CANADA

A triumphant Canadian hero

Jane O’Hara June 10 1985
CANADA

A triumphant Canadian hero

Jane O’Hara June 10 1985

A triumphant Canadian hero

Jane O’Hara

Once scorned by schoolmates in Vernon, B.C., who called him "peg leg," Stephen Charles Fonyo last

week turned a childhood of pain and ridicule into a moving personal triumph as he completed his courageous crosscountry marathon against cancer. Looking tanned and self-confident, the 19-year-old one-legged runner completed his 8,000-km Journey for Lives in a driving rainstorm inVictoria. After hobbling onto a rocky cliffside overlooking his final destination, Fonyo strode down a paved pathway to a red-carpeted ramp that jutted into the water. Accompanied by his parents, Stephen Sr. and Anna, and his sister, Suzanne, Fonyo dipped his artificial left leg into the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean.

With that, the applause and cheers from a crowd of 6,000 crested over the young man who determinedly jogged out of obscurity to become a hero. Exulted a beaming Fonyo as he turned to hug his family: “Yahoo! It’s finally over.” Fonyo’s lonely run began 14 months ago in St. John’s, spanned 10 provinces and, by the time it was over, had raised more than $9 million for the Canadian Cancer Society. On the road, Fonyo used up six artificial legs and suffered blisters on his right foot and painful shin splints in his right leg. As he headed toward Mile 0 on the Trans-Canada Highway in Victoria last week, Fonyo was visibly in pain. He had been prescribed pain-killers, he explained, but “I forgot to take them today.”

In the course of his 425-day journey Fonyo ran through subzero weather during the Prairie winter and humid heat as he entered the British Columbia Interior. At the start of his run Fonyo regularly covered 32 km a day with only a howling wind and a few cars for companionship. Then, as he headed for the finish line last week, there were cheering fans and public idol worship to help him on his way.

But as the run drew to a close, strains developed in Fonyo’s prickly relations with the Canadian Cancer Society, which sponsored the run, and his private supporter, the controversial Vancouver millionaire J. “Bob” Carter, who has a criminal record for a sexual offence. Fonyo, who would make a natural goodwill ambassador for the cancer society, pointedly refused to say whether he would work for the society in the future.

Still, for Fonyo’s admirers, the cloud of controversy was insignificant com-

pared to the demonstration of courage by the young runner who lost his leg to bone cancer when he was 12. Against overwhelming odds Fonyo succeeded where Terry Fox—the one-legged cancer victim who was stricken by a recurrence of cancer midway through a crosscountry run in 1980—had been forced to fail. Said Anthony Jones, a sailboarder from Victoria who came inshore to watch Fonyo complete his odyssey: “He’s a gutsy kid and I wanted to be here to show him support when he finished.” With his journey completed, Fonyo was able to look to a future that was

much brighter than before the run began. “I’m 19 and unemployed like everyone else,” Fonyo told a press conference in Victoria. But British Columbia’s premier, William Bennett, announced that his government had awarded Fonyo a scholarship worth about $20,000 to train as a commercial helicopter pilot—a longtime ambition of the mechanically gifted youth. And Carter has set up a trust fund for Fonyo and has hired a Vancouver reporter to write a commemorative book on his run. As well, a Vancouver public relations firm hired by Carter will look at ways that Fonyo can earn money by endorsing commercial products. “The public won’t be upset if

he makes a few dollars from the run,” said Carter. “But I don’t want him to get into making his living from commercial sponsorships.”

The more immediate prospect was for rest and relaxation in exotic surroundings. Last week Fonyo left for a twoweek vacation as a guest of the government of the Cook Islands, a South Pacific archipelago of 15 islands about 1,600 miles off the coast of New Zealand. The trip was arranged by Carter, whose brother is a partner in a scuba diving business in the islands. “We heard of Steve through the radio and newspapers

and then we got a Telex from Bob Carter,” said Florence Syme, a public relations officer for the Cook Islands government. “We jumped at the chance. Prime Minister Sir Thomas Davis said, ‘Great. Let’s invite the guy over here.’ ” Fonyo will be accompanied on the trip by Frank Szarapka of Surrey, B.C., who helped the young runner train. “There have been big changes in Steve,” said Szarapka. “Before the run he had no goals, no ambitions. He was very depressed, and some nights he’d sit up and just cry. He didn’t care whether he lived or died. Now, I don’t think there’s anything he couldn’t do.”

The vacation meant that Fonyo had to

leave behind Sonja Gosteli, the pretty 18-year-old high school student who was on hand for the closing stage of his run. During his cross-country trek Fonyo had numerous dates. But at journey’s end his attention seemed to be rivetted by Sonja, whom he met while running near her home town of Strathmore, Alta. She was there for Fonyo’s arrival in Vancouver, where 20,000 fans welcomed him in the B.C. Place Stadium. Later, the couple spent the evening on a date. But Fonyo scotched speculation of an impending engagement. “I’m too young to get married,” he told reporters.

In the meantime, Fonyo’s father defended his son’s increasingly close association with the oilman who contributed $6,500 in March, 1984, to help finance the run and who, in his own words, told the runner at the time “not to be publicly associated with me.” In November, 1984, Carter pleaded guilty to a charge of gross indecency stemming from an incident the previous May in which he was accused of whipping and sexually assaulting two girls. As well, Carter currently is appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada that four-year-old charges of rape, buggery, gross indecency and indecent assault be dropped on the grounds that his constitutional right to a speedy trial was violated. For their part, both Fonyo and his father have publicly praised their benefactor. Indeed, in his speech at B.C. Place Stadium last week, Steve Fonyo Sr. thanked Carter and dedared, “I am proud to

call him my friend.”

Fonyo’s future loyalty to the Canadian Cancer Society was less certain after frequent disputes during the run. Fonyo often refused to participate when the society scheduled what he regarded as too many daily events. And when the society tried to persuade him not to run during the winter months, Fonyo decided to enlist more support from Carter. Still, the undercurrents of resentment and notoriety that swirled around Fonyo last week did nothing to diminish his achievement. Although the Journey for Lives officially ended last week, the rest of Steve Fonyo’s life lay ahead, with all the privileges and problems that go with being a genuine Canadian hero.&l;£>