All Rick Hansen wanted to do was enjoy a day out on the water in his kayak.
Nothing wrong with that.
The conditions were perfect — it was a crisp winter day as he made off across the still waters of English Bay, years before he made his ground-breaking, Man in Motion world tour.
The problem was what Hansen, the keynote speaker at this year’s 911 Awards on April 29 at the River Rock Show Theatre, had left behind on the dock as light snow began to fall — an empty wheelchair.
“I’d been out there for a while, and when I got closer, paddling back towards my chair, from about 100 yards away, I saw it wasn’t alone. It was surrounded by (members of) the coast guard, the fire department, the police, and ambulance,” said Hansen, his smile growing as he continued the story that was part of his keynote speech.
“This whole crowd was so worried about what was going on.”
When Hansen eventually returned to the dock, the gathering of emergency personnel made their uneasiness evident.
“Well, look, there’s an empty wheelchair, tracks in the snow, someone must have fallen in. They were going to call in the divers,” Hansen said, recounting the reception, adding he quickly relieved their collective anxiety by telling them it was his wheelchair.
They never imagined a guy in a wheelchair might go out kayaking, Hansen said.
“They all breathed a sigh of relief and dissipated. And the last fella to leave was a policeman who said to me, ‘Hey buddy, next time you go out there do me a favour. Put a sign on the back of that chair that says ‘gone kayaking.’
“I thought then that I was going to do something about those attitudes some day.”
And he has, after raising public awareness about disability and $26 million for spinal cord research during the Man in Motion tour. He’s also established the Rick Hansen Foundation to help remove barriers and find cures for paralysis after spinal cord injury.
And he set up Planat to provide a handy, online guide to view and rate the accessibility of places worldwide.
Those efforts have made a difference in the lives of countless people, and it’s an accomplishment the longtime Richmond resident compared with the efforts emergency workers put in on a daily basis.
“When I was asked to come here to this event I didn’t hesitate because of the significance of what we’re doing here — honouring and recognizing first responders,” Hansen said, adding he was glad to be able to say a huge thank-you, “to the incredible men and women of this community who give of themselves and live their lives the best they can to make a difference.”
Hansen said accomplishing that — making a difference — is not due to some magic formula.
“It’s about your skill set, your talent and seeing the things out there that need support.”
And that’s something he said first responders possess, on the job, as well in their daily lives.
“It makes me feel so grateful for the work you do; to know we are safe here. We have this incredible group who are there when times are difficult,” he said.
“This community also helped raise my family, and many of your members were vital in that,” Hansen added, noting long-time Richmond Fire Rescue member Kirby Graeme, for one, coached one of his daughters in local sports.
“As someone who lives in Richmond, I am proud to be a citizen and thrilled to be here to draw a point to the evening and remind us all about three core things: gratitude, honouring our successes, and setting the bar higher for opportunities for us all to learn and grow, not accepting the status quo and being the best we can be with what we have.”
It’s a philosophy Hansen followed when he lost the use of his legs after being injured when the pick-up truck he had hitched a ride in the back of flipped over.
He was 15.
Hansen said he is forever grateful for the help he received from the first responders who helped stabilize and transport him to hospital on that fateful day.
And while he felt like his dreams of achieving athletic excellence had been cruelly ended by the accident, his journey along another path as a paralympian, future world champion, and advocate for the disabled was just beginning.
“I felt like I was able to do anything that I wanted to once I set my mind to it,” he said. “And when you get to that place, you also recognize what your core is all about and that’s service; it’s not about taking for yourself, it’s what you can do for others.”
That’s another trait first responders have, Hansen said.
“It’s not just your work, but what you do as leaders in the community.
“This is why I am here today — to say thank-you, to congratulate you for the exceptional work, and to also challenge you to set the bar higher and never, ever give up on your dreams.”