Never Give Up On Your Dreams
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Oct 2003, p. 62-73
Hansen, Rick, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The speaker's own story, followed by comments under the following headings: Making a Difference: The Environment; Always in Motion; Making a Difference: Youth; Making a Difference: The Rick Hansen Man In Motion Foundation; Making a Difference: Today and Tomorrow; Making a Difference: The Power of the Dream
Date of Original
22 Oct 2003
Language of Item
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Empire Club of Canada
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Fairmont Royal York Hotel

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Full Text
Rick Hansen
Founder, President and CEO, Rick Hansen Man in Motion Foundation
Chairman: John C. Koopman
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Verity Craig, Associate, Carmichael Birrell & Co. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Mike Saevitzon, Grade 12 Student, North Toronto Collegiate Institute; Holly Noon, Grade 7 Student, representing the Bloorview MacMillan Children's Centre; The Reverend Dennis Dolloff, Rector, Church of our Saviour, Don Mills; Heather Reuber, Hons. BAS MPA CHE, Director of Operations, The Lyndhurst Centre, Toronto Rehab Institute; Jack Tomik, President, CanWest Global Communications; The Hon. William G. Davis, PC CC QC, Counsel, Torys LLP and Honorary Solicitor, The Empire Club of Canada; Doug Morris, President, Morris Glass Inc. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Steve Smylie, Director, Ontario Wheelchair Sports Association; Richard 1. Wade, Professor, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, Ryerson University; and Robert W. Chisholm, Vice-Chairman, Domestic Banking, Scotiabank.

Introduction by John Koopman

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and sadly perhaps man needs adversity to turn obstacles into opportunities. A little over 30 years ago Mr. Hansen ran into some adversity.

He was injured in a motor vehicle accident that left him, at the age of 15, without the use of his legs. Mr. Hansen did not ask for a lighter burden, but rather broader shoulders.

However, to paraphrase Henley's "Invictus": "In the fell clutch of circumstance Mr. Hansen neither winced nor cried aloud, under the bludgeoning of chance, his head is bloody but unbowed."

He became an elite wheelchair athlete winning 19 wheelchair marathons and three world championships.

Eighteen years ago, wanting to make a difference for others, he started wheeling around the world in the Man in Motion Tour. Two years and two months later, 40,000 kilometres later, 10,000,000 wheelchair strokes later, four robberies later, 126 flat tyres later, one crowd of 800,000 Chinese in Tianjin, China later, he finished--the only person, I believe, to have ever done so. This tour raised $26 million for spinal cord research.

Mr. Hansen's efforts did not end with the Man in Motion Tour. He has earlier this year kicked off what will hopefully become the annual Wheeis in Motion tour.

His efforts, directly and indirectly, have led to the raising of over $150 million for spinal cord research. This is not for himself.

Mr. Hansen has said: "I don't want people to think I'm supporting spinal cord research so that I can walk again. I made my peace a long time ago and I wouldn't trade my life for the use of my legs. It is not about walking. It took me some time to figure that out but I am here. I feel like I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet."

Nevertheless Mr. Hansen must sometimes have felt like the late Mother Theresa who was known to muse: "I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish God did not trust me so much."

Agnes DeMille exhorted us all to "dance with the body we have." Please join me in welcoming a great Canadian dancer, Mr. Rick Hansen, to the podium of the Empire Club of Canada.

Rick Hansen

Thanks very much ladies and gentlemen. It's an honour and a pleasure for me to be here speaking at the Empire Club. It truly is a prestigious group that I am joining and I appreciate it. Thank you for this opportunity.

Td like to say a special thank you to all of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to join with me to talk about an important topic: spinal cord injury.

The Story

As a youngster, growing up in rural British Columbia, I thought I had the whole world by the tail. I knew where I was going and how to get there. I was an all-star athlete. My whole life revolved around physical activity and the use of my legs. And then, one day when I was hitchhiking home from a fishing trip, I climbed into the back of a pickup truck with my buddy. The driver went around the corner and crashed his vehicle. The force of the crash propelled me to the ground and the vehicle rolled on top of me, pressing my back against the comer of a steel tool-box. My back was snapped like a twig.

It was pretty devastating when I awoke about a minute later trying to move and discovering my legs weren't working. I touched them, they wiggled like jelly, and they were numb. Pain and fear struck my fifteen-year-old heart as I lay there, contemplating my future for an hour, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. I spent four months in a hospital and three months in a rehabilitation centre. The acute care spinal cord unit didn't exist back then.

