Rick Hansen: On His Home, His Health and His Foundation
By Carol Crenna
In 1987, Rick Hansen captured the world’s attention, and their hearts, when he wheeled 40,000 kilometers, circling the world in bitter cold and grueling sun through 34 countries in four continents. He completed his Man in Motion World Tour through numbing pain because he had a purpose, and a passion that compels him to continue his mission even today.
He changed people’s perceptions about the potential of the disabled, and today, has raised over $200 million for spinal cord injury research, rehabilitation and prevention. His latest vision is also to see all cities become wheelchair accessible.
In 1973, Rick was an athletic 15-year-old who had a tragic automobile crash that left him a paraplegic. Yet Rick was determined to fulfill his dreams to become a world class athlete and went on to win 19 international wheelchair marathons and competed for Canada in the 1984 Paralympic Games before embarking on his tour. Here he talks to me about life at home.
CAROL: Your lifestyle must have changed considerably since your years as an athlete.
RICK HANSEN: There was a dramatic transition. In my athletic years, health was a requirement to reach my goals. I was eating well, managing stress, being very physically active. As I shifted commitments to professional and family life, time became a precious commodity and I didn’t have balance.
I was gaining weight and succumbing to flu that I never got as an athlete. I had to readjust my attitude to make health an investment unto itself and a lifetime commitment. My original health goals no longer served me because my needs changed.
I no longer needed intense workouts for heavy muscle mass, but I focused on core stability, posture and breathing. Now I need strength for getting in and out of my chair but not wheeling a marathon in under two hours.
CAROL: You were a world class medal winner in basketball, tennis and racketball. What pursuits do you enjoy now?
RICK HANSEN: Since I like to spend as much time as possible with my wife and three daughters, I now stay in shape with a personal trainer, swimming, a hand tricycle and crutch walking rather than those types of sports.
CAROL: Has your diet changed?
RICK HANSEN: When I was wheeling around the world, it was literally measured to the calorie. It had to be incredibly structured, especially with discrepancies in each country, trying to balance carbs, fat and protein of international foods. Meals couldn’t be too exotic or too much of a transition from one country to the next or I would end up with significant (digestive) challenges.
I also had to be careful of raw foods. In Central Portugal, for example, I picked some bug (bacteria) up from lettuce and paid the price for about three months afterward while I “processed” it.
We managed to stabilize my diet while wheeling around the world for two years and two months. But then I moved to an unstructured environment where I was on the run with appointments, skipping meals and having family responsibilities. I wasn’t eating properly, influenced by the kids’ fast foods.
However, I am now very aware of what I eat and realize that I don’t need large portions like I used to or as much protein. My body image had changed. It was the difference between being large for power and being lean for endurance. I had to readjust my body image and expectations. With any differences in training, your body will change.
CAROL: You wrote a book called Going the Distance: Seven Steps to Personal Change in 1994. What was it about?
RICK HANSEN: It included stories about people who have experienced dramatic change, from accidents to abuse, then felt trapped and powerless. They all struggled to get past circumstances to take back control of their lives. But to be able to do this you also have to be willing to surrender to what is, and what you can’t control.
The ability to see hope, love and goodness, and strive toward goals in spite of pain and future uncertainty is a vital life trait. My challenge was physical, yet the real battle was with the emotional handicap. It isn’t easy — nothing like flipping a switch and making everything right. It is hard work to face fears and move forward in spite of trials and tribulations.
RICK HANSEN: I’m in an adventurous journey in life and my rehabilitation helped me realize that I’m interested in new experiences and am willing to grow. I’m motivated by wanting to make a difference — to family, work, the community and the Foundation. If you stay close to your heart and your passions, it can fuel significant motivation.
Fishing was an early memory with my family that helped form my values. I was returning from fishing when I had the car accident and it became part of my rehabilitation because I realized that my life could still continue, and I could still fish, in spite of my disability.
I now feel blessed in the outdoors surrounded by wildlife. This is my time to touch base, reconnect and just “be.” I recognized that to sustain a healthy balance you can’t always take, you also have to give and put investment back into what you believe in.
CAROL: Like fish preservation? You established the Fraser River Sturgeon Conservation Society.
RICK HANSEN: I found out that even though sturgeon had outlived dinosaurs and survived two Ice Ages, now, due to over-fishing, they’re on the edge of extinction. I decided to do something about it. I work with others to inspire people to understand that everyone needs to work together for conservation first. The use of wildlife is more a privilege than a right.
CAROL: In your 50’s, do you have advice for boomers to remain agile?
