A HERO COMES HOME
His body, which is firmly wedged in his specially designed wheelchair, sits low to the ground. His bony legs, pulled up close to his chest, are wrapped in a cocoon-like sleeping bag to prevent them from getting frostbite. With a slight rocking motion, Rick Hansen pushed the wheel rims of the chair with a metronomic precision to the beat of some internal drummer and rolled into the home stretch of an incredible journey that has taken him and a seven-member crew through 34 countries around the world.
Robbed: Wheeling 80 km three out of every four days, the 29-year-old athlete has pushed himself over five mountain ranges and four continents in temperatures that have ranged from subtropical to sub-zero. He has suffered from recurring injuries, wheeled through a flood, used five wheelchairs,
been robbed four times, gone through 80 pairs of gloves and had 100 flat tires. Hansen’s goal, now enticingly close, is to wheel 40,073 km—the equivalent of the circumference of the globe—and raise $10 million for spinal cord research, rehabilitation and wheelchair sports. On March 20, after an eightmonth trek across Canada, Hansen and his entourage crossed the border into British Columbia—2,787 km and 62 days away from Vancouver’s Oakridge shopping mall, where the trip began on March 21, 1985. “It’s all downhill from here,” said a jubilant Muriel Honey, media relations manager of the Man in Motion World Tour.
After B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm greeted him at the border, Hansen joyfully reunited with family members he has not seen since he left two years ago—including a seven-month-old niece he had never seen. Then, after spending
Saturday with his family, he and his entourage returned to the road for their final push toward home. The tour is scheduled to arrive at the Oakridge mall on May 22, where a welcome-home ceremony is planned. The following day a celebrity-studded gala is planned in his honor at B.C. Place Stadium.
Flawed: The Man in Motion’s homecoming will contrast vividly with his departure on March 21, 1985, when only 300 invited guests showed up to see him off. The festivities were largely ignored by bustling shoppers and somewhat flawed by an embarrassing moment: as his crew followed Hansen out of the parking lot in their van, they drove under an overpass, failed to estimate the height of the van accurately and scraped a roof rack off the top.
Since that inauspicious beginning, Hansen’s single-minded determination has parlayed a wheel-and-a-prayer con-
cept into a multimillion-dollar fundraising venture that has captured the imagination and support of people around the world. And just as the crowds have swelled along the way, so has the Man in Motion legacy fund. When they started out, Hansen and his crew estimated that the money they had managed to scrape together would last them a week. “Then we’d start washing dishes,” joked crew member Timothy Frick. The tour now operates on a $1.5-million total budget, and so far it has raised $7.6 million toward its $10-million goal.
Hero: The handsome athlete’s powers of persuasion are so considerable that schoolchildren press coins and bills into his hands wherever he goes, governments have presented him with generous cheques, and corporate sponsors have cheerfully increased their donations. When Hansen added romance to
his venture by getting engaged to his physiotherapist, Amanda Reid, 27, his image began to take on folk-hero proportions.
Still, in the middle of all the support and adulation, Hansen has had to deal with critics who charged that the tour was really a paid holiday, a stunt that diverted attention—and funds—away from other worthy causes. Hansen says that although those accusations have hurt him they have not swayed his determination.
Call: On March 18 Hansen’s day began in the cold and darkness of early morning in Hinton, Alta. A gentle snow was falling outside when he received his wake-up call at 5:30 a.m. in Room 117 of the Twin Pine Motor Inn. Meanwhile, members of the team were up and carrying out their various duties.
In the parking lot, crew member Michael Pomponi started up the two motor homes in zero-degree weather. Pomponi also prepared Hansen’s first meal of the daytoast, raspberry jam and hot chocolate. At 6:15 Pomponi served Hansen and his financée breakfast in their room. At 6:40 Hansen and Reid left the motel, got into the motor home and drove 27 km east of Hinton, to the spot where Hansen had finished the day before. At 7:30, accompanied by an entourage that included three RCMP cruisers and a truck with a flashing sign, he headed off on the bumpy Yellowhead Highway.
A steady snow fell as Hansen climbed the Obed Summit—at 3,818 feet the highest point on the highway through the Rockies. A crowd of about 150 cheering, camera-laden spectators met him. After completing the first of four 20-km daily wheeling treks, Hansen stopped and climbed back into the van for a second breakfast—a bowl of Red River cereal and a glass of milk. While he ate and rested, crew member Don Alder changed the push rims on Hansen’s chair from 16inch to smaller 14-inch rims for the more level terrain ahead. Inside the van, Reid dried Hansen’s wheeling gloves on the dashboard heaters.
