There’s a four-letter word that Canadian hero Rick Hansen never uses: QUIT.
He celebrated his 16th birthday in hospital, recovering from a truck accident during a favorite fishing trip. “People thought my life was over,” Hansen recalls in his autobiography. “Worse yet, so did I.”
Yet the high school athlete wasn’t stopped by part-paralysis, by having metal plates bolted to his spine, or by life in a wheelchair. The chair meant freedom and a dream that no one in the world has matched.
Hansen wheeled 24,901.55 miles around the world — 34 countries on four continents — in less than two years, for his historic Man in Motion tour.
He did this after winning 19 international wheelchair marathons, nine gold medals at the Pan American Wheelchair Games in 1982, and six Paralympic medals from 1980-1984.
Hansen’s 1985-1987 world tour didn’t get much notice in some places in Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Hansen acknowledges today that the toughest part of the 26-month trip was the loneliness. His tiny crew (including physiotherapist Amanda, whom he later married) didn’t have the resources for much advance publicity.
Hansen had a private audience with Pope John Paul, who blessed his mission to bring world awareness to the abilities of people with disabilities.
Then he achieved a childhood dream, visiting the Great Wall of China. Hansen had to be lifted in his chair, up centuries-old stairs, to reach the wall. But he wheeled its 60-degree inclines with only hand power, overcoming slopes tougher than some mountain passes on the world tour.
I wanted “to remind myself that there are no walls too big to climb,” Hansen says.
Generations of children and adults with disabilities have been inspired by Hansen, whose Canadian foundation has raised more than $250 million for spinal cord injury research and development of assistive technology that has improved the lives of people with disabilities.
Hansen is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his remarkable tour with a cross-country relay underway in Canada, involving 7,000 runners, walkers, wheelers and others. (Track the relay’s progress at this online map.)
A huge party in Hansen’s home city, Vancouver, will be a tribute to all the young relay participants in mid-May; and an international conference on spinal cord injury will be launched after the relay.
Millions in new funds will be raised because of one man’s dream and his life mission: “to believe that anything is possible and to remain in motion, striving to create a better, more inclusive world for everyone.”
Hansen believes a cure will be found in his lifetime. The Rick Hansen Foundation already has spurred a global institute linking researchers and others to improve accessibility everywhere, and find that cure.
Prepare to be inspired.