It was a momentous accomplishment, a global wheelchair odyssey spanning 34 countries, four continents and 40,000 kilometres. Rick Hansen’s 1985 Man in Motion Tour raised $26 million for spinal cord research. Thirty years later, the former Paralympian remains as passionate as ever about educating the public, funding ongoing research and championing access for the physically disabled.
That’s not so say there haven’t been challenges along the way. Like the rest of us as we grow older, Rick has had to revaluate his priorities and shift strategies, keeping the end game in sight while embracing change. Change was already in the air the minute he returned from 26 months on the road.
“I realized that the dream of the Tour was more than the Tour itself,” he says of those early days after circumnavigating the world in 1987. The Tour had raised awareness and people were talking about disability issues, but what was the next step and what could he do about it?
“I needed some space,” he says. “I was trying to return to my athletic career, but I couldn’t find the motivation. I was getting a little demoralized, a little beat-up, emotionally. I couldn’t even get back into a training session, so that was tough. Okay, I said to myself, if I’m not getting back into athletics, who am I? What am I? It took some mentoring.”
He turned to friends and family, notably his wife Amanda and his father-in-law Patrick Reid, the former commissioner-general of Expo ’86.
“I was lucky,” says Rick. “Amanda wasn’t just my physiotherapist, she’s my best friend and greatest advisor, someone who could shed a light on my strengths and weaknesses. I tend to see possibilities and Amanda’s very practical. How are we going to get there?”
Amanda and Rick. It’s a classic love story. Physiotherapist Amanda Reid was not supposed to go on the Tour, of course; she was initially hired to get Rick ready for the road but as her visits increased, she soon became a valuable member of the road crew, keeping him healthy and adjusting his chair for the terrain ahead.
“So, if I knew he had tendonitis in a certain area then I could change the position of the chair to take pressure off that area. It became quite a strategy,” she recalls.
Sparks flew the minute they met, says Rick.
“Oh, no question, at least from this side of the fence,” he laughs. Their working relationship blossomed into love.
“There’s no question. We had something special,” he continues. “The real question was, were we going to throw it up to fate and random moments or were we going to take a real risk and put our relationship through the gauntlet of the Tour and see if we’d survive?”
They survived the gauntlet and got married shortly after returning to Canada, but Amanda, like Rick, found it difficult to pick up where she left off.
“After we got married, I started to do some casual relief at my old position and it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be a fit for me because of the profile. Patients viewed me differently. It just created a weird dynamic,” she says. “We just made a decision that I would stay at home and take a number of years off to raise our girls.”
Realizing the Tour affected him deeply and wanting to make a difference, Rick decided to follow two paths, one as a motivational speaker and the other as a part-time advocate, volunteering his time and knowledge.
“I saw myself as an arms-length leader,” he says, “so I found myself chasing two different career tracks: speaking and my work on the issue of disability. One day after our first born, Emma, arrived, I was doing a speech for a company and not wanting to be there. I wasn’t clear and present. I came back and told Amanda she was right, I had to get more focused. I just had to realize where my passions were. I was going to abandon the two separate approaches and integrate them.”
Thus, the Rick Hansen Foundation was born. Daunting yes, but Rick says once he realized his passion lay in spinal cord issues, building the organization was easy. He applied the logistical lessons he learned on the road to the new situation.
“You need legal experts, financial experts and a group of board members. In many ways, we were doing that within the role and responsibilities of the Man in Motion Tour. This was now replacing that with yet another long-term journey.”
And another attribute Rick brought to the table: a resolve borne of the childhood accident that denied him the use of his legs.
“That injury I had when I was 15 years old and the skills and competencies I learned made me resilient and that inspiration was important.”
Located next to BCIT’s Aerospace Technology Campus in Richmond, the Rick Hansen Foundation, of which Rick is the founder and CEO, has funnelled over $355 million into spinal cord research, public education and advocacy since its inception in 1988.
“My sense of it is the work I do is probably more important to Boomers and their parents as it’s ever been,” he says mindful of the many disabling conditions, some visible and some not so visible, that seniors face. Rick believes challenges can be overcome with a positive attitude and technology.
“I’ve met many people who see a wheelchair or a scooter or a walker or a hearing aid as a symbol of disability rather than enabling pieces of technology to help them function optimally.”
He believes many seniors are missing out on activities or even putting themselves at risk by avoiding these products because of their perceived stigma. Having just turned 60 himself, Rick is conscious of the road ahead, a road he admits he was doubtful he would ever reach.
