Listen to my interview with Rick Hansen here: https://pdcn.co/e/traffic.libsyn.com/secure/canadahehx/Rick_Hansen.mp3
During the 1980s, two Canadians helped put Canada on the map when it came to humanitarian efforts. The first was Terry Fox, whose Marathon of Hope inspired the nation in 1980. The second, was a man who knew Fox and was friends with him, Rick Hansen.
Today, I am looking at the monumental trip Hansen made around the world in a wheelchair, to help raise awareness about disabilities, and to raise money for spinal cord research.
As this episode is about the Man in Motion Tour, I will only be touching briefly on Hansen before and after the tour.
Hansen was the oldest of four children, born on Aug. 26, 1957, in Port Alberni, British Columbia. His father, Marvin, worked as a telecommunications worker for BC Tel, and the family would live in Fort St. John, Abbotsford, and Williams Lake, where Rick would grow up.
Throughout his youth, Hansen was highly active in sports, playing volleyball, basketball, softball, and baseball. During his spare time away from sports and schools, he would spend his time outdoors and fishing with his father and grandfather. As an athlete, Hansen received Athlete-of-the-Year honours at his high school in 1973 when he was 15.
Hansen’s entire life would change forever on June 27, 1973, when he was coming home from a week-long fishing trip with his friend Don Alder. The two friends decided to hitchhike home early instead of waiting for Alder’s father to pick them up. This decision would forever alter Hansen’s life. One driver picked Hansen and Alder up and they sat in the back of his pickup truck. What they did not realize was that the man had been drinking and he lost control of the vehicle, rolling his truck. While Alder was thrown clear, Hansen landed on a steel toolbox, damaging his spinal cord, and leaving him as a paraplegic.
For the next seven months, Hansen was in Vancouver for rehabilitation before he returned home to Williams Lake. Hansen’s father would renovate the basement of the home so that he could have his own room and bathroom, but the transition was not easy for Hansen in a town with little in the way of accessibility for someone in a wheelchair.
Hansen would say years later, quote:
“Wheelchair access was unheard of, and the smallest trip had to end with my being pushed or lifted. People thought my life was over. Worse yet, so did I.”
Over the next two years, Hansen was encouraged by his former coaches Bob Redford and Jack Burgar to continue to participate in sports, but as a coach. In 1975, he would meet Stan Stronge, a para-athlete who had helped organize the Canadian Wheelchair Sports and Recreation Association. Due to the encouragement of Stronge, Hansen would compete in table tennis at the Pacific Northwest Games for the Disabled in Seattle. He would come away from that competition with the gold medal.
Hansen then went to the University of British Columbia and upon his graduation, became the first person with a physical disability to earn a physical education degree from the university.
He would also continue to compete more and more in sports. He would play for the Vancouver Cable Cars, a dominant wheelchair basketball team that had won many national championships. With the team, Hansen won several championships. One man who joined Hansen on the team, winning national championships in 1978 and 1979, was Terry Fox.
From 1977 to 1983, Hansen also played with the Canadian National Wheelchair Basketball Team. From 1979 to 1984, he competed in wheelchair racing, including at the Paralympic Games and in 19 International Wheelchair Marathons. During that time, he won three world championships in wheelchair racing. At the Pan-American Wheelchair Games in 1982, Hansen won nine gold medals. At the 1980 and 1984 Paralympic Games, Hansen would win three gold medals, two silver and a bronze.
In 1979, 1980 and 1982, he was Canada’s Disabled Athlete of the Year. In 1983, he shared the Lou Marsh Trophy for Canadian Outstanding Athlete of the Year, along with Wayne Gretzky.
When it came to sports, Hansen was one of the most dominant athletes in Canadian history and that brings us to 1985 and the Man in Motion Tour.
Inspired by Terry Fox and the Marathon of Hope, Hansen made the decision to have his own journey, but his would take him around the world.
Assembling a team around him and securing the equipment and he planned out his journey. One person who would join him would be Don Alder, his childhood friend who was there when Hansen was first paralyzed. This included developing two prototype chairs to determine the right frame and fit for Hansen, along with three chairs that would be used on the tour itself. Each of the wheelchairs were custom made, and depending on the weather conditions and terrain, different wheels and push rims would be made.
One important item that would go on the tour with Hansen was a small statue of Terry Fox, given to Hansen by Betty and Rolly Fox.