The next reality to contend with was my return home to a rural community like Williams Lake. At that time, there weren't any ramps and curb cuts; only stairs and obstacles. Faced with these challenges, I realized that the biggest obstacle was dealing with my own attitude about my limitations and myself. I constantly focused on what I couldn't do, instead of what I could do. Thanks to role models and friends, I was encouraged to keep going, to believe in myself, to set goals, to chase dreams, and to get involved in activities that I was most closely committed to and passionate about, like sport.

I recognized that the definition of an athlete doesn't depend on the use of one's legs in order to excel. I began to set athletic goals--little goals at first like participating in table tennis. Bigger ones like wheelchair volleyball quickly followed. I also played wheelchair basketball. Basketball was highly competitive with hundreds of countries around the world participating in amazing events. I met some truly world-class athletes. They inspired me to try harder and be the best I could be.

Over time, role models like Stan Strong, one of the first surviving people with spinal cord injury, came wheeling into my life with a big cheesy grin on his face. Feeling sorry for myself, I looked at him and said: "What are you smiling about? Don't you know that you have a disability?"

Stan replied: "Don't you realize Rick, that your biggest disability can often be how you view your circumstance? Isn't it time you started focusing on the things you can do? You are still an athlete. Go for it. Go as far as you can. Live life. Try to do the things you love to do. Take some risks."

Stan was injured in the 1930s and spent four years in a hospital. When I would complain about the degree of slope of a ramp, he would smile and say. "There's a ramp there, Rick, there's a ramp there. What are you talking about?" He was able to contribute to others in spite of his adversity. And he made me realize the value of contribution. I tried harder.

I went out and participated in the environment as well. I refitted a kayak so I could open up the cockpit, put on a seatbelt with ripcord, paddle out, and enjoy myself. l recognized that the wheelchair could be left behind, from time to time, and I could be free to just go for it.

By adjusting my attitude, I was able to focus on excellence in sport in wheelchair track and marathoning. I pursued it seven days a week, four and five hours a day working on my body, my mind, and my equipment. This was necessary to achieve excellence.

One day while training and testing a new wheelchair, I crashed dislocating my shoulder and was assigned to the most competent physiotherapist to treat my injury. It turned out to be Amanda and after the Man In Motion World Tour, she became my wife. I can tell you, it was the best injury that I have ever had because she also treated my heart. It's amazing when sometimes adversity turns into an incredible celebration of a new relationship and of love.

Amanda helped me recover from that injury, and I was able to become a world marathon champion again, regaining my title by a hundredth of a second in the home stretch.

If it weren't for Amanda, my coach Tim, the generous support of people in hospitals and rehab centres, paraplegic associations, wheelchair sport associations, and the role models that challenged me, there is no way I would have been where I was in my life after this devastating injury.

When you feel and receive goodwill, you can't help but be motivated to give back. That's why I decided to wheel around the world: to change attitudes, to challenge people to think about the potential inside everyone with a disability if barriers were removed; barriers that didn't have to be there--physical or attitudinal.

Starting a journey like that wasn't easy. When we left Oakridge Mall, we went through a crowd of people and proceeded underneath an overpass. You can see in this picture (gestures at the screen) I have just gone into the tunnel. The guys following behind in the motor home have all my spare wheelchair equipment in a wooden crate strapped on the roof. As they passed through, they hit an over-height warning bar that was hanging down on chains. They stopped the motor home just as they should. And what did they do next? They sent one of the crewmembers up to lift the warning bar so the motor home could pass through. I'll show you what happened next as it was captured on national television. As the crewmember lifted the bar up, he said: "Ok. No problem. We've overcome that obstacle."

The motor home kept going. `Crash!' (screen: the wooden crate hits the top of the tunnel, splits open, and spills wheelchair equipment onto the road) They hit the tunnel the bar was warning them about. You can imagine the confidence of those 200 well-wishers at that moment. This guy is wheeling around the world in a wheelchair? He can't even get out of a parking lot!

But isn't that the way big dreams happen? All of us think that we've got it together. We do our best, but things come out of the blue that we can't anticipate and we make mistakes. We just pick ourselves up again and we keep going. When we went around the world, people from 34 countries on four continents came out to give of themselves and encourage our journey. They transcended political, cultural, ethnic, and religious beliefs to help one person and his team make a difference.

