Rick Hansen, Canada’s Man in Motion, has made numerous visits to his hometown of Williams Lake, B.C., over the years, but this one will hold special significance.
This week, Hansen is set to participate in the Williams Lake Stampede Parade, but significantly, he will be revisiting for the first time the road where, 50 years ago, he was involved in the accident that would change his life.
Hansen was just 15 on June 27, 1973, when he and his friend Don Alder hitched a ride on the back of a pickup truck after a coastal fishing trip in Bella Coola, hoping to make it to the Williams Lake Stampede in the B.C. Interior city.
The driver lost control of the vehicle and collided with a tree, ejecting both Hansen and Alder. While Alder managed to walk away from the accident, Hansen didn’t.
“[The incident] broke my back and then damaged my spinal cord, and I was told in the hospital a few hours later that I’d never walk again,” Hansen, now 65, told host Shelley Joyce on CBC’s Daybreak Kamloops reflecting on that fateful day.
“I never knew anyone with those spinal cord injuries or disabilities, and so I thought my whole life was shattered along with my spine and all my hopes and dreams gone — I couldn’t imagine what life would be like.”
However, with the support of his family, friends and coaches, Hansen would emerge from this challenging period in his life even stronger.
Daybreak Kamloops8:37Rick Hansen returns to Williams Lake 50 years after the accident that changed his life
Man in Motion World Tour
Having been involved in various sports before the accident, his coaches encouraged him to resume physical activities while using a wheelchair. After completing high school, Hansen enrolled at the University of British Columbia, becoming the first person with disabilities to graduate from the school with a degree in physical education in 1976.
Three years later, Hansen began to earn a reputation as an athlete. From 1979 to 1984, he achieved remarkable success in wheelchair marathons, earning a total of 15 medals, including six at the Paralympic Games and nine at the Pan Am Games.
However, it was Hansen’s Man in Motion World Tour that made him a household name. Over the course of more than two years, he wheeled 40,000 kilometres through 34 countries, raising awareness of people with disabilities and encouraging the creation of more accessible and inclusive environments.
The journey started at Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall in March 1985 and ended at Vancouver’s B.C. Place Stadium in May 1987.
WATCH | Rick Hansen celebrates 25th anniversary of the conclusion of his Man in Motion World Tour:
Alder, who accompanied Hansen on his two-year global journey, recently released a song titled Won’t Be Home, inspired by Hansen’s once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“The song was buried for a long time, but when I came back to it, it just brought up a lot of emotions because there were a lot of tough miles on the road,” he told host Margaret Gallagher on CBC’s North by Northwest.
WATCH | Don Alder performs his new song, Won’t Be Home
Reflecting on their friendship, Alder shared fond memories of Hansen’s unwavering support.
“As a kid, I met him on the basketball court. I was the worst player on the team, and I think he wasn’t the best player, but he chose to be the captain of the team.
“He realized that you have to work on the weakest link of the team, so he spent a lot of time trying to get my skills better, versus many other people would ostracize you,” he said.
North by Northwest21:12Guitarist Don Alder on his album “Won’t Be Home”
‘I would never trade my life for the use of my legs’
Following the conclusion of his global tour, Hansen established the Man in Motion World Tour Society in 1988, later renamed the Rick Hansen Foundation, to support research projects focused on spinal cord injuries.
Hansen says he’s glad to see the positive changes in attitudes toward disabilities and accessibility that have taken place over the years. He says he’s seen the perception shift from negativity and pity to positivity and support.
When reflecting on the car accident that altered the course of his life half a century ago, Hansen says he feels a sense of gratitude.
“I would never trade my life for the use of my legs — I have had the greatest opportunity to work hard and to grow and to have a meaningful life that isn’t defined by my legs.”