To get the tour off the ground, the Hansen and his crew had to fundraise upwards of $887,000, with a minimum budget of $300,000. In December of 1984, Hansen would state, quote:
“The $887,000 price tag is well worth it, if you consider the full cost of rehabilitating a paralyzed person is $1 million.”
In November 1984, in another article, Hansen would state, quote:
“People are still having trouble visualizing someone wheeling across the street much less the world.”
On March 21, 1985, Hansen began his journey, waving to a crowd at Oakridge Mall in Vancouver, where he would begin his journey.
At first, the tour was more local news than anything. The Vancouver Province would put the start of the journey on its third page. Of course, when Hansen returned to Vancouver, not only was Hansen on the front page and pages four and five, but the paper created an entire pullout section to welcome him back home.
On hand for the kick off to the tour was Premier Bill Bennett, and the parents of Terry Fox.
Hansen would tell the 300 spectators who gathered for the kick-off, stating quote:
Betty Fox would say at the event, quote:
“Nobody knows better than we do what the public support means. Without that, Terry’s dream wouldn’t have become a reality.”
Bennett then presented Hansen with the first new BC licence plate that said Expo 86 on them. He would then state quote:
“All of B.C. is behind you in taking your message to the world.”
The tour would get off to a rough start, minutes after Hansen left Oakridge Mall. A large box was nailed to the top of the motorhome, and it hit the top of an exit tunnel outside the mall, crashing and destroying Hansen’s extra wheelchair.
Rather than going across Canada, Hansen made the decision to save Canada for last.
Through the Spring of 1985, Hansen journeyed down the west coast of the United States, then turned east going through New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and into Florida. This leg of the journey proves to be quick, with Hansen averaging 85 kilometres per day, raising $1 mile per kilometre on average, which was far below what was hoped.
As Hansen journeyed through the western and southern United States, he would get a helping hand from David Foster and John Parr. The two men composed St. Elmo’s Fire, a song that would become a hit worldwide and help bring more awareness for Hansen and his journey.
On June 24, after 7,563 kilometres, Hansen arrived in Miami, Florida, completing the first part of the journey.
On June 28, 1985, a telethon was organized in support of the tour. Among the people who would be interviewed for the telethon were David Foster and Wayne Gretzky. Bob Redford, Hansen’s coach in Williams Lake, would also take part in the telethon. The telethon proved to be a massive success, raising $40,000 in the evening, with another $80,000 raised over the course of eight days.
That same day, Hansen would reflect on his tour through the United States, which had raised only $10,000 during that stretch. Hansen would say quote:
“Generally, in the US things have gone pretty smoothly logistically but in terms of raising funds the streets have not exactly been lined with people.”
Of course, since leaving Vancouver, the tour had raised over $350,000 total.
Before leaving the United States, Hansen would take a quick trip to Ottawa for a reception at Parliament Hill where he met with Speaker of the House John Bosley, several MPs and former Prime Minister John Turner. It was also announced that a Tri-Party House of Commons committee was being formed to help raise money in Canada for the tour.
Hansen and his team would journey across the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in Europe. Through the summer, Hansen journeyed through Ireland, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, West Germany, into Denmark, Scandinavia and into the Soviet Union.
When Hansen arrived in London, he and his team soon realized they had given police the wrong meeting place and Hansen was going into the core of the city, in rush hour, without an escort. To get the police to their location, they parked illegally in Hyde Park. When the police arrived and the matter was explained, the Queen’s motorcycle escort was sent in and they blocked traffic on London Bridge, in rush hour, so that Hansen could make it across.
On July 20, 1985, Hansen left England and took a ferry to France, where he would begin his tour of continental Europe. Hansen would say quote:
“It’s been long, hard going. We’ve had difficult weather conditions and a lot of obstacles to overcome but we’ve had very, very positive reactions everywhere we’ve been.”
On Aug. 26, 1985, after 11,285 kilometres, Hansen celebrated his 28th birthday in Finland. During his birthday, he received a 45-metre-long birthday card, sent from Vancouver 16 hours prior to his birthday. The card contained 2,500 signatures from people in the city. Premier Bennett also sent a telegram to Hansen to wish him happy birthday.
The trip into the Soviet Union was brief for Hansen, with a journey into Moscow. The trip into Moscow almost didn’t happen when Hansen’s visa was turned down but then hours before the scheduled flight to the Soviet capital, it was approved but it would result in only a brief visit, rather than wheeling through the Soviet Union. Only Hansen and his physiotherapist would be allowed in for the trip.