RICK HANSEN: Our work lives are oriented to sitting, although the body isn’t meant to sustain that position for long periods. As someone in a wheelchair, I find it a challenge to counteract gravity. When sitting, your pelvis is rotated; and your posture loads pressure upon your back and neck. Chronic back, spine and disc issues, and shoulder and elbow stability are some of the greatest challenges that our generation is going to face.
Cardiovascular exercise is mandatory, particularly activities that support posture to help deal with the imbalance. Due to our incessant “time crunch,” we only address these problems casually. If you don’t invest in health as a priority, it doesn’t happen on its own. It’s not a selfish indulgence because that investment comes back in spades. You can’t lead if you don’t nurture your wellness.
If you have beliefs about the aging process, and that it will mean inevitable health changes, then your body will probably follow these beliefs. Look at role models who have maintained health, vitality and contribution and you will always see an investment of time and energy corresponding to their beliefs and values.
I have also seen people who are programmed for failure because they have been structured into a regime that hadn’t been customized for their needs; for example, if they are passionate about the outdoors but ended up in a structured gym. It’s critical to understand what drives you.
CAROL: You have significantly impacted thousands of people with your Foundation, you made it into the Guinness Book of Records, you were an Olympic athlete, you were Secretary to the Queen on one of her visits, and you were voted one of the Greatest Canadians on CBC’s poll. What else would you like to achieve?
RICK HANSEN: I want to encourage communities across Canada and eventually the world to become involved, not only to help build accessible communities but to increase awareness so that people will strive to enhance the quality of life of those with disabilities, developing a more inclusive society.
I apply the lessons learned from spinal cord injury to leadership, health, youth and the environment, wanting to send this message to those with disabilities so that some may not feel that they need to be “cured” in order to be whole. I have been lucky to have people come into my life to show me the way.
CAROL: Will you tell me about your home life?
RICK HANSEN: We have lived in Richmond, BC, for over 25 years, where our rancher-style house and neighbourhood are perfect for us. It is a cozy, casual and functional home, shaped like a horseshoe with two wings. We’ve renovated the house to maximum capacity, accommodating our family’s growing needs – first one bedroom, then two and then finally three bedrooms for three daughters.
CAROL: What’s your favourite place?
RICK HANSEN: My favourite room is the kitchen. We updated and opened the space to make it the home’s centre. It’s an appealing place with lots of light from windows and skylights. It’s where we convene each morning, with everyone coming and going during the day — if I camp out in the kitchen, eventually I will be able to run into my kids!
It is the transition place from one wing for sleeping to the other living and entertainment wing. This is also where we eat in a dinette with bay window that extends to the backyard. We changed the cabinetry in the all-white kitchen to accommodate the “next generation” of appliances. I help out with cooking by doing everything that I’m instructed to do…and do clean-up.
CAROL: And your favourite piece of furniture?
RICK HANSEN: My favourite is an antique chair in the living room that was my wife Amanda’s grandmother’s. It is very comfortably cushioned. But I have competition for it because our dog likes to sit there, too. He and the cat are the two boys that we didn’t have; but I am one of the luckiest guys on the planet to have three girls that are interested in sports!
CAROL: Do you display mementos?
RICK HANSEN: Mementos are important in our home. We have family photos displayed in several places including the fridge plastered with images of important moments. Though I am forbidden to display large fish on the wall that I have caught – fishing and conservation of salmon and sturgeon still being passions of mine – I do display them in photos used to retell the tales of how “all the big ones got away.”
Important mementos include an artist’s rendering of my close friend Terry Fox on his journey; we played on the same basketball team together after he lost his leg to cancer. Some gifts received during the Man In Motion Tour are displayed although most are at the BC Sports Hall of Fame.
We also have a collection of First Nations art. I brought Amanda a talking stick (which, in aboriginal culture, is passed from one person to the other as they have their turn to speak) because, as the CEO of our home and the glue that keeps us together, she has the authority to tell us what we need to do to make the house run.
CAROL: Where do you spend time?
RICK HANSEN: I like to be outdoors. We have a covered porch, and a backyard that is a private sanctuary with a swimming pool. When it has been a very busy time for me, that is where I go to relax and “chill out.”
Also, we converted the garage into an office for Amanda and me. I am there when I’m not at the Foundation or using my (parked) car with cell phone as office. We have a good team that I count on at the different organizations, which allows me this flexibility.
By Carol Crenna, originally featured partly in VISTA Magazine, and partly from Canada Wide Media’s BC Home Magazine.