In this photo dated Sept. 26, 1986, Rick Hansen is shown chatting with Islanders during the P.E.I. portion of his Man In Motion World Tour.
The Rick Hansen 25th anniversary relay will take place in P.E.I. from Sept. 21 to 27 with medal bearers going through Wood Islands, Murray River and Montague on Wednesday; Montague, Cardigan, St. Peter’s Bay, Morell and Charlottetown on Thursday; Charlottetotwn, Winsloe, Hunter River, Kensington, Sherbrooke and Summerside Sept. 24; Summerside, Bedeque and Borden-Carleton Sept. 27.
For long-time runner Bob Gray of Stratford, it was an outing like no other.
The then teacher was running with fellow educator Tom Corcoran early on a cool, rainy morning in September 1986.
The two teachers were doing their best to keep pace with Rick Hansen as the great Canadian wheeled along what would be the first of three days powering his wheelchair through P.E.I. as part of the cross-Canada trek that would conclude his mind-boggling Man In Motion World Tour through 34 countries along 40,000 kilometres of roadway.
Hansen completed the equivalent of three marathons every day in an athletic and inspiring act aimed at raising money (millions of dollars poured in) to find a cure for spinal cord injury and issue a challenge to make the world an easier place for people with disabilities.
Gray, like millions of other Canadians, followed Hansen’s progress on television and in the newspapers.
He was “stunned’’ watching footage of Hansen wheel through the majestic Alps and the towering mountains of the Pyrenees in Europe just before coming to Canada.
“A guy in a wheel chair going around the world - like, your images were amazing,’’ he said.
Gray can vividly recall meeting Hansen for the first time at dawn in St. Peter’s Bay. Hansen, a good looking young man with “the biggest shoulders you could ever see in your life’’, shook Gray’s hand.
Hansen, recalls Gray, was still clearly very excited about what he was doing well into his miraculous journey.
A big grin creasing his face, Hansen simply glowed.
Gray was also struck by the genuine public reception - a reverent rather than raucous welcome extended to one of the country’s true legends.
Old folks sat in lawn chairs with blankets draped across their legs to fend off the chill in the air. Well-wishers stood roadside with umbrellas hoisted skyward.
Small children peered towards a hill in anticipation of seeing Hansen roll up, over and down.
The collective greetings were not, noted Gray, like the boisterous hoots and hollers of say downtown Toronto. It was even more wonderful than that.
Respect was extended in quiet and reserved fashion. Gray could sense the deep admiration Islanders held for Hansen.
“It made you proud to be from Prince Edward Island,’’ he said.
“It was magical, really.’’
Hansen told The Guardian earlier this week that the community response in P.E.I. was amazing from the moment he arrived in Borden by ferry to the end of his three days of wheeling across the Island.
A local legion built a wheelchair ramp.
An antique car club held a big fundraiser.
Some 300 people gathered for an event at then CFB Summerside.
A disabled student named Carl wheel out of his school and spoke with pride of being a part of the community.
“Just amazing moments and such diversity,’’ said Hansen, who dug up his old diary tapes to rekindle memories of his run through P.E.I. and the rest of the country.
“I would say the number one impresson was an absolutely overwhelming sense of inspiration and gratitude.’’
Gray had a chance meeting with Hansen last year after watching a hockey game during the Olympics in Vancouver. Gray naturally introduced himself and told Hansen about the thrill of running with him a quarter of a century ago.
“Like I’m sure he didn’t remember me...but he was so gracious,’’ said Gray.
“I think he’s a remarkable person - a remarkable Canadian...just the hour that we spent running with him from St. Peter’s to Morell certainly impacted my life and the way you look at things.’’
Hansen is not done inspiring. But now he has solicited a fair bit of help.
Seven thousand participants from across Canada who have made a difference in their own communities and in the lives of others will walk, wheel or run in a nine-month, 12,000 kilometre relay that retraces the route of Hansen’s original cross-Canada tour.
Gray, one of the founders of the P.E.I. Healthy Eating Alliance and senior manager of the 2009 Canada Summer Games, will be among 121 medal bearers over four relay days in the province on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sept. 27.
Hansen told The Guardian that the medal bearers on P.E.I. are a diverse and inspiring group, ranging from people like 60-year-old Gray to an 11-year-old student.
“When you listen to the stories...you see there’s people who are totally and fundamentally engaged,’’ said Hansen.
“You listen to those stories and say ‘wow, this is a great country.’’’
Hansen, who launched the 25th anniversary relay on Aug. 24 in Newfoundland and Labrador, is looking forward to returning to P.E.I. to take in events on Wednesday and Thursday. The best spots for the public to see Hansen and hear him speak are at an End of Day Celebration at 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Montague waterfront gazebo and Thursday at 3:15 p.m. at Confederation Landing Park in Charlottetown.
Hansen will also do some wheeling in P.E.I. but there is no set agenda.
The medal bearers and their stories is where Hansen would like to see the spotlight shine during this 25th anniversary event.
“The best way to celebrate is to make sure my time is spread across the country and make sure it is not just about me,’’ he said.
The relay, Hansen stresses, is about people like Emma Stewart of Montague.
The Grade 6 student at Cardigan Consolidated school has been a library monitor, a canteen helper for the school lunch program and a volunteer with the P.A.L. Program.
In the latter, she has been responsible for peer mediation with students on the playground.
Or, as Emma puts it: “To make sure that nobody is sitting off by themselves and is sad and not included in anything.’’
Emma says she plans to be a lifetime volunteer because helping people makes her feel very good.
She is thrilled that her good will and good nature has earned her a spot among the medal bearers in P.E.I. Meeting with Hansen would cap off the marvelous experience.
“It will be a pleasure if I do,’’ she said.
“I would like to tell him that I really like what he is doing and how nice he is to the whole world. He’s pretty much my role model.’’