COVER

A CROSS-CANADA HERO

Jane O’Hara April 8 1985
COVER

A CROSS-CANADA HERO

Jane O’Hara April 8 1985

A CROSS-CANADA HERO

COVER

Jane O’Hara

The image is hauntingly familiar: on a lonely stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway the determined teenager with the wavy blond hair who lost a leg to cancer hopped with a distinctive gait in his lonely quest westward to keep a dream alive. His mission, ostensibly aimed at raising funds for cancer research, was nothing less than raising the spirits of fellow sufferers across the land. Nine months after starting his mission in Newfoundland, he passed the white highway marker near Thunder Bay, Ont., where Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope ended on Sept. 1, 1980. Fox returned home to Port Coquitlam, B.C., and died in hospital nine months later.

This week 19-year-old Steve Fonyo plans to cross the Saskatchewan-Alberta border after running 6,300 km, threequarters of the way across Canada, during the past year. It has been a difficult journey for the stocky youth from Vernon, B.C. Until he passed the highway post that marked the end of Fox’s run, then continued through the deepening cold and snow of a prairie winter, Fonyo had been running in the shadow of a legend. That is no longer the case. Said Fonyo:“I was seen as just the second guy coming down the road. Now I am making my own path.”

Stress: Still, it is unlikely that Fonyo will ever escape comparisons with Fox. The two young men seemed to be following tragically similar courses when Fonyo had to stop running temporarily near Brandon, Man., on Feb. 19. The reason: he discovered a slight swelling above his right knee, raising the suspicion that cancer had spread to that leg. A frightened Fonyo then flew to Vancouver, where his own doctor diagnosed the ailment as a stress fracture and recommended an easier pace. That meant he could resume his fund-raising effort, Journey for Lives, after a six-day interruption—with Fonyo stubbornly trying to cover his usual 32 km per day.

Fonyo still has 1,600 km to cover before he reaches the Pacific, but he has matured on the road, overcome adversity and handled his growing celebrity with increasing aplomb. He has also proved himself adept at drawing contributions and, at week’s end, he had raised more than $1.7 million on his crosscountry run. Said a clearly pleased and relieved Fonyo: “When I started out in

St. John’s on March 31, 1984, I did not know how to make a public speech. I did not know how to say thank you. You have to grow up fast.”

Now he is more polished, telling wellwishers that their support gives him energy for the run. In Prince Albert last week, 4,300 cheering students jammed a high school auditorium when Fonyo made a one-day visit to the northern Saskatchewan city. Said Fonyo: “I just think back to places like this and away I go. It really helps me a lot.” And when he flew into Lloydminster, Alta.—200 km north of the route he will follow on the Trans-Canada Highway—150 admirers were at the airport to welcome him to the province.

Fonyo freely admits to liking the increased attention on his passage across

the Prairies, marked by civic receptions and pancake breakfasts. In both Winnipeg and Regina he basked in a hero’s welcome, where throngs of cheering runners met him on the outskirts of the city and escorted him into town. In Prince Albert alone, residents have contributed $100,000 to Fonyo’s drive.

Routine: Fonyo has grown accustomed to stops and starts but one day last week things went smoothly as he followed his normal routine. At 5 a.m., with the temperature hovering at -4°C., Fonyo looked out of the window of his motor home and prepared to get back on the road near Swift Current, Sask. First a glass of milk and a brief talk about weather conditions with his father, 56-year-old Stephen Fonyo, who has spent six months of the past year slowly driving the donated motor home across Canada. Then, without eating

breakfast, Fonyo stepped once again into the pitch-black morning dressed in blue windproof pants and a heavy blueand-black jacket. Said Fonyo: “I usually don’t wake up until the sun comes up.” As he headed west the rock beat of Tina Turner pounded through the earphones of the Sony Walkman that he has worn on the road since leaving St. John’s.

Entourage: Then he began to move slowly and his arms arched out from his body as he thrust his artificial leg forward and hopped twice on his good, right leg before planting his left foot on the pavement. Behind him his four-vehicle entourage—two RCMP cars, the motor home and a van from the Canadian Cancer Society—moved into place, their headlights showing the way through the early-morning darkness.

When he was only 15, Fonyo remembers wondering if he could ever accomplish a transcontinental run. Three years earlier he had lost his left leg to cancer and, as he helped out around the family’s Pyrogy House restaurant in Vernon, he listened to radio reports of a one-legged athlete’s progress across Canada. The report that Fox’s run had ended shocked him. But it also strengthened his conviction that he could show young cancer victims that their lives were not over. And in 1983 he felt old enough to seek support from the B.C. division of the Canadian Cancer Society for a cross-country run. But officials said they did not want to risk tarnishing Fox’s accomplishment by quickly supporting another marathon cross-country run; they rejected Fonyo’s application. Fonyo still remembers the dismissal of one cancer society official.