From this point, the Autumn 1985 leg of the journey would begin, with Hansen traveling through the rest of Europe. From Poland he would go into the Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, France again, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bahrain, and Jordan.
Back in Canada, interest was fast growing in the Man in Motion Tour and Canadians of all ages were doing what they could to raise money. In Surrey, Andrea Dadson, an 11-year-old girl with Spinal Bifida, would raise money with a swim-a-thon. A school with only 200 students would raise $1,000 during a 15-kilometre walkathon for the tour. Vancouver City Council also voted to grant $15,000 to the Man in Motion Tour. Alderman Bruce Yorke would say quote:
One car company in Calgary create a contest that would raise money for the Man in Motion Tour through donations towards entries to win a new car.
In February 1987, McDonald’s Restaurants raised $12,556 during Rick Hansen Day thanks to $9,700 raised from selling Big Macs, $2,000 cash contributions and $800 from the sale of Rick Hansen buttons.
A group of Chilliwack bands and singers would host a Rick Hansen benefit concert, called a Rainbow Jam, to raise money for the tour. The Jam would raise $,1700 for the tour.
It was in this leg of the journey that one of the biggest moments, prior to his arrival in Canada, would occur. On Nov. 25, 1985, Hansen were granted an audience with Pope John Paul II. The Pope would give Hansen and his team his blessing for a safe journey. By this point, $500,000 had been raised by the Tour.
It was also on this leg of the journey that he would cross over the Swiss Alps, the highest summit of the journey, at 5,577 feet. Thankfully, at the summit of the Swiss Alps, he missed a snowfall.
The trip in the Middle East is relatively short before Hansen and his team fly to New Zealand for the next part of their journey.
Through the winter of 1986, Hansen journeys through New Zealand and Australia. Upon their arrival of Melbourne, Hansen has journeyed 20,036 kilometres and reached the halfway point of his journey.
The Australian portion of the journey, and the first year of his odyssey, will end at Bundaberg, Australia. Over the course of the first year, Hansen and his team will have gone through 63 flat tires and 47 pairs of gloves. There were also 7,180,800 wheelchair strokes, and unfortunately, the Hansen and his team were robbed four times.
Through the spring of 1986, Hansen journeyed through China, Korea, and Japan.
In China, one of the most famous images of the Man in Motion Tour would be taken, when Hansen wheeled along the Great Wall of China. Tackling grades of 60 degrees in some cases, Hansen was able to complete wheeling up the landmark. At the top, he was greeted by supporters, the media, and tourists.
Hansen would say of the moment, quote:
“Every stroke of the way for the past year, I’ve been dreaming of this. The wall is special and very symbolic of the whole project.”
As Hansen journeyed through China, he would be greeted by growing crowds of thousands of people, who gave him flowers and shook his hand, while also donating money.
Once the Asia leg of the journey was complete, Hansen flew back to North America and landed in Florida, where he journeyed up the east coast of the United States, traveling through all the states along the eastern seaboard, before finally arriving back in Canada at Cape Spear, the most easterly point in North America. Between when he left British Columbia and arrived in Newfoundland, Hansen had been away 17 months and travelled through 33 countries. Now he would begin the biggest part of his journey, the trip across Canada. It would also be the first time that he would truly face snow, having escaped it mostly through the previous part of the tour. For the trip through Canada in the winter, a wheelchair manufacturer in Florida helped to build a special winter wheelchair. It would be equipped with BMX-style bicycle tires, a series of bicycle chains and due to the need for extra clothing during the cold months, the wheelchair was widened. An insulating suit was also made to ensure that Hansen’s skin below the waist did not fall become too cold, creating a risk of frostbite. Within his neoprene suit, there were 16 sensors that monitored his skin temperature on his lower limbs. If his skin temperature fell below a safe level, the sensors would warm that area of his skin. If the temperature dropped too low, a horn and warning light would go off on the back of the wheelchair to alert his crew.
Hansen would say quote:
“I’ve been through a few wars. My arms are still sore, but I feel really excited.”
A total of 300 people would greet him at the community, and John Crosbie, the MP for the area, stated quote:
“I consider him a Canadian hero, a man of super human qualities and doer of great deeds.”
Through the autumn of 1986, Hansen travelled through Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and into Ontario.
