridge shopping mall at Oak and 41st Avenue (every streetlight along the entire street dressed in fluttering banners celebrating his return), clutching commemorative yellow ribbons in the hot and sunny afternoon of May 22, 1987 and peering into the distance in hopes of seeing a man wheeling home (after over two years on the road) for a well-deserved rest. After several false buzzes it was downright anticlimactic when he finally (the hilly south slope of East Van can be downright tortuous even in the best of conditions -- but still a cakewalk (er...) compared to the Great Wall of China) did come rolling on by, straddling the great vernacular shift from handicapped to disabled. Given that our lack of perspective (observing the last of forty thousand kilometres) was comparable not so much to only reading one page of a book but one word of it it is perhaps not so surprising that the deepest insight we managed to collectively achieve with our relative lack of perspective pertained to how his curiously diminished, functionless (and as recalled, Cabbage-Patch-kid-like) legs were overcompensated for by awesomely bulked-up, meaty arms outmassing individually most of us juvenile onlookers. (Guess that's what you get when you pull yourself around the world, eh?)
Our nonplussedness is not in any way to be construed as undermining his achievement -- what do a bunch of snotty-nosed brats know, anyway? -- but it was yet months further before our teacher would demonstrate to us the spatial sense of what a thousand of something (in our case, plastic bread-bag clips) looked like. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of awe and reverence charging the expectant throngs imbued us with some sense of understanding (if not actual appreciation) of the scope of his accomplishment.
Though it can be considered the primary reason any of us might be conversant with his name, when he's not completing the Man in Motion tour Rick Hansen is President and CEO of the Rick Hansen Institute and the Man in Motion Foundation, organizations that have septupled the $26.1 million raised during his world tour through investment into a $148 million fund fuelling research into spinal injuries. His participation and name recognition (among victims of spinal-cord injury, second only to Christopher Reeves) have been key to lobbies for the inclusion of wheelchair and other paralympic sports in the Olympics and Commonwealth games. Among other accolades he has received both the Order of British Columbia and its more-prestigious national counterpart the Order of Canada, and has authored two books -- Rick Hansen: Man in Motion and Going the Distance: 7 Steps to Personal Change. (On his tour he developed his literary voice, writing 2172 postcards -- a drop in the bucket compared to the two hundred thousand and seven he received over the same period.)
Prior to his tour, Rick was the first physically-disabled student to graduate with a degree in Physical Education from the University of British Columbia, and won 19 international wheelchair marathons. Since he's laid his globetrotting aside, he stays in shape and avoids osteoporosis (a common ailment for those unable to engage in load-bearing exercise) with Pilates, crutch-walking and sit-skiing.
Born in Port Alberni, Hansen grew up in Williams Lake and now lives with his wife Amanda (his former physiotherapist) in Richmond, BC, which, as a river delta, is flat. (He's had enough hills to last the rest of his life and into the next.) As the delta of the Fraser river it's also a hotbed of aquatic wildlife, where Hansen also acts as chair of the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society and the Pacific Salmon Endowment Fund Society -- fishing and the environment being lifelong adjunct passions to his athletic goals, undiminished despite a 1973 hitchhiking truck crash on the way back from a fishing trip at age 15 being the cause of his lower-body paralysis.
1 I am told that "Man in Motion" is also the subtitle to the David Foster / John Parr collaboration on the musical theme to the movie St. Elmo's Fire -- an homage to Rick Hansen (...the music, that is, not the movie.)
What is wrong with us that it took this long and Everything Quests: Athletes and Sports Figures to get this fellow's accomplishment (shoddily noded as it is even now) in the database? I can only hope all of your hometown heroes haven't been so similarly neglected.
Sources include the voluminous + understandably fawning rickhansen.com, canoe.ca and a bevy of the Mother Corporation's archived historical news clips at http://archives.cbc.ca/IDD-1-74-698/people/rick_hansen/ and http://archives.cbc.ca/IDCC-1-74-698/people/rick_hansen/
Plus, y'dig, I was there then.