N.L. athlete inspired Rick Hansen

Deana Stokes Sullivan dss@thetelegram.com
Published on August 18, 2011
Mel Fitzgerald (left) and Rick Hansen compete in a wheelchair event at the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles. — File photo by J. Merrithew/Canadian Press

When Rick Hansen brought his Man in Motion tour to Newfoundland in 1986, local athlete Mel Fitzgerald was at his side, supporting him and participating in the event.

Now, 25 years later, Fitzgerald is looking forward to teaming up with Hansen again next week when he kicks off a cross-country anniversary relay at Cape Spear.

Fitzgerald said Wednesday when Hansen first decided to do a trip around the world, he thought it sounded like pie in the sky.

“But,” Fitzgerald said, “I really felt that if anybody could do it, he would do it. When you get to know him, you understand the kind of determination and focus that he has. I think that certainly allowed him to do the kind of things that he’s done over the years, to not only make that trip around the world, but be able to then continue with it and focus it into such a great foundation over 25 years to help benefit other people.”

Fitzgerald first met Hansen at the Canadian National Wheelchair Games in St. John’s in 1978, when Hansen was involved in basketball competitions.

Hansen told The Telegram in a recent interview that was one of his first wheelchair events after his injury. Hansen suffered a spinal cord injury from a car crash when he was 15.

He met Fitzgerald in the locker room just after he had won a gold medal and was preparing to go out for another one.

Hansen said “the legendary Mel Fitzgerald” became one of his mentors and was “an incredible role model” who inspired him to pursue wheelchair racing and helped him become a world champion.

“One of the things I will never forget about the experience and about the games in St. John’s was watching Mel Fitzgerald,” he said. “And, you know, he dominated the nationals as a wheelchair track racer and he became a world champion and won Paralympic gold medals.”

Hansen said he still has a lot of respect for Fitzgerald.

“He was like a racing god and I was a young kid who didn’t know a lot about the sport. He was gracious. He was encouraging. He was able to share information about how he was training. He was training at a high level and had set the bar high.”

He was also impressed with Fitzgerald’s ability as an innovator to develop “a customized approach to a wheelchair, so that it could liberate your potential, as opposed to a stock wheelchair that everyone was using.”

Hansen and Fitzgerald went on to train and compete together as teammates. They won a gold medal as part of a Canadian relay team in the 1984 Paralympics.

Fitzgerald said if he inspired Hansen in some way, he’s happy he feels that way.

“I have the utmost respect for Rick and what he’s been able to do,” he said.

Hansen is such a great person, Fitzgerald said, that he sees the good and potential in other people and has a way of making other people shine, as opposed to putting the emphasis on himself.

“I think that, certainly, is what makes him such a great person,” he said. “He’s worked for the last 25 years to bring attention to spinal cord injury and research into spinal cord injury to try to help other people.”

Fitzgerald said if anyone had asked him what Hansen might have thought of him when he first saw him competing in the wheelchair races, “I would have felt well, Rick Hansen looked at all of these guys racing around the track and thought, ‘I can do that and I can do it better.’”

While Hansen has done a lot to further spinal cord research, Fitzgerald said he’s also made inroads to make people with disabilities more visible to the general public and raise awareness of the potential of people with disabilities to live longer, productive and useful lives.

“I think it covers the whole area of awareness,” he said, “and the fact that disability shouldn’t really define who you are as opposed to how you can live and enjoy life, be productive and contribute to society.”

Fitzgerald believes Hansen will be remembered in Canadian history as a truly great Canadian and humanitarian. He said he was a bit disappointed that Hansen wasn’t appointed Canada’s Governor General.

“I think he should have been,” he said.

Fitzgerald tries to stay fit, but said he hasn’t been in a competitive race since the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. He now spends most of his time helping other people with disabilities through his work at Aim Services at Lawtons Home Health Care in St. John’s.

Fitzgerald was previously part-owner of Aims Services, a rehabilitation equipment company, which was bought by Lawtons Home Health Care.

“So, now I work for Lawtons Home Health Care and it still maintains the Aims Services name,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s an area he’s been working in for about 35 years. Fitzgerald said the number of people he’s met over the years with serious disabilities and injuries have been an inspiration to him.

“Every day is a good day when you get to work with people and, often times, the kind of the work that you do does make a difference in their lives,” he said.

When Hanson begins his cross-country relay Wednesday at Cape Spear, Fitzgerald plans to be there to support him once again. He’ll take part in the first 250-metre leg of the relay and then pass the Rick Hansen medal on to someone else to continue with it. More than 7,000 medal bearers are expected to participate in the relay.

Hansen had made his way through 33 countries in 1986 before arriving in St. John’s. He said the hospitality he received and friendliness of the people made him feel like he was home. He raised $97,000 during the Newfoundland leg of his Man in Motion tour and went on to finish it in Vancouver on May 22, 1987, raising a total of $26 million as well as a greater awareness for people with disabilities.

Hansen said other Newfoundland role models who helped him achieve his goals were Joanne MacDonald and the late Debbie Prim, who was an organizer, supporter and advocate for rights for people with disabilities.