The crew members are kept in constant motion, each with his or her own duties that range from doing advance work on the route to co-ordinating
fund-raising events to shopping for food and doing laundry. Hansen has exacting standards. And in his effort to maintain the slick and efficient image of his entourage, with its state-of-theart equipment, he cannot even bring himself to wear the toque his mother knit for him. Said Hansen: “Sorry, Mom, this is a high-tech tour.”
Back in the summer of 1973, Don Alder and Rick Hansen were teenage friends riding in the back of a pickup truck on the way home to Williams Lake, B.C., after a fishing trip. Suddenly, the truck swerved out of control and rolled over. Alder was thrown free about three metres and then slid for another 30 metres. “I got up,” said Alder, “and I saw Rick’s hand come up from a pile of rubble. I dug him out, and he knew pretty well his back was broken. I tried to console him, but he knew better.” The accident severed Hansen’s spinal cord and left him permanently paralysed below the waist.
Goals: Hansen started thinking about wheeling around the world a year later, at 16. Meanwhile, he set his sights on another series of goals. In 1976 he graduated from high school in Williams Lake, then went on to the University of British Columbia, where he completed a degree in physical education—the first disabled person in the university’s history I to do so. At the same *lö time, he was establishReid: rolling ing his credentials as a world champion wheelchair athlete. He won
national titles in wheelchair volleyball and basketball and 19 international marathons, including the Boston Marathon in 1983.
In December, 1983, he began to put his plan to wheel around the world into action. Said Hansen: “I’m very disorganized. I knew what it was I wanted to do but I had no idea how to do it.” He began calling on friends for help, including Timothy Frick, a physical education teacher at Selkirk College in Castlegar who had coached Hansen in wheelchair sports since 1977. “I didn’t think it was a crazy idea,” said Frick. “There was never any doubt in my mind that he would complete the trip. I knew that if anyone in the world could do it, it would be him.”
On Oct. 1, 1984, the hard work began
as Frick and Hansen started shaping the tour. They appointed a board of directors, formed committees and set up a headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Volunteers flooded in to lick envelopes and answer phones. Meanwhile, he trained—and tried to raise funds. It was difficult. Said Hansen: “We knew it would be a tough sell.” Indeed, after more than four months of trying, he had only raised about $50,000, much of which came from the B.C. provincial government in the form of a grant. In March, 1985, just before he set off, Vancouver city council presented Hansen with a plaque and an official day in his honor. But at the end of the ceremony, the only money Hansen took with him was $100, a personal donation from then-mayor Michael Harcourt.
Cheques: Hansen’s travelling team included Alder, Frick and Hansen’s cousin, Lee Gibson, from Port Alberni. It was a major commitment: the three men agreed to give up their jobs and paycheques to follow Hansen for as long as it took.
Originally, Hansen and Frick decided that the tour would be a men-only affair. They both now look back at that bold claim with wry humor. Indeed, if it were not for the tireless work of two women who ended up on the tour, Hansen’s journey would have been a great deal more difficult. One is tour manager Nancy Thompson, a 29-year-old Vancouver sports consultant. The other is Reid, whom Hansen met in April, 1984, when she was assigned as his physiotherapist at Vancouver’s G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre. Romance began to bloom. Then, two weeks into the tour, Hansen sustained severe physical injuries to his wrists and shoulders and decided he needed Reid’s full-time help. Said Frick: “We cheered for joy when she said she would quit her job in Vancouver and come on board.”
In July, 1986, the tour was in Raleigh, N.C., and members of the team had a day off. Hansen borrowed some money from the tour float fund, then asked crew member Michael Reid, Amanda’s brother, if he would drive him to a shopping mall. Reid said that he would, but Hansen refused to tell him why he wanted to go. Finally, when they arrived at a jewelry store, he told Reid that he was going to pick out an engagement ring for Amanda and wanted his opinion. A gold band with a single raised diamond centred among four square-cut diamonds quickly caught Hansen’s eye and, said Reid, “we bought it in about 10 minutes.”
Amanda, a lithe and attractive brunette with a quick wit, said that the two kept their relationship a secret because “we didn’t want people to think we were on a romantic tour.” Added
Hansen: “We didn’t want the tour to turn into a Chuck and Di show. We also agreed at the very beginning that if it came to push or shove between the goals of the tour and our relationship, the relationship would go.”
Rigors: The relationship survived— but it was occasionally strained. For Reid and other members of the crew, there were times when the rigors of the tour seemed to stretch them all beyond their physical and emotional limits. One of the worst times was during the four months the tour spent in Europe in 1985. Hansen was largely ignored as he wheeled through western Europe, and the crew often worked 20-hour days doing their variety of chores to keep the show on the road. Said Hansen: “In the beginning it was really hard to get the message out. I didn’t expect marching bands and people lining the streets, but I didn’t imagine we would be ignored.”
