05/29/2012 05:53 EDT | Updated 07/29/2012 05:12 EDT

The Real-Life Six Million Dollar Man (and Children)


I expected a sea of wise and weathered faces looking back on 25 years of success, but running beside Rick Hansen I also saw throngs of youngsters looking ahead to the next quarter century.

Stepping off the wheelchair-accessible relay bus to join my childhood hero in the final leg of his cross-Canada journey, I watched diners leave meals half eaten to cheer him on, bystanders, one after the other, breaking from the ranks to run and touch him. As I jogged along, a whole class of schoolchildren lined up and held out their hands for a huge rolling high-five.

A woman put her nine-year-old daughter in Hansen's path. She'd seen Hansen 25 years earlier and now, she'd brought her child to be similarly inspired.

When it was my turn to run with the silver relay medal -- that had already passed through 7,000 hands, starting in Newfoundland -- I accepted it from a Grade 8 student and passed it on to another girl in high school.

Everywhere I looked, there were admiring and motivated youngsters, almost none of them alive during Hansen's first epic journey.

It was then I realized this wasn't simply the anniversary of some historical event long gone by. This was the introduction of a whole new generation to the Man In Motion.

As a five year old, I can recall my kindergarten teacher telling us his story not long after the Man in Motion tour. It seemed almost like a magical quest from a story book. To this day I keep a signed picture of Hansen on my desk. On those days when difficulties make my goals and dreams seem just out of reach, I look at that photo to re-inspire me.

As we moved along a downtown street, Hansen's stamina was obviously lagging. Giving his wheels another strong push, he wryly commented to me, "Oh, this brings back memories."

But this event wasn't just about the memories, or the past 25 years. It was about looking ahead and all that can, and will, be accomplished.

So many of the young people I met have been inspired by Hansen, and in turn, have inspired others.

Janeece Edroff, 18, of Victoria, B.C., was chosen as one of Hansen's "Difference Makers" to participate in the relay. Janeece developed neurofibromatosis when when she was three. By the time she was six, she was raising money for children's charities. So far she has raised $8-million and has founded Janeece Place -- a house next to Victoria General Hospital where families with sick children being treated at the hospital can stay. Her next goal is to fund a pediatric oncology unit in Victoria so children don't have to travel to Vancouver for treatment.

Then there was 18-year-old Tyrone Henry, from Stittsville, Ontario, one of the relay's wheelchair endurance athletes. He carried the medal for the long, lonely stretches between cities.

A year and a half ago Henry suffered a spinal injury in an auto accident that left him a paraplegic. "When I was still able-bodied, my parents told me about this crazy guy who went around the world in a wheel chair. It didn't register with me then, but the story came back to me after my injury."

Inspired by Hansen, Henry set a goal to play on Canada's paralympic sledge hockey team. When he heard Hansen was looking for endurance runners for the relay, he volunteered.

Henry described his first day on the relay, departing from Windsor on a freezing November day in a torrential downpour. Ferocious headwinds meant it took an hour to travel 10 km. Henry persevered, pushing himself more than 800 km from Windsor to Thunder Bay, and Prince George to Vernon in B.C.

Hansen has raised almost a quarter billion dollars for the research and treatment of spinal cord injuries. He clearly has no intention of stopping now.

"We are the many in motion, especially the youth of this world. I'm so excited to look forward to the next 25 years. We are only starting!" Hansen told thousands of his supporters.

I'm looking forward to the next 25 years as well, watching a whole new generation discover and get inspired by my hero.