Their support inspired me and reinstilled my faith in humanity in a global community where at times we became overwhelmed with the things that challenged us. I have the eternal belief that anything is possible, that there is great goodness in this world, and that together we can make a difference.

Coming home those last few days was absolutely fantastic. In Nathan Phillips Square 10,000 people came out. Back in British Columbia the streets were lined with hundreds of thousands of people. There were 50,000 people at BC Place welcoming me home at the finish line.

It was amazing! After two years, two months and two days, and 40,000 kilometres of wheeling, I pushed through the little banner symbolizing 40,000 kilometres of the journey and its completion.

As I went through the banner, l looked behind me and I saw a sign that read: "Welcome Home Rick." I looked again, and noticed that it also read: "The end is Just the Beginning." I was thinking: "What kind of idiot marketer would put that up? Doesn't he realize that I'm finished? That this is it?" Of course, after I rested and recovered, I realized indeed that person was very wise because he or she knew life is a journey, not a destination. We take our life experiences with us and move them forward. We set new goals, chase new dreams, and we never know where our life is going to lead. All we know is that we are moving forward.

At the end of the tour, Amanda and I began our relationship. We were married in the fall and started our own family. Our three incredible daughters--Emma, Alana, and Rebecca--challenge me everyday to understand the importance of life: to be part of a family, to give love and to receive it.

When you are feeling sometimes that you are limiting yourself, as we sometimes often do, if you are open enough you can be challenged by your daughters like I am.

One particular day, I was feeling sorry for myself as they returned from skiing, telling me about their ski lessons. I was thinking: "Aw, man ...I wish I could be there." Then, my oldest daughter said: "Dad, why don't you just come with us?" I said, "Yeah, okay, lets go." So I went out and started learning to ski. It was fantastic. Oh sure, I crashed sometimes and ate a lot of snow, but I kept trying. In the end, the highlight of the day for me was actually skiing down the slope with my wife and three daughters. It was just spectacular: living life and pushing the envelope.

Making a Difference: The Environment

Getting out there and doing something with the environment and working with youth and mobilizing our efforts through our foundation towards improved quality of life for people with spinal cord injury are also important to me.

Fishing has always been a passion of mine. It had been a part of my life before my accident and became a critical part of my rehabilitation afterward. Just look at these incredible fish, (gestures to screen), the Fraser River white sturgeon. They have been brought to the brink of extinction in spite of outliving the dinosaur and living for 65 million years. I enjoy volunteering my time with a team of dedicated volunteers with the Fraser River Conservation Society catching, tagging, and releasing these fish to learn as much as possible about them to protect them. I hope they will be around for another 65 million years.

Always in Motion

Physical fitness remains a key part of my life. Using technology to continue to expand my range, I use recumbent all-terrain, multi-speed tricycles (gestures at screen) to ride as fast as my daughters can on their bicycles. I wish I had had that tricycle on the tour; I would have done it in one year instead of two! It is truly fantastic to be able to join my daughters in activities we enjoy together.

Making a Difference: Youth

Young people are the next generation of leaders in Canada and I enjoy the opportunity to engage with them and encourage them to believe in themselves and make a difference in this country. This is what makes this country strong and proud--Canadians believing in themselves and making a difference.

Making a Difference: The Rick Hansen Man In Motion Foundation

After the tour was over, we stayed focused on keeping our foundation going: thinking about ways we could leverage the impact. To date, we have made an impact of over $148 million. In spite of that achievement, it really is just a grain of sand in a desert of need. What we have to do is set the bar even higher and try harder.

We have been able to recognize that this is a field that has made incredible strides since Stan Strong was injured in 1938 and I was injured in 1973. Mike Harcourt, as you know the former premier of the province of British Columbia, was injured last fall. He had a spinal cord injury at a cervical level and he could have been a quadriplegic permanently. But thanks to a little luck and also some, incredible intervention--first line paramedic response; attending physician administering methylprednisolone, a drug therapy meant to promote circulation and reduce swelling in the spinal cord; the incredible acute care spinal cord unit support; a surgeon who had the best imaging technology to determine the appropriate route of intervention to minimize paralysis; and great rehabilitation--he got up.

Four months later, Mike walked into my office as a result of that rehabilitation and incredible scientific advances. It's amazing to see the possibilities of a "Mike Harcourt." Mike Harcourt is a gold standard, but in 15 years he is going to be "the standard." We are going to see more and more people walk away because of research and clinical care.