Hansen’s troubles increased in France. In July, when he was pushing himself to 110 km a day on six hours sleep, he suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning because of a defective exhaust pipe on the van that drove ahead of him. In Greece in December, the crew had to bundle him into a blanket and carry him from his hotel to a hospital when he became suddenly ill and said that he thought the paralysis was creeping higher in his body. In China last April, Hansen faced a once-in-a-
lifetime challenge when officials gave tour members permission to climb the Great Wall. Said Michael Reid: “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen Rick do. The incline is so steep that he had to use every ounce of strength to push the wheels forward and then catch them from behind so he didn’t fall back. But he wouldn’t give up.”
Hit: However, there were lighter moments: in New Zealand in December, 1985, Hansen and his crew relaxed on sunny beaches and chartered a fishing boat for a day’s excursion. And during the United States portion of the tour last July, Hansen, who has an avid interest in flying and hopes to follow onelegged runner Steve Fonyo’s example and get his pilot’s licence, enjoyed a screening of the hit movie about fighter pilots, Top Gun.
On Aug. 25, 1986, Hansen and his entourage reached Cape Spear, Nfld. From there they launched the Canadian portion of the tour, where Hansen was to trace the steps of the men he says inspired him—Terry Fox and Steve Fonyo, the one-legged runners who between them raised $37.8 million for cancer research on their respective 1980 and 1985 cross-Canada marathons. Perhaps the greatest preparation went into planning that trek. It included designing a special four-wheel-drive wheelchair for icy conditions and special clothing for sub-zero temperatures that Hansen was expected to face. But
he was lucky: he did not encounter the frigid winter he had anticipated, and much of the equipment—including the wheelchair—was not necessary.
Ramp: The Canadian portion of the tour also provided an opportune moment to get his message across to the public. A large part of Hansen’s campaign is his desire to create an aware-
ness of the need on the part of the disabled for access to buildings and rooms. Last October at a high school event outside Trois Rivières, Que., that message came through loud and clear. Crew member Simon Cumming went to the school to see if the preparations were going well. Cumming looked at the stage where Hansen was supposed to speak and noticed that there was no ramp up to it. He asked the principal about it and was told, “Don’t worry, four members of the football team will lift him onto the stage.” Cumming said that was impossible and threatened to cancel the event if a ramp were not quickly provided. Eventually Cumming and the principal salvaged the visit by taking a door off its hinges and using that as a ramp.
As Hansen headed west, wheeling through one small town after another, the excitement continued to build. When he reached Ottawa on Oct. 26, he received a hero’s welcome: thousands of people were massed on Parlia-
ment Hill to greet him. And when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney handed him a government cheque for $1 million, it was, Hansen said, one of his most thrilling moments.
Luck stayed with him as he wheeled through the Prairies, making good time because of the unseasonably warm weather. And on March 19, the day before he crossed the B.C. border, Hansen and crew arrived on schedule in Jasper, Alta., to a typically enthusiastic reception. At a Rick Hansen Night in the local hockey arena, nearly 1,500 children and adults turned out and cheered wildly as he received a cheque for $17,800, money raised through a number of local community events. Said Bert Robinson, 87, a resident of Jasper for 61 years: “In my entire life I’ve never seen a turnout like this.”
Following his triumphant finish, one of Hansen’s main priorities will be to lock himself away with Vancouver Province sports columnist Jim Taylor, who is helping him write his autobiography. When Hansen announced in October that he and Amanda were engaged to be married, Taylor phoned him and asked to speak to Amanda. When Amanda came on the line, Taylor said to her: “There will be no quick marriage. Remember the contract: for the first six weeks his butt belongs to me.”
Admirers: With that in mind, Hansen and Reid have set their wedding date for Oct. 10. Both say that they would like to have children, but they disagree about the number: he wants four, she wants two. After their honeymoon, Hansen plans to return to competitive athletics and training. He has been pressing to have wheelchair events recognized at the Olympics— and if the International Olympics Committee accepts the wheelchair marathon as a sport, he will probably attempt to compete in the 1992 Olympics. He is also considering coaching, and admirers have mentioned politics as a long-term possible career for the articulate athlete.
As he headed home, Hansen made it clear that that he does not intend to bask in the adulation that will inevitably surround him. When he heard that organizers of the May 23 gala hope to attract such stars as David Foster, Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot, Hansen said that he did not want the celebration to be too glitzy. Quick to seize another opportunity to spread his message, he requested that disabled people be an integral part of the show. Said Hansen: “The tour will end the way it began—with the same ideals.”
—JANE O'HARA in Jasper