There were only 40 spectators—a few joggers, some cyclists and three onlookers in wheelchairs—when Rick Hansen propelled himself out of a suburban hotel parking lot near Miami last week. For Hansen, the low turnout was in sharp contrast to the enthusiastic receptions he usually receives. The 28-year-old wheelchair athlete from Williams Lake, B.C., is on a round-the-world odyssey to raise $10 million for spinal cord research and promote rehabilitation through wheelchair sports. And the Chinese government officially designated him a “hero of heroes” in May after he braved blinding dust, strong head winds and stomach problems on a 1,200-km journey from Peking to Shanghai. But as he began 12 hours of motion in the muggy Florida heat, the muscular Canadian shrugged off a disappointing beginning to the final segment of his marathon. Declared Hansen: “China is a mirror of what we’re trying to establish. We saw response in all levels of society—the participation was electric.”
Hansen has already logged 25,400 km on a journey which has taken him through 32 countries on four continents since he left Vancouver in March, 1985. He has endured the heat of the Australian desert and an exhausting trip through the Alps. But he says that his most difficult challenge still lies ahead: after travelling up the eastern seaboard of the United States, Hansen plans to set off along the Trans-Canada Highway from St. John’s, Nfld., in late August. He will be following in the footsteps of onelegged marathoners Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo as he heads across Canada with the goal of reaching Vancouver next spring.
His schedule across the Prairies in winter will also allow five Vancouver-based researchers to test such items as insulated clothing containing temperature monitors for disabled athletes and winterized wheelchairs equipped with chains and studs. But those test results are bonuses for Hansen: he embarked on his 40,000-km journey to demonstrate that the disabled can achieve difficult objectives. But the financial returns so far have been slow: although Hansen has raised $1.2 million to defray tour costs, he has received only $150,000 in donations for his research fund. Still, he expects to generate most of his support closer to home, as
other Canadians see his powerful upper body pumping the wheels of his chair 35,000 times a day for up to 12 hours.
That alone is a remarkable achievement for a man who says that in June, 1973, he feared that an accident might
confine him to a hospital bed for the rest of his life. It occurred when Hansen was 15 and a high school basketball star. He and a friend were returning home from a fishing trip when the pickup truck in which they were riding flipped over, slamming a large steel box into Hansen’s spine. Although permanently crippled from the waist down, Hansen took up a new form of athletics, and by 1983 he had won 16 international wheelchair marathons, an achievement which led sports journalists to name him Canadian athlete of the year along with
Edmonton Oiler hockey star Wayne Gretzky. Shortly after winning that award, Hansen set himself a new goal: raising funds for research on spinal cord injuries, a condition that immobilizes 25,000 victims in Canada and the United States each year through accidents alone.
To that end, Hansen sets himself a quota of 80 km each day, sometimes spinning his wheelchair around and travelling backwards for short distances to vary the strain on his arm muscles. In doing so he has worn out three wheels, 55 rear tires, 20 front tires and 70 pairs of leather gloves—at a cost of $25 a pair. The entire odyssey may cost $1.5 million. Ottawa has contributed $155,000 to support the tour’s five-member Vancouver office, but funds the expedition raises must support another six staff members who travel with Hansen. They include a cook, a physiotherapist—and Donald Alder, the friend who escaped without permanent injury when Hansen was paralysed. He maintains the wheelchairs and drives the motor home which constantly follows Hansen on the road. Despite almost constant fatigue and strained muscles, Hansen remains confident that he will finish his journey. He declared: “We have touched tens and hundreds of millions of people. What counts is not the disability but the ability. The money will eventually be there because people will begin to understand what we are attempting to do and why.”
Meanwhile, memories of what he has already accomplished keep driving him foward. He recalled that when he was crossing Poland last September several men blocked his progress through a small town and insisted on carrying him into a restaurant, where they bought meals for everyone on the tour. And in Miami, Hansen’s gritty performance clearly inspired the three youths in wheelchairs who came to the hotel parking lot to wish him well: they accompanied him for the first 15 km of his journey home.
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