“When I was young I thought I’d never see 60,” he says. “I wondered if I would ever make it physically and if I did, 60 probably wasn’t much to look forward to. My view has evolved dramatically. I see it as a milestone. I believe my best work’s in front of me. I believe I’m gaining wisdom and perspective and I look forward to it. My 60th birthday resolution is to be as self-aware as possible and to match the distribution of my time, so that I’m in the sweet spot and not wasting a moment.”
Rick’s sweet spot is taking care of himself, so he’s not further handicapping his body or his mind. As a lifelong athlete, a daily work-out is mandatory.
“Number two,” he continues, “is to insure my time as CEO and founder of the Rick Hansen Foundation is spent on my best talents and a chance to make a difference; and number three is to work with urgency to create a great succession plan. I see myself over the next couple of years elevating into that founder role,” adding that his three children Rebecca, Alana and Emma may or may not be directly involved.
“We’re letting the girls decide where they see themselves in the future,” confirms Amanda. “There’s never been a sense it’s an obligation for them,” she says. “It’s my sincere belief the Foundation and its vision will continue well past our time.”
Rick continues. “Lastly and most importantly is to spend time with my family. Amanda’s brought three beautiful daughters into my life and two grandsons and I feel I’m one of the luckiest guys on the planet.”
As family time becomes more important in Rick’s life, the yearly retreat to Gossip Island, a small sanctuary in the Salish Sea takes on added significance. The Hansens have been coming here for over 30 years. It’s where the girls grew up and the family cabin harbours special memories.
“They love it over there,” says Amanda. “[Emma’s] husband’s family are really big into building and restoring, so we recruit them to come and do some projects for us. That was a pre-requisite; we needed boyfriends or spouses with trades,” she laughs.
Rick says he wants to take his grandson fishing, like he did with the girls.
“It’s about the adventure, about the camaraderie, about being together and through that comes life lessons and life experiences.”
Rick went fishing with his dad, his grandfather and his cousins when he was a kid and it helped define his character in the first six years of his life. After his injury, fishing helped his rehabilitation and then it became part of a vehicle to promote and introduce people to his charity. As a former chair of both The Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society and the Pacific Salmon Endowment Fund, Rick is an avid conservationist.
“I’ve come to realize we just can’t exploit the environment for our own personal interests or needs, but we also need to protect it and give back to the fish.”
And he’s giving back in other ways, as a role model for disabled athletes and as a supporter of like-minded organizations such as The David Foster Foundation. The Foster Foundation assists families with children in need of major organ transplants. Rick met composer and producer David Foster years ago when Foster wrote “St. Elmo’s Fire (Man in Motion)” as a tribute to the Paralympian. They’ve kept in touch ever since and Rick is often a participant in Foster’s annual gala but, alas, not as a singer.
“Sing? I’m the kind of guy who made his two-year-old daughter cry when he sang “O Canada,” he laughs.
Energized by his family and his mission, Rick continues to spearhead awareness and change. He wants to work with stem cells and lost neural tissue – “we gotta get that into more clinical trials and we have to make sure the spinal cord is protected after an injury” – and he’s pushing a global accessibility certification program whereby every building, school and park in the world will be assessed, rated and certified. More importantly, the Foundation is creating a global network of convergence so organizations like it can measure the same outcomes using the same common language. There’s lots to do, but Rick is adamant.
“It’s always important to keep challenging our perspective, so maybe we see the things we face not as limitations or disabilities but as obstacles to overcome. The more we can shed the stigma about aging and disabling conditions, the more we can liberate potential, the more we can drive the vibrancy of our culture, the more we can drive economies, and the more we can see aging as the great opportunity of our time.”
Thirty years after alerting the world to the aspirations, the challenges and the needs of the disabled, the Man in Motion is still in motion.
Snapshot with Rick Hansen
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him?
“I’d say number one, don’t be so hard on yourself. Trust yourself more. And number two, make sure you continue to reflect more on the everyday successes. Look for those magic moments.”
Who or what has influenced you the most and why?
“My primary hero is Stan Strong, the manager of our [former] basketball team, the Vancouver Cablecars. He was probably one of the first surviving people of spinal cord injury. He was injured in the ’30s. He carved a life for himself out of nothing and supported me when I was wondering what life was like in a wheelchair with spinal injury. He made me realize it’s all about attitude. It’s not what happens to you; it’s what you do with it and see possibility, not disability.’
What does courage mean to you?
“Courage is the ability to move forward in the face of adversity and stand up for your values.”
What does success mean to you?
“Success is feeling you’ve lived a life of self-awareness and integrity.”