On Oct. 24, he would travel from Hull, Quebec into Ottawa.
Upon arriving, he would tell the crowd, quote:
“People have shown they are not insensitive to the needs of disabled people. They’ve taken the challenge to better understand them and their potential.”
While in Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would drop a cheque for $1 million in the donation bucket, courtesy of the Government of Canada. Along with that cheque, $180,000 was donated to Hansen while in the Capital Region. A $150-a-plate benefit dinner would also raise a large amount of money for him.
Hansen would say quote:
“Today has been a very special day for the Man-in-Motion Tour. I think by now we all know it’s been a million-dollar day.”
By the end of the day, $2.4 million had been raised total for the tour since he left Vancouver in March of 1985.
Hansen would then journey through Ontario, coming to Thunder Bay to where his close friend Fox had been forced to end his Marathon of Hope six years previous when his cancer returned.
With winter setting in, Hansen wheeled across the Canadian Prairies from Manitoba to Alberta. In Manitoba, Hansen would have to take a few days off due to developing the flu and congestion in his lungs.
In Alberta, Premier Don Getty promised that his government would match all donations made to the tour in the province. That would result in an additional $2.45 million going into the donation fund.
Overall, the weather through the winter would be kind to Hansen through Canada but as he approached through Alberta and into British Columbia, it began to get worse.
Finally, on March 19, 1987, after journeying through the cold winter on the prairies, Hansen crossed into his home province of British Columbia.
Greeted at the border by Premier Bill Vander Zalm, Hansen would say, quote:
“Vancouver is a reality. British Columbia is going to be one of the most challenging parts of the journey and one of the most rewarding.”
This was not a quick journey through the province. Hansen would hit several communities, including his hometown of Williams Lake. Through the province, he would travel 3,218 kilometres.
On April 2, 1987, he arrived in Williams Lake, where he rested. He then left and travelled over the Rogers Pass and began the descent down into Vancouver. Premier Bill Vander Zalm promised that the British Columbia government would match donations from its citizens, which brought in $5.45 million in total.
On May 22, 1987, the final day of the tour came. Hansen and his team crossed the Port Mann Bridge and were greeted by thousands of people along the streets as he journeyed back to Oakridge Mall. Finally, the tour was over, and Hansen had raised $26.7 million for spinal cord research.
Hansen would say quote:
“I’ve looked at a lot of exhaust pipes and I’ve seen a lot of roads. I feel like Rip Van Winkle coming back after a two-year sleep. The premier’s changed, Expo has come and gone, there are new buildings everywhere, my brother and his wife had a baby.”
As he wheeled through the finishing-line tape at Oakridge, Hansen would say, quote:
“You see, dreams do come true.”
Looking back at the start of his journey, he stated, quote:
“I was afraid, but I wasn’t afraid of failing. And that philosophy has allowed me to complete the tour and overcome the obstacles we’ve faced. Some of the best dreams are killed in the dream stage because people are afraid.”
On May 23, Hansen went to a celebration in his honour at BC Place Stadium, where 50,000 people cheered him.
Hansen would say later, quote:
“It was a warm and wonderful celebration, a meaningful recognition of and commitment to, people with disabilities in our province and our country.”
Later in 1987, inspired by Hansen, the City of North Vancouver doubled the number of wheelchair ramps in the community.
Following the tour, he would establish the Hansen Foundation, which has operated for the past 33 years, raising $200 million for spinal cord injury-related programs.
Hansen has been honoured extensively across Canada. In 1986, he was Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year as voted by the Canadian Press. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1987, the Order of British Columbia in 1990. He was inducted into the Terry Fox Hall of Fame in 1993, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 and Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2007. In addition, he has received 14 honorary degrees, and four public schools, one in British Columbia and three in Ontario, are named for him.
During the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, he carried the Olympic flame in to light the cauldron at BC Place Stadium, the same place where he was cheered by 50,000 people 23 years earlier.
Today, his wheelchair and other items of the Man in Motion Tour are preserved in the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. Roughly 1,700 artifacts from the tour are also on display at the Canadian Museum of History.
Perhaps the lasting impact for Hansen of that tour wasn’t the money he raised though. His physiotherapist during the tour was Amanda Reid and the two would marry in 1987 and together they have three daughters.
Information from RickHansen.com, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, CBC, Canadian Museum of History, The Vancouver Sun, Calgary Herald, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, The Ottawa Citizen,