Paralympic Games in Vancouver

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JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. The United States has another chance to win a hockey gold medal in Vancouver. The Winter Olympics may have ended a couple of weeks ago, but athletes from around the globe are still competing in British Columbia; this time in the Paralympics. And tomorrow is the hockey final between the United States and Japan. Rick Hansen is following the Games in Vancouver. He's a former Canadian Paralympian and an activist for people with spinal cord injuries. You may remember him from the opening ceremonies a few weeks back. He was one of the torch bearers in his wheelchair. Rick Hansen, what are some of the highlights from the Paralympics this week?

RICK HANSEN: Well it's just been fantastic. You see amazing downhill skiing and the athletes are just flying. Sledge hockey is, what can I say about that? If you've seen a Sledge Hockey game, you just get blown away by it. It's tough, rough, physical hockey.

SHARP: What does it look like?

HANSEN: It's basically hockey and you've got guys that are in these modified sleds that are on skates and they've got picks to propel themselves and then they have a hockey stick blade on the other end so when it's time to shoot they just rotate and shoot the puck. It's a great game to watch.

SHARP: And just to be clear, Paralympics, are all the athletes in wheelchairs or some approximation of a sitting position?

HANSEN: For something like sledge hockey, there's people with a variety of disabling conditions. They usually have lower limb or lower body disabilities and there's also people who are blind or visually impaired who are doing the skiing, either Nordic or the Alpine skiing. And there's biathlon.

SHARP: I just have to stop you. How do you compete in skiing if you can't see?

HANSEN: Well they're dealing with markers or some audio cues. Others have guides; they're with guides that are actually giving them cues. Then there's sit skiing, modified skis where you're again, sitting in a really tightly formed seat. I did it myself. Not near what you'd consider a Paralympian, but I just thought wow, this is really cool. It's a lot of fun. As a matter of fact when people see someone in a sit ski on the slopes, they go wow, how can I get one of those? I'd like to try it.

SHARP: Now Rick, the Paralympic Games do not get the attention that the Olympics get, obviously. There's no blanket media coverage, no nightly highlights. As a former athlete what is it like to see the spectacle and the attention for the Olympics and then see the smaller crowds and more limited attention that the Paralympics get?

HANSEN: You know, I've experienced it all. I had a chance to be part of the first ever exhibition event for the 1,500 meter wheelchair race in Los Angeles at the Olympics in '84 and have been too a number of Paralympic events and games. It's actually an interesting challenge. But every year the Games get covered. They get covered more and more and I think these Games will definitely be a benchmark for coverage success.

SHARP: Rick in Canada you're often referred to as the man in motion and as someone who's tackled these seemingly impossible athletic tasks. For those who may not know what the Man in Motion Tour was, what was that?

HANSEN: Back in the '80's it was often perceived to be challenge wheeling across the street on your own in a wheelchair, let alone wheeling around the world. So I wanted to wheel around the world to demonstrate what was possible. We embarked on this Man in Motion World Tour through 34 countries, 4 continents and 24,901.55 miles, the distance of the circumference of the earth at the equator. The sub-goal was to also raise money for spinal cord injury. We completed our journey after two years, two months, and two days and raised $26,000,000.00.

SHARP: You spoke at the opening of the Paralympic Games to a crowd of 60,000 people that you had dreams of going to the Olympics as a child but you thought those dreams were dead when you had your accident. What did it mean to you to become a Paralympian?

HANSEN: It meant the world to me because I was born an athlete. When I had my accident I thought the dreams of representing my country, going to the Olympic Games were shattered. And of course it wasn't until I was introduced to the fact that Paralympic sports existed, which I had no idea, and then I met role models who just exude athletic ability. I didn't see disability in the way they pursued their sport and I went wow, those guys are amazing. So I had to shift my mind and my view of what it meant to be an athlete and recognize that the fact I couldn't use my legs didn't prevent me from just going up there and giving it.

SHARP: Rick what did actually happen to you? What was your accident?

HANSEN: I was hitchhiking home from a fishing trip at the age of 15 with my buddy. We got a ride in the back of a pickup truck on a rough gravel washboard road and the guy went around the corner and rolled it and I was thrown back first against a steel tool box and it shattered my vertebrae and also damaged my spinal cord and I was paralyzed. That was a pretty big trauma for a 15-year-old kid from a small town in rural Canada who never even knew anyone with a disability. It was a long journey back but boy, I would never trade it for anything.

SHARP: Well thank you so much for telling us about it. Rick Hansen is a former Paralympian athlete. He's an activist for people with spinal cord injuries. Rick thank you so much.

HANSEN: Thanks Jeb, appreciate it.

SHARP: If you want to see photos of Rick Hansen carrying the Olympic torch and video of him wheeling around the globe on his Man in Motion Tour, it's all at our website, the world dot org. Just in case you were curious about our choice of '80's classics, that one was actually written for Paralympian Rick Hansen.