Police strobes flash as the procession slowly rolls toward Kamloops, British Columbia. Even here, 20 miles out of town, spectators line the road, staring intently at a distant figure. Some wave yellow ribbons, others hold roses or bunches of daisies. Many have cameras poised, shutter fingers ready. The excitement builds until the unlikely object of adoration labors by—a handsome young man with a muscular torso and withered legs, who pumps a specially designed wheelchair down the highway. “We’re real proud of you, son!” shouts an older man. “Keep it up, Rick!” exclaims another, even as a little girl dashes out with a bag of coins and a second child with a handful of flowers. Click.
It seems odd to see a man in a wheelchair so far from city streets and buildings. But that’s precisely Rick Hansen’s point—that it would not seem odd at all, but for our prejudices about people with “handicaps.” For the past two years, in a heroic effort to educate us, the 29-year-old paraplegic has spent most of his waking life pushing his 16-pound, custom-built chair around the globe, accumulating nearly 25,000 miles in the grueling process. During the inspiring feat he calls the Man in Motion Tour, he’s passed through 34 countries, wheeled his way through floods, climbed the heartbreaking steeps of the Alps, endured subzero cold and bouts with illness, as well as four robberies and 100 flat tires. He’s done all this to show that a man in a wheelchair is a man for all that. Or, as Rick himself puts it: “If we can educate people about focusing more on people’s abilities than on their disabilities, then we’ve succeeded. The message I’m trying to get across is that there is nothing we can’t do, if we set our minds to it.”
Hansen’s outlook was somewhat darker in the summer of 1973, the year of his accident. Rick and his best friend, Don Alder, were hitchhiking home to Williams Lake (pop. 20,000), B.C. after a fishing trip. About 25 miles from home, the pickup they’d caught a ride with hit the gravel siding, swerved three times, then roiled over. Don, thrown clear, walked away from the accident. Rick ended up on the ground with a severed spine, probably from a tool box that landed on his back.
He was rushed to a hospital, but it was obvious that he would never walk again—obvious, that is, to everyone but Rick. “At first,” he recalls, “I wouldn’t accept that it would be serious or permanent. I was an athlete and I’d had accidents before. You’d go to the hospital and you’d get taped up and you’d heal. I took the approach that I would recover completely.” Rick went from denial to anger and bitterness; but, fortunately, he stopped short of despondency. To his friends amazement, he made up his mind to be an athlete again. Almost immediately he started competing in wheelchair sports, including marathons and 1,500-meter sprints. “After a while,” says Alder, “Rick had so much confidence that people would just flock to him. He was always a natural leader.”
By 1976 Hansen had graduated from high school and become the first disabled person to graduate as a physical education major at the University of British Columbia. He had also begun fantasizing about pushing his wheelchair around the world. His dream got a boost when he met and became fast friends with a one-legged cancer victim named Terry Fox. In 1980 when Fox ran across Canada to raise money for cancer research, Hansen became inspired. “By then,” he says, “I had traveled extensively in disabled circles and knew that other people’s perception of you was one of the most limiting factors in a person’s attempt to get back into society.”
By 1981, the year of Fox’s death from lung cancer, Hansen had become one of the world’s top disabled athletes. Indeed, two years later he and Wayne Gretzky shared honors as Canada’s Outstanding Athletes of the Year. Soon after, he told a skeptical Don Alder that he planned to wheel around the globe. “The project was so huge it didn’t seem feasible,” says Alder. “Along with many others, I thought Rick should be put in a straitjacket.” Despite his reservations, Alder joined Hansen’s four-person support crew.
On March 21, 1985 a crowd of 300 friends and supporters gathered in a Vancouver shopping mall to see Hansen off. The plan was for Rick to take to the road for three out of four days, for 16 hours a day, accumulating a daily total of 70 miles. He would head south to San Diego, then straight across to Florida. Beyond that point, the tour’s future was shaky: Fund raising was lagging, the itinerary uncertain. However, Rick soon had more urgent troubles. Although the weather had been sunny and warm for weeks, it turned cold and rainy almost immediately. Within two days he had severely sprained both wrists. In pain, already exhausted by the cold and head winds, he began to question whether he would be able to last. “If ever there was a time when we would have quit,” he says, “it was the first two weeks.”
The harsh weather continued through Oregon, and lying ahead was a forbidding trek up into the Siskiyou Mountain Range. “It was about a 13-mile climb,” says Rick, “and I remember there was a lot of anxiety about my reinjuring myself. But then I reached the top of the mountain [4,310 feet], and it turned into this beautiful, clear, warm day. I looked back down to where I had just come from, and I had an overwhelming rush of emotion. I just broke down, tears and all. That’s when I knew we would really make it.”