In the community people with spinal cord injury are living a better life. They are actually out and engaged. People like Jeff Adams, incredible athletes, who are just going for it and are world champions. People who make us proud. People with whom you don't see the disability; you only see the ability. These are the kinds of new paradigms in our world that turn this cause from being a charity to a group of people who have great value in society. A cause that challenges people to try harder, not complain about adversity, and dig deeper every day.

Making a Difference: Today and Tomorrow

As we move forward over the next 10 years, we will implement new programs that will accelerate spinal cord injury research. The development of an international spinal cord research centre in Vancouver will be the hub of a national translational centre that links over 15 institutions across this country and takes discoveries into clinical trials. We are actually bringing together a national network of researchers, service providers, and people with spinal cord injury to collaborate and accelerate pace. Until now, spinal cord injury is characterized as being an issue on the comer of everyone's desk--a mile wide and an inch deep. We are changing that thanks to a contribution from the federal government. Its contribution has enabled us to create a national spinal cord injury network The continuum of care in spinal cord injury is fragmented. We must bring people together in order to work more effectively and unleash the creativity that is there.

The network we are establishing allows us to put pillars of service, research, and people with spinal cord injury into an integrated form. It allows us to think about key objectives. It allows us to create an army of people dedicated towards new ways of doing business. By looking at planning and strategic processes, we will inspire people to think about ideas that they never thought possible before, turn those ideas into reality and bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the field of spinal cord injury.

Through this network, people with spinal cord injuries can become the champions, instead of the benevolent recipients of the well-intended goodwill. These champions are ambassadors and they have the greatest ability and opportunity to contribute to this country and around the world. We will work with people who have a spinal cord injury like Christopher Reeve--people who have had a spinal cord injury but believe that one day a cure is possible.

Recently, we launched our Wheels in Motion Day, mobilizing Canadians across this country to get on wheels for spinal cord injury. Thanks to our presenting partner, Scotiabank, and to so many people in this room and in communities across Canada, we raised over $600,000 in our first year and in five years we will be raising $5 million a year for spinal cord injury. Half of the money will support local community quality-of-life priority areas and half will go to national research to advance discoveries ultimately leading to a cure.

With Wheels rolling out everywhere in the country, we are going to see so many people engaged. It will become an annual event to ensure that no one will have to wheel around the world again to draw attention to spinal cord injury. So put Sunday, June 13, 2004 in your calendars and participate in the second annual Wheels in Motion Day. It is only one small tip of a much bigger program. Think of somebody who can be part of this journey, who can come out and make a difference to a cause that has come a long way.

Making a Difference: The Power of the Dream

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I believe in the next century you are going to see the wheelchair as something in a museum. Advances in new propulsion technology and new biomedical advances will enable people to leave the wheelchair behind and walk. In this next century, someone with a spinal cord injury will be a world-class athlete receiving a full medal in an inclusive event. I believe someone who Jeff inspired will be recognized as a true athlete at the Olympic Games, not in a special set of games.

We will see someone with spinal cord injury summit Mount Everest; get to the top to show there are no barriers too big that can't be climbed. We'll see someone with a spinal cord injury go into space and conduct zero gravity research in the space station as a symbol that there are no barriers. The wheelchair will no longer be required. A person with a spinal cord injury is an equal in a weightless environment and their journey will reach hundreds of millions of people back on earth, raising awareness and funds for spinal cord injury.

But it all truly boils down to each and everyone of us and to our future. To young people like Holly (gestures to Holly Noon, a 12-year-old representing Bloorview

MacMillan Village at the head table) who really has an incredible attitude in spite of her challenge. People who believe you are only a victim if you choose to be.

In spite of things that happen to us, we can go forward, we can focus on our ability, we can try harder, we can dig deeper, and we will never forget the power of the dream.

Every time we reach an obstacle, we believe with all our heart that somehow, some way there is a way over it, under it, around it, or through it, but somehow there is a way. We just need to find the key, we control the key.

Thanks a lot everybody. Never give up on your dreams. Keep going.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Doug Morris, President, Morris Glass Inc. and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Never Give Up On Your Dreams

The speaker's own story, followed by comments under the following headings: Making a Difference: The Environment; Always in Motion; Making a Difference: Youth; Making a Difference: The Rick Hansen Man In Motion Foundation; Making a Difference: Today and Tomorrow; Making a Difference: The Power of the Dream