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Young people an inspiration to Rick Hansen

Thermal Drive did not vanquish Rick Hansen or any of his 25th anniversary relay team, who this Friday made their way up the winding hill like it was a Sunday walk to a prairie church.

Thermal Drive did not vanquish Rick Hansen or any of his 25th anniversary relay team, who this Friday made their way up the winding hill like it was a Sunday walk to a prairie church.

But instead of singing hymns of praise at the conclusion of the now almost mythic trek from Port Moody to Coquitlam, the avuncular and gracious Hansen praised his "difference makers," people young and old who joined him in the mission to create a "healthy and inclusive world."

The journey form Cape Spear to Vancouver over 12,000 km made by 7,000 medal bearers is one of determination and accomplishment, said Hansen, and a tribute to the original Man in Motion tour to raise money and awareness of spinal cord research a quarter of a century ago.

"From one in motion to many in motion, all of us together doing our part to make a difference and to encourage each other," Hansen told the assembled crowd after the gruelling half-hour climb on one of the last legs of the 25th Anniversary Rick Hansen Relay.

Along the route, as many as 1,600 School District 43 students walked along side Hansen, cheering him on with shouts of "Go, Rick!" as he wheeled his way up the steep incline to the finish at Seymour Drive. There were also five medal bearers who were too young to have been around for the original Man in Motion Tour.

As he pushed his way up the hill, the crowd surged around him and a ring of volunteers kept the kids at bay. But still, they could get as close to their hero as they liked, and most carried phones or cameras and snapped pictures of Hansen as he pushed his way up the road.

At Seymour Drive, a large yellow ribbon had been strung across the road but instead of Hansen pushing his way the final few feet to break the tape, Tyrone Henry, an 18-year-old paraplegic from Ottawa took the lead.

Later, Hansen said Henry, an endurance athlete, is an example of someone who instead of "giving up," chose to get involved, and it was right and fitting that the young man should be the first to finish the climb.

Although Hansen, 54, was clearly the man of the moment Friday morning, he chose to single out the youth of the Tri-Cities as his own inspiration. In a speech from a temporary stage put up by his team, he told his cheering mostly middle-school-aged fans: "I'm proud of you - you make me feel like an amazing Canadian because I know our country is in great hands," Hansen said.

Several dignitaries took to the stage to praise the Rick Hansen relay team for once again inspiring Canadians to never give up hope that a cure for paralysis from spinal cord injuries can be found.

Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam MP James Moore said he was on the sidelines 25 years ago when Hansen made his first climb up Thermal Drive. Also on hand for the event were PoMo Mayor Mike Clay and Coquitlam Mayor Richard Steward. All congratulated Hansen and his team for their effort and determination.

But it was the students who created the lively atmosphere that seemed to give Hansen energy after the climb. Hundreds of them turned up in school t-shirts and carrying signs that read: "We're with you, Rick."

"It's an interesting experience," said Taylor Mitchell, 15, who was waiting with her sister, Madelyn, 3, for Rick on the steps of their grandmother's home. "When I was in Grade 5, we got to walk up the hill with him," she said, recalling Hansen's last visit five years ago.

A group of students from Port Coquitlam's Kwayhquitlum middle school provided a noisy chorus to support the relay team. Waving their posters, the student urged on the medal bearers.

Emma MacDonald, a Grade 6 student, said Hansen is an "inspiration" to her. "He's raised $26 million on his Man in Motion tour and he went up Thermal Drive," MacDonald said.

For Hansen, the return visit to Thermal was a teachable moment for students never to give up hope and to keep rolling along.

He told a group of reporters that he had always wanted to be a teacher and he feels is like an educator in that "I'm able to use these experiences and be able to encourage others. We all have challenges, we all want to keep hope and dream, and we all have differences in our own way."

It's important to him that research continue on finding ways to reduce the harm caused by spinal chord injuries and he remains hopeful a cure will be found in the next 25 years. In the meantime, Hansen said he's pleased that "more and more people are having more recovery after an injury because of advanced treatment and care."

Although he appeared to be hail and hearty following his climb - his tanned face a sign of hours spent in the sun during this long, national journey - Hansen said Thermal Drive has always been a challenge and he had to steel himself for the experience that morning.

Sporting a wide grin like a champion athlete after a tough race, Hansen described his recipe for success.

"First, I wake up after a good sleep. Secondly, eat well. Thirdly, repeat that mantra - that positive mantra - that this is going to be a huge challenge and get ready and make sure that it's one stroke at a time. And lastly, it's open your heart because it's not just you doing it, we're all doing it together, and this incredible enthusiasm is going