It all started with a summer excursion of an adventurous teen and his best buddy – a fishing trip to the plains of the Chilcotin in B.C.’s Cariboo country.
Unbeknownst to a young Rick Hansen, the trip’s tragic turn of events would lead to the greatest adventure of his life – now celebrating its quarter-century anniversary – and the creation of a Canadian icon.
Growing up in Williams Lake, Hansen was exposed to plenty of adventure opportunities at a young age.
“If you loved the outdoors, if you loved adventure, if you loved sports, it was a mecca. Williams Lake had it all,” he recalls from his office at Rick Hansen Foundation headquarters in Richmond.
As an avid athlete and adventure-seeker, he had dreams of one day representing his country in the Olympics, and in the summer of 1973, the 15-year-old was preparing to try out for a provincial volleyball squad.
But a hitchhiked ride home from a fishing trip in the back of a pickup truck put an end to those dreams – the driver crashed, sending Hansen flying out of the truck, breaking his back, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
“It was a pretty dark period when I was filled with a lot of depression, frustration, despair,” Hansen acknowledges. “I didn’t know anybody before who had a spinal cord injury or any kind of major disability, so I thought that all my life as I had been preparing and building and living was gone.”
With the help of family, friends, medical professionals and other role models, Hansen was able to reignite his hopes and dreams, and focus on life’s new possibilities.
“I was still essentially the same person – Rick, the adventurer, the pioneer, the outdoors guy that loved sports,” he says. “I could still be an athlete, and nowhere in the definition of athlete does it say I have to use my legs.”
Within three years of his injury, Hansen was back to competing in sport, as a member of a championship wheelchair basketball team in Vancouver. He began studying physical education at UBC, where he turned his focus to wheelchair marathoning.
He went on to win 19 international wheelchair marathons and six Paralympic medals in 1980 and 1984. He also participated in the 1984 Olympic Games Wheelchair Exhibition in Los Angeles.
Although pleased with the athletic success he had achieved, Hansen’s world travels opened his eyes to the physical barriers – as well as negative stereotyping – that faced people with disabilities.
The desire to raise global awareness, and give thanks to those who had helped him over the years, set the course for Hansen’s greatest, most difficult and rewarding adventure.
“I decided I would wheel around the world in a wheelchair to demonstrate the positive attributes of a person with a disability and the potential that was there if barriers were removed,” he explains, adding that the fundraising component of what would be coined the Man in Motion World Tour came as a secondary objective.
“It was hard to measure awareness, especially back then. And the impact for fundraising for something that you cared about as well would be a tangible expression of how people would respond.”
On March 21, 1985, Hansen set out from Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall, embarking on a 40,000-km, 26-month world tour that saw him wheel through 34 countries on four continents and raise $26 million for spinal cord research – more than double the original goal set.
Hansen and his tour team battled through countless emotional and physical setbacks – injuries, extreme exhaustion, self-doubt and skepticism of others.
But for all the devastating lows and moments he was on the verge of quitting, Hansen said there were plenty of peaks that made the struggle worthwhile, recalling a visit to a small village in Poland that stands out as particularly memorable.
“During one of the ceremonies, there was a fellow who was disabled, and he pushed himself, not on a wheelchair, but on a piece of plywood that had four skateboard wheels,” he recalls. “He was weeping tears of joy, because for the first time his family and his community were looking at him as a person of ability. When you see highlights like that, you go, ‘this is why we’re doing it.’”
Hansen’s journey came to an end May 22, 1987 in front of more than 50,000 cheering supporters at B.C. Place Stadium – the same venue he would play a pivotal role in the Winter Olympic opening ceremonies as a torchbearer, nearly 23 years later.
“It was an incredible source of pride to be asked to be part of the Games.”
The last day of Vancouver’s Games – on March 21, 2010, – landed 25 years to the day the Man in Motion World Tour started, and served as the perfect launch date for the tour’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
In honour of the milestone, the Rick Hansen Foundation has a number of festivities in the works, including visits by the Man in Motion to five countries he wheeled through during the original tour. He has already returned to Australia, Israel and Jordan over the past eight months, and in April spent time in China where he took part in a symbolic relay on the Great Wall of China, exactly 25 years to the date of his original visit.
“The contrast of how much change has taken place was dramatic,” he says of the progress made in China in accessibility and social acceptance for disabled people.
This month, Hansen is visiting New York City, Washington, DC and Miami, Fl. to wrap up the first phase of anniversary celebrations.
Later this year, a Canadian anniversary celebration will be launched, in the form of a cross-country relay re-tracing Hansen’s original route, and featuring 9,000 ‘difference makers.’ (Those wanting to take part in the relay can apply online at www.rickhansenrelay.com)
“We want to make sure that Canada from coast to coast is fully engaged in this continuing journey,” Hansen says, adding the goal of the relay is to “transfer the theme from one man in motion to many in motion.”
As much fun, celebration and adventure is on tap for Hansen and his foundation members as they celebrate the Man in Motion tour’s 25th anniversary, he’s quick to note that “we still have a long way to go.”
“We can make an even greater difference in the next 25 years, and that inspires me to believe that my best work is still in front of me.”