Said Fonyo: “They told me, ‘You’ll have to do it alone.’ ” Even Fonyo’s parents were against the run. Said his father: “We did not want him to do it. We were worried that he might die too.”

But Fonyo refused to give up his dream. He began training for the run by jogging, bicycling and going to exercise classes. Then he began soliciting private support and in March, 1984, a Vancouver oil millionaire, J. Robert Carter, heard about the request and promptly responded with a $7,500 donation. Meanwhile, Fonyo’s 33-year-old sister, Suzanne, finally acknowledged that her brother was serious about running from coast to coast. When she was not working at the family restaurant she sent letters to potential corporate sponsors. After 10 months Fonyo had succeeded in raising $30,000 for expenses along the route and Suzanne’s efforts began to pay dividends. First, Rogers Foods, a flour and cereal manufacturer located near Vernon, supplied the necessary mobile support for the early part of the expedition—a 1972 Ford Winnebago with sleeping room for four. Gulf Oil promised to supply oil and gas for the vehicle (when Fonyo reached Ontario Calvanaire Industries, of Strathroy, replaced his aging vehicle with a new Travelaire Motor Home). And as Fonyo prepared to begin

0 running across New1 foundland, the self-con^ fessed fast-food addict 'f had even arranged for ° free meals from ham-

burger and fried chicken outlets on the island.

Still, with a continent ahead of him, the young runner did not know if he could meet the challenge.

Freezing: The initial test came quickly. When he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic to signal the start of his run, St. John’s residents were suffering through the worst snowstorm of the year. Fonyo had hoped to run 32 km a day, but for the first three weeks on the road, snow, freezing rain and wind slowed his pace and held him to half that distance. But he was running, and raising money for research, a feat that finally attracted the attention of the national office of the cancer society. By mid-May he had covered 925 km, reached Port Aux Basques on the west coast of Newfoundland and collected $100,000 in donations. At that point, the society board of directors decided to officially endorse the Journey for Lives. The

COVER

pledge money Fonyo collected was to be split three ways: one-third to cancer research; another third to public education programs; and the rest to pay for such patient services as funding of travel costs for patients living far from treatment centres.

Still, there has been occasional friction between Fonyo and the organization. Late last year the society put intense pressure on him to stop running if Fonyo insisted on risking a heart attack or hypothermia by running through the winter. Said society national run co-ordinator Peter Caldwell at the time: “He faces health hazards, and the roads are dangerous in winter.” But Fonyo refused to quit and turned once more to his first sponsor —oilman Carter—who assured Fonyo that he would financially support the run to its finish.

Stubborn: Fonyo’s father has had ample opportunity to observe his son’s energetic character—as well as the stubborn streak the society encountered. Stephen Fonyo Sr. is a friendly man whose speech still has the accents of his native Hungary—a country he fled with his wife,

Anna, and their young daughter in 1957 after Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the civil uprising.

After they escaped, Steve Sr. worked as a coal miner in Belgium, where the family lived for two years before emigrating to Canada in 1959. They lived first in Montreal, where Steve Sr. worked in a glass factory, and Steve Jr. was born in 1965. Then, in 1970 the family moved to British Columbia and eventually settled in Vernon in the province’s Interior, where Steve Sr. owns and runs a restaurant specializing in Hungarian and Ukrainian dishes.

Until Steve Fonyo was 12 there was little to distinguish him from thousands of other children. He was an indifferent student and athlete—a boy fascinated by cars to the point that he was a skilled mechanic at 14. But the disease that altered his life forever struck with stunning swiftness. Fonyo remembers that he felt tired all the time. More ominously, his leg began to throb and he noticed a small growth four inches below his left knee. When his family took him to cancer specialists in Vancouver they blunt-

ly informed them that their son would have a 25-per-cent chance of survival unless they stopped the spread of bone cancer by amputating the leg. During his stay in Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Fonyo reacted to the loss of his leg by withdrawing under the bedclothes or by throwing his food onto the floor.

But the constant trips to hospital during the next two years helped him consider trying a cross-country marathon.

Said Fonyo: “I saw a lot of suffering. I saw a guy die right beside me. That is why I am running in winter—to give those kids hope. If I did not run, many of them might see me give up and think that they can stop taking their treatment. I know I almost did.”

Rhythm: Like Fox before him, Fonyo runs with a hopping gait, taking two steps with his good leg while swinging the artificial limb forward. Since he began he has used five different artificial legs, which he changes when the bearings wear out and because his stump changes size. The leg he is now running on is a $2,400 Hydro Cadence leg, built in Sudbury, which uses hydraulic fluid and works like a shock absorber. Fonyo has experimented with a new leg designed at Hamilton’s McMaster University. That leg, equipped with a heavy spring shock absorber, has increased flexibility and should allow an amputee to run more easily. But Fonyo could not adjust to the

different rhythm, even though he wears the limb (known as the Terry Fox model) at social events.