Rick was further heartened by the arrival of Amanda Reid, a physiotherapist who had worked with him when he’d competed in the Boston Marathon in his wheelchair. Reid brought him comfort and relief. She made adjustments to the seat of Rick’s chair and gave him massage and ice treatments throughout the day. Fatigue was a very real problem, even for the dedicated crew. For the first three months, Rick and his supporting cast averaged about three hours of sack time a night. Once in a while it would catch up with them. “Rick used to wheel ahead of us, and we’d meet him at the next scheduled stop,” says Reid. “In Texas he made a wrong turn and we lost him. We had to call the police and say, ‘Excuse me, we’re with this guy. He’s wheeling around the world, and we’re his support crew. Do you know where he is?’ Luckily, they’d seen him.”
In July 1985, after reaching Miami, the crew flew on to England, where a new set of headaches was in the offing. The team now had to contend with visas, currency exchange and unenthusiastic countries. East Germany denied them entry because it was harvest time, and they said Hansen would disturb the traffic. The Soviet Union agreed to admit Rick after repeated requests, but only to hold press conferences. Finally, after months of injuries and hardship, the tour began to pick up speed in Poland, where Hansen quickly became a major attraction. “I felt like the Pied Piper,” says Rick. “I’d be wheeling through a town, and the kids would start running after me. There’d be ten and then 20. Next thing you knew there were 50. It was also a moving experience to see some of the guys who were disabled, wheeling with me into a community. Probably for the first time in their lives, they were proud to be in a wheelchair.”
After Poland, Hansen headed for Austria where, in the single toughest stretch of the trip, he wheeled over the Alps into Switzerland. “We climbed from five in the morning till six at night,” says Reid. “It was such an incredible feat, and we were sad there was no one there to enjoy it. Just then a bus full of Canadian tourists pulled up. It was great!” In Italy Rick met the Pope, who gave him his blessing. In Yugoslavia, as Rick climbed a long dark hill, a young boy came up and ran beside him. “He refused to leave, even after his parents told him to get off the road. He said, ‘This guy’s wheeled around the world; the least I can do is run to the top of the hill with him.’ ”
The tour drew large and generous crowds in Australia, and the mood was buoyant when the little company reached China. Traveling in Zaozhuang and Tancheng, areas foreigners seldom see, Rick was met by farmers and townspeople who flocked to the road to watch the Canadian go by. In Shanghai and other large cities, thousands of bicyclists clogged the streets, sometimes wobbling into one another as they vied for a look. For many in the crew, Rick’s ride on the Great Wall was the symbolic high point of the trip. For Rick, Oregon was a close second. That’s when Amanda Reid came aboard, and the two of them started to fall in love.
After Asia the tour returned to the States. By August, Rick had wheeled up the Eastern seaboard and made it back to Canada.
Things are dramatically different this time around as he heads into the last stage of his journey, scheduled to wind up May 22 in the same Vancouver shopping mall. From a staff of four the traveling entourage has grown to seven full-time members. With an operating budget of nearly $1.5 million (Nike, Safeway and McDonald’s are sponsors), an advance team uses computers to map the roads ahead in minute detail. In British Columbia, three Royal Canadian Mounted Police cars escort the entourage and thousands of volunteers prepare their towns for visits.
Rick Hansen has become a hero, a focus of Canadian patriotism. As of last week, his Man in Motion Tour has raised $7 million for research into spinal cord injuries and rehabilitation. Yet what has moved Rick the most has been the intangible return on his time spent on the road. He treasures the moment in Clinton, B.C., for example, when a man stood on his porch and sang My Way, as he trundled by. And the other time, back in New Mexico, when a fellow approached him with tears in his eyes and said, “I just lost my business and I was thinking about suicide. I just didn’t know where to turn. Then I heard about you and realized it’s not the end for me. It’s just time to rise to new challenges.”
Rick’s message seems to be getting through. Dozens of ramps have been built in towns that he has visited. Schools along the way have seized the chance to give courses in disability awareness, some even letting children see what it’s like to spend a day in a wheelchair. With all the attention has come a certain amount of adulation. “I treat it with a bit of cautious concern,” says Rick, “because I consider myself to be someone who’s pushing this huge boulder, moving along slowly. And if someone comes along and puts me up on top of the boulder, the danger is they will forget what it is I’m trying to do. I’d rather they encourage me to come back down, so I can continue pushing the boulder and encourage them to help push along with me.”
For the forseeable future, it looks as though at least one person will be down there matching Rick, when push comes to shove.
Amanda Reid has agreed to marry him in October.