When Rick Hansen wheeled out of Oakridge shopping centre on March 21, 1985 to begin his 40,000km Man In Motion round-the-world circumnavigation by wheelchair, Province columnist Jim Taylor was struck by a seemingly insignificant moment. It was a moment he claimed he’d never forget.
“As Hansen headed for the open doorway of the reception hall, the wheels of his chair hit the aluminum strip across the floor that stops the door when it shuts. The chair stopped dead,” Taylor wrote. “Without a pause, Rick Hansen reversed the chair half a roll, threw it forward again, and rolled out to challenge the world.”
Imagine. Most people don’t think twice about opening and walking through a door dozens of times daily, never seeing it as one of the innumerable challenges faced by individuals with a disability every single day.
And this was why the man who had already overcome so many imposing obstacles to become a world-class wheelchair marathoner intended to wheel around the globe to raise awareness for wheelchair activities and money for spinal cord research. To conquer the steep hills, the long distances, the extreme climates, heck, even the Great Wall of China, so that he could say to all the blind naysayers, “Anything is possible.”
Hansen’s induction into the Athlete category of the BC Sports Hall of Fame marks only the second time in the Hall’s history that an individual athlete has been inducted twice. Like wheelchair athletics pioneer Eugene Reimer, Hansen was also awarded the WAC Bennett Award previously.
To be accepted on par with BC’s greatest athletes is a vindication of sorts a long time coming.
“People look at wheelchair sports,” Hansen remarked in 1985, “and they say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? Aren’t they brave.’ But they don’t look at us as athletes who work and train just as hard as any others. We’re “special”. Well, we’re not. We’re athletes, some world class in events every bit as tough as any you could name.”
“Athletes,” Hansen repeats. “Not special athletes. Just athletes.”
But make no mistake, Hansen was more than just another athlete.
While remembered most for his amazing tour, which raised $26 million and still holds the Guinness world record for longest wheelchair marathon, most forget his fine resume of international athletic achievements prior to this.
Between 1979 and 1984, Hansen won 19 international wheelchair marathons including the 1984 World Wheelchair Championships and the 1982 Boston Marathon, where he was the unofficial first place finisher. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Hansen was a finalist in the 1500m wheelchair exhibition and accumulated 16 international medals in various wheelchair athletic events over a five-year period. He also competed nationally and provincially in wheelchair basketball, racquetball, tennis, and volleyball.
In 1982, with Wayne Gretzky he shared the Lou Marsh Trophy for outstanding Canadian athlete of the year. In 2000, BC Wheelchair Sports named Hansen its male athlete of the century. Most recently, in 2006, Hansen was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. All as an athlete.
Hansen famously said that one day he hoped wheelchairs would be something you’d see only in a museum. For over three decades since the completion of Hansen’s world odyssey, one of the wheelchairs he used on the tour remained on display in his own gallery at the BC Sports Hall of Fame until it was moved to the Canadian Museum of History in 2020.
Visitors to his gallery marveled that a man could push himself around the world in this rickety, beat-up contraption that vaguely resembled the light, streamlined models of today. Maybe only a few wheelchairs have found their way into museums, but because of the athletic feats of Rick Hansen some of society’s antiquated views about athletes with a disability surely have.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
Hansen is also inducted in the UBC Sports Hall of Fame. For his UBC biography, please visit www.ubcsportshalloffame.com