Happy New Year!
I hope all of you had a fantastic holiday season and are excited as I am about what 2012 will bring. The 25th Anniversary Relay reached a milestone in December when it hit the half-way mark in Thunder Bay, Ontario. It’s hard to believe it has travelled 7,083 km and honoured 3,818 Medal-Bearers in 372 communities in just four months. When I think back to my original journey, the team and I had just celebrated our second Christmas on the road when we hit our half-way mark crossing Canada. This was of particular significance to me, because as a rule, I mentally split every wheeling challenge down the middle. I knew that once I’d done a half, I could tell myself I could do it again. I was now, just like the 25th Anniversary Relay, in the home stretch back to Vancouver.
Back in 1986, a lot had happened between the Man In Motion World Tour leaving Nova Scotia and our Christmas break in Northern Ontario. First of all, Amanda and I were engaged in Shediac, New Brunswick. We wanted to keep it quiet until we told our families, but when we said goodbye to the front desk clerk at the Neptune Motel where we were staying, we casually mentioned that we would forever remember the place as I proposed to Amanda the previous night. Unbeknownst to us, someone who worked for a radio station overheard and less than 24 hours later, it was in the media. We quickly called up our parents in BC but they had already heard on the radio. It wasn’t that it was a secret but we thought with so much attention already on the Tour, no one would care. I guess everyone loves a love story!
When we reached Ottawa, there was a special ceremony outside Parliament Hill where Prime Minister Brian Mulroney presented me with a cheque for $1 million. I was speechless. The cheque meant more than money. It meant that the Prime Minister and the Canadian government were committed to the Man In Motion project and what it stood for. Later that night we were the guests of honour at a fundraising “roast” of Transport Minister John Crosbie. During intermission I was able to have a quiet meeting with Prime Minister Mulroney and brought up some issues affecting people with disabilities in Canada. I think he was surprised I brought business into this casual moment but I had to take advantage of the doors being opened to me. There might never be another opportunity like it and the Tour was all about creating awareness.
The Tour continued through Ontario and we were like a snowball rolling downhill, picking up people and media with every roll. In villages, towns and cities we drew crowds beyond our wildest expectations. There must have been 100,000 people lining the streets in Toronto and another 10,000 at the reception in Nathan Phillips Square. We only had one day of rest in Toronto and I knew the toughest challenge still lay ahead: northern Ontario and the prairies in the dead of winter.
We had prepared as much as we could with specially designed clothing and a winter chair, ironically designed by a friend from Florida. We even had a piece of electronic equipment hooked into sensors on my legs that would warn me if their temperature fell to a dangerous level. Otherwise, with no feeling in my legs, they could easily freeze without me knowing and amputation would be in my future. We had all of this scientific help but we didn’t have a cure for the flu, and by Sudbury, we took a three-day break so I could recover from a horrific cough, fever and sore throat. The mayors of Sudbury and the surrounding municipalities had created Mayors in Motion, where they would each spend one full working day in a wheelchair to gain a better understanding of access. Naturally, there were reporters and cameras all around and when one of the mayors tried to use the public bathroom, he crashed his chair through the door. There was no wheelchair-size cubicle; he could get the chair in – but he couldn’t turn it, or even close the door. There was a lot of crashing and smashing and eventually he got out, but he still hadn’t gone to the bathroom.
I was feeling better so we resumed our wheel from Sudbury, right into a white-out blizzard. The winds were in my face and the snow was falling so thickly, it took more than 12 hours to do our 80 km. At one point the Ontario Provincial Police diverted us from the main highway as a safety precaution, which made things ever more difficult. With more clinging snow and the push rims iced up, I could barely get a grip. My hands were so cold they began to spasm. But we survived. I felt like Mother Nature had thrown her best shot and we won.
We celebrated the holidays in Wawa with a real Christmas tree, all kinds of presents from people we knew and people we didn’t, and a fabulous dinner cooked by Amanda and Nancy. I was nursing an infection so the rest was a welcome respite. On New Year’s Eve, Amanda and I made a toast to 1986, counting our blessings and memories, knowing we would be in our own home and starting our life together at the same time next year.
On our way out of Ontario, we stopped at the Terry Fox Memorial in Thunder Bay so I could have a few moments to honour my friend. I had hoped for some quiet reflection but the media got wind of it and people turned out by the hundreds, snapping photos and pressing against the restraining rope. I tried to keep my emotions in check in front of all of those people and TV cameras so I only stayed long enough to look at the statue and read the inscription. I sent Terry a silent message and believed that wherever he was up there, he’d hear it.
We officially entered Western Canada with the crossing into Manitoba. Home was still 2,500 km away and it was freezing cold outside but I couldn’t stop smiling at the thought of it. Now, 25 years later, as the Rick Hansen Relay makes that same journey into Manitoba, I feel the same sense of joy and can’t wait to celebrate Difference Makers in Canada’s western provinces. Stay tuned…