June 27, 1973 was the first day of summer vacation for 13-year-old Daniel Westley and his friends. After a long school year, the boys were eager to head outdoors to blow off some steam and have a bit of fun in New Westminster. But while their intentions were good, the fateful outcome of the events that afternoon were not what any of them expected.
Daniel’s friends, all slightly older than him, had successfully managed to jump aboard a moving freight train in the Port Mann yard.
“I had a bad feeling in my gut, but the moment took over. Sometimes when you’re young you know better than to do something, but you just go ahead and do it anyway,” recalls Daniel. “I was holding on, running next to the train as it went faster and faster. I hit a spot where the train tracks meet and stumbled, which threw me right under it, landing with my back right on the middle of the track and I knew instantly this was no place to be, so I kicked to get away, but the train ran over my legs, and it hurt, until it didn't hurt anymore.”
Three men who were working close by saw what happened and rushed over. One said he was a veteran and knew what to do. They stayed and helped Daniel until the ambulance arrived to take him to Royal Columbian Hospital.
“It was the first time I had ever tried anything like that,” he says.
On the same day, near Williams Lake, 15-year-old Rick Hansen had his spinal cord severed in an accident, and he also wound up at the hospital. The two boys became fast friends while they spent months in rehabilitation and physiotherapy. “They encouraged us to race our wheelchairs down the halls of the hospital,” says Daniel. “It was important for us to get moving.”
Six months after the accident in the train yard, Daniel returned to school, eventually landing at North Delta Secondary. While there, his path once again crossed that of Rick’s when Hansen came out to his school to give a motivational talk to the students. In addition to his address to the kids, Rick had an idea to recruit Daniel to play wheelchair sports.
Daniel agreed to give it a try and has never looked back.
“In addition to Rick and I, there were a number of great athletes playing, including Terry Fox for a while,” he says. “We used to train together by racing our chairs up Burnaby Mountain via the Gaglardi Highway and then practise basketball at Simon Fraser University. It was a great time and I really got into shape. Sport is a really good thing. It gives you focus, and the training makes you feel so good. It is priceless. You see success when you work your plan and it can really keep you motivated.”
Daniel got a taste of travel while on that basketball squad as they competed in the Pacific Northwest Conference against teams from Seattle, Spokane, Edmonton and other communities.
“Stan Strong was our manager and he was the true backbone of the team,” says Daniel. “He was one of the first quadriplegics with his level of injury to even survive, and he went on to be a real inspiration.”
Daniel was on his way to becoming one of Canada’s greatest athletes, which was ironic as he never would have envisioned such a thing while being raised in North Surrey alongside his two brothers and two sisters.
“In those days, I played tag and some tether ball, but that was it,” he says. “I was not into sports at all. It was great to learn to play basketball, but it was a challenge too. If you can imagine, you are in a wheelchair, with no seat belts, trying to do something athletic and they don’t really go together all that well. If you did turn too quickly, the chair would just fold up and spit you out right on to the floor. While trying to learn the game, I was also dealing with a lot more than just trying to make a basket.”
Daniel got his start in basketball but his attention soon turned to racing wheelchairs.
“Playing basketball raised my fitness level and it was a natural fit to start racing,” he says. “Basketball is primarily a winter and cold weather sport and racing became a natural complement for summer and when the weather is better. When I started racing, most of the competitions were on the track, but it quickly became embraced by the road racing series already in place for able-bodied runners.”
Daniel moved back to New Westminster, the city of his birth, in 1986.
“I really wanted that hometown connection,” he says. “It takes a whole community to raise a child, a whole country to create a champion. The locals loved me and I loved them.”
In 1988, Daniel competed in his first Paralympics in Seoul, Korea, representing his country for the first time.
“It was definitely a big trip,” he says. “And very exciting to parade into this massive outdoor stadium for the opening ceremonies. I entered every race there was for us: The 100 metres, 200, 400, 800, 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 metres and the marathon. I probably would have thought otherwise if I had known there were preliminaries, quarter-finals, and semifinals just to get to the finals. Despite the crazy schedule, I wound up winning two gold, in the 100 and the 800, three silver medals and two [bronzes]. Winning the 100 made me the so-called fastest man in the world!”
Daniel also competed at the summer games in Barcelona in 1992 and then turned his attention to sit skiing. Like Clara Hughes, he became a star in both Summer and Winter Games, competing in the winter Paralympics in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, Nagano in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002.
“In Lillehammer, I was an also-ran, but in Nagano, I picked up gold in the Super G and a bronze in the Downhill. In my final games, at Salt Lake City, I won gold in the Slalom, silver in the Super G and bronze in the Downhill.”
In addition to competing in the Paralympics, Daniel has raced in marathons and road races all over the world, though primarily in Canada and the United States. He even won the London Marathon one year.
“A lot of factors go into winning a race,” he says. “You have to pick a good line, you need a lot of luck with your equipment, and there are often team tactics to consider. I did not have a team when I went down to those races, but I was often competing against guys who understood the tactics of team racing.”
Clearly, he became a gifted athlete, but Daniel credits more than his fitness level.
“I’ve been practising meditation since 1980 to help with the training,” he says. “An athlete needs to be able to relax and focus on the task at hand. You have to separate yourself from the distractions and stay in the moment. I found it very helpful. When you compete at an international level, the competition is fierce even for wheelchair users. Most disabled sports are built on innovation. [Athletes] are forced to not only reinvent themselves, but also look at reinventing their equipment, be it a glove, a push technique, even the wheelchair. I’ve built innovation into every aspect over the years and that has really given me an edge in my competitions. You have to make it what you want, if you want results. Over the years, the equipment has improved and evolved into the rigid frame chairs that are popular today. We were the pioneers.”
Now retired as a competitor, Daniel's focus has shifted to working for Medichair where he helps people of all ages, even some veterans, adjust to their disabilities and get on with life.
Recently, he was honoured to be part of the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Paralympics in his hometown. He was one of the people who carried the torch inside BC Place Stadium as part of the final countdown.
“I was part of the Games dating back to the bidding process, helping to present our vision to the International Olympic Committee. It was quite an honour to carry the torch in front of all those people, the energy was electric.”
Daniel also enjoys giving presentations at schools and community groups, getting students and teachers playing against one another in wheelchairs and sharing his story.
“They see each other in a better light from a chair and how we are all on the same level,” he says. “The public’s perception of a person in a wheelchair has grown. What looks like a pretty serious setback for someone can be an opportunity for growth. Hopefully, we can all see that a disability doesn’t prevent a person from achieving something. It’s not about what you can’t do, but about what you can do.”
SEPTEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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