Increases: As Fonyo and his motorcade advanced, it was apparent that Eastern Canada was not ready to accept a rerun of Terry Fox’s feat. Donations slowed down—when Fonyo left Quebec he had added only $93,000 to the fund and in Toronto, after four days of hard campaigning, he raised only $12,000. Said Fonyo: “It was pretty bad.” Still,

the total increased in Ontario—to $241,000—but Fonyo continued to run in Fox’s shadow. When Fonyo reached Thunder Bay he had been running for eight months and had raised $435,000, compared to Fox’s $1.2 million at the same point. Indeed, Mayor Walter Assef inadvertently reinforced Fonyo’s secondary status by repeatedly referring to Fonyo as “Terry” as he welcomed him to the city. Fonyo, the stump of his leg aching and his foot swollen and bloody, stood listening to the speech and smiled. Said the cancer society’s Lou Fine: “He really grew up that day. Months ago he would have blown up over that, but he fielded it like a pro.”

Then, on Nov. 29, Fonyo symbolically began to run his own race: he passed the white sign post that marks the end of Terry Fox’s marathon. When Fonyo reached the spot, he left the TransCanada and climbed down an incline to reach the highway marker. There he touched the words that Fine, a cancer society official who had accompanied Fox, had scratched into the wood in

1980: “Terry Fox 3,339 miles.” Then he turned and quietly announced that he would not run any more that day.

It was a gracious gesture by a man who in many ways has been unfavorably compared to Fox. Fox was a gifted athlete, university-educated and articulate, a man whose easy charm helped make his run a national phenomenon by the time he reached Toronto. In contrast, Fonyo is a teenager who dropped out of high school after Grade 10 and who

sometimes has difficulty expressing himself. Fonyo prides himself on being direct and honest and has been surprised to learn that others have sometimes seen him as arrogant and cocky. The truth, according to Fine, lies somewhere in between: Fonyo is an intense young man who is still learning how to conduct himself under public scrutiny.

Controversy: That was clear on Jan. 31, when Fonyo entered Winnipeg. Despite temperatures that dropped to -31 °C, the city gave him the warmest welcome of his run, declaring a day in his honor and asking him to drop the puck at a National Hockey League game between the home town Jets and

the Edmonton Oilers. The Jets won 6-2, but the elation over the Winnipeg victory was lost in the controversy that erupted when a Canadian Press reporter wrote that Fonyo had described Edmonton superstar Wayne Gretzky as “a wimp.” Fonyo later denied the report. Still, the story was carried across the nation and it alarmed cancer society officials.

In spite of that incident, the West has embraced Fonyo as a returning native

son. Crowds of children dressed in parkas, sweatsuits and running shoes gather on the outskirts of small prairie towns. And on the lonely stretches of the Trans-Canada, many drivers wave as

_ Fonyo haltingly moves

past grain elevators and white wooden frame churches. Often motorists pull over to the side of the road to wish Fonyo good luck before pressing bills into his hand. Declared a local farmer with tears in his eyes: “I have lost my brother to cancer, but I still have you, son.”

Fonyo usually smiles —and keeps running. After his brush with cons; troversy in Winnipeg he i became more careful in i“ public and asked his fa1 ther to handle reporters’

requests for information. The elder Fonyo is more polished and has an easier manner than his son, but the two share an intensity that often sparks bickering. At times Fonyo, tired after covering 10 km of windblown prairie highway, relaxes gratefully as his father fusses about the trailer while he fixes a snack of cereal or soup. But on other occasions Fonyo has bridled at his father’s suggestions. “I will wear what I want to wear,” he said one day after his father suggested he put on a balaclava.

Involved: Despite the intermittent squabbles, Fonyo’s entire family is deeply involved in the run. His sister was with him from St. John’s to Rivière du Loup, his mother has flown out from Vernon to visit him three times and his father has gradually become the chief trouble shooter on the road. Fonyo’s father even hired a temporary replacement for himself at the family restaurant. And when the family had difficulty arranging a $100,000 mortgage on the Pyrogy House earlier this year, Fonyo announced that he might abandon the run and return home to help save the business. But

0 the crisis ended three 1 days later when, after ^ the family’s plight rez ceived widespread atten-

2 tion, the Bank of British Pacific by May Columbia relaxed normal policies and granted

a three-year mortgage.

Despite the ups and downs that have plagued the Journey for Lives, Fonyo is pressing harder than ever. He still has two more provinces—and the Rocky Mountains—to cross, but his goal of running from coast to coast seems far more attainable than it did one year ago in a Newfoundland blizzard. Already Fonyo has started talking about training to become a pilot after he finishes his run, which he now aims to do in the next two months. In fact, Fonyo wants to dip his artificial leg into the Pacific before May 27—when his parents celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Said Fonyo: “Finishing the run in time for all the family to celebrate at home would be one of the best presents I could give them.” At that point, the man who accepted the challenge that cancer forced Terry Fox to abandon will have an indisputable right to acclaim.

With Dale Eisler in Regina.

Dale Eisler