William Tan, a 59-year-old doctor with paraplegia who survived stage IV leukemia, has set his sights on ending his wheelchair-racing career at the Rio Paralympics.
Dr. Tan was born into poverty as the son of a street vendor in Singapore and lost the use of his legs to polio at the age of two.
“It was a very, very difficult time of my childhood,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2007. “My fellow classmates were not very accepting. They called me names, they bullied me.”
After being expelled from the kindergarten, he resolved to prove his bullies wrong by working hard at his local primary school.
“I wanted to show it to them and prove it to them I am good academically,” he said. “That was my way of fighting back.”
He quickly reached the top of his class and went on to earn a degree in medicine from Newcastle University.
After being introduced to wheelchair athletics at age 15, Dr. Tan dedicated himself to racing. He went on to represent Singapore at the 1988 Paralympics in Seoul and then became inspired to use his athletic abilities to raise money for those in need.
Since then, he has set six world wheelchair marathon records and helped to raise more than $18 million for charities around the world.
In 2009, after decades spent as a neuroscientist and physician, most recently at Singapore’s National Cancer Center, Dr. Tan was diagnosed with stage IV Leukemia.
“It was very hard for me to accept the news that I had stage four leukemia, because I thought I’d gone through life in a very tough way – childhood disability, going through school,” he told ABC last week. “It was devastating because everything just seems to fall apart. There were so many things I wanted to do with my life, and then there’s bad news.”
Dr. Tan was told he likely had just 12 months to live but in characteristic fashion, he remained undaunted. After six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Dr. Tan’s cancer went into remission.
He celebrated reaching seven years of remission in 2016 by competing in the Boston Marathon. Now, he’s training to compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
“It was [so] liberating,” he said of going into remission. “I felt a sense of gratitude that I certainly want to make the best of this second chance at life.”