VANCOUVER — With muscular shoulders dominating his powerful athletic frame and not a trace of age on his still-boyish face, Rick Hansen looks young and fit enough to head out on another marathon wheelchair odyssey right now.
Perish the thought. Mr. Hansen is a mere 12 months away from turning 50; it’s 20 years, tomorrow, since he began a memorable wheel across Canada to cap an unprecedented 40,000-kilometre tour around the world, and more than 30 years since the tragic accident that cost him the use of his legs.
Even the perpetual man in motion is getting older.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he laughed over breakfast yesterday, looking not the least bit alarmed.
“Your body changes. It’s not as elastic. If I have a fall now, and I brace myself with my hand, I often get a small fracture.”
At night, when he dreams of repeating his worldwide trip, Mr. Hansen breaks out in a cold sweat. “It’s a recurring nightmare,” he said. “When I wake up, I breathe this huge sigh of relief that it isn’t real.”
But none of this has stopped his life mission, to raise awareness of the problems faced by the physically disabled and to find a cure for spinal cord injuries.
Tomorrow, the cause brings him to Newfoundland, to windswept Cape Spear, where Mr. Hansen, with considerable trepidation, began his homeward journey on Aug. 24, 1986.
He and his Man in Motion entourage had flown to St. John’s after a dispiriting trek up the eastern seaboard of the United States, attracting little attention and few donations.
“I was literally thinking of quitting,” he recalled. “We’d been on the road for so long. I was so tired and there was still so far to go. I was pretty dejected. I wondered: Would Canada care?”
You bet. Newfoundland was golden, the turning point of the Man in Motion tour. By the time he left the province, Newfoundlanders — despite tough economic times — had donated $375,000, the highest per capita contribution of any Canadian province.
“I was overwhelmed. The generosity and enthusiasm was phenomenal,” Mr. Hansen said. “It truly set the tone for the rest of Canada.”
By the time his astonishing trip ended in Vancouver nine months later, Man in Motion had raised $26.1-million and launched a multitude of Rick Hansen-related research, Rehabilitation and sports programs.
A paragon of positivism, Mr. Hansen is forever looking forward. Yesterday, however, with the 20th anniversary of his Newfoundland arrival just two days away, he was in a mood to reflect.
Man in Motion is mostly remembered as a triumph of indestructible will. Images of his arduous wheel up the steep Great Wall of China are seared into the mind of the public.
But there were no cameras early on when he struggled to complete the first tough leg of his journey, climbing Siskiyou Pass between Oregon and California.
“I had this injury and I was wheeling against the wind and the rain. Everything felt so painful and we had just started out,” he said, still wincing at the memory.
“Everything was so unorganized. We’d be wandering around, lost. When I summited that pass, it was just so hard. It was so emotional, I broke down in tears.”
The ordeal changed Mr. Hansen dramatically. His old world of sports and wheelchair marathons was over.
“I found I couldn’t go back to what I was. My heart was different. I had to get back on to the dream, to making a difference.”
Today, married to his former physiotherapist Amanda Reid and the father of three daughters, Mr. Hansen presides over the Rick Hansen Foundation, which has generated more than $178-million in support of people with spinal cord injuries.
The roots of all this go back to an ill-fated fishing trip when Mr. Hansen was 15, living in Williams Lake, B.C.
The pickup truck he was in flipped over and he was paralyzed from the waist down.
“For the first two years, I went through all kinds of phases. Denial, Depression, anger,” he said. “It was tough.”
Gradually, with the help of older role models and family members who got him back fishing, the youth began forging the character that would one day drive him to achieve so much.
“I believe my accident defined me as a person. It forced me to persevere over so many difficult challenges,” he says. “I would never trade that for the use of my legs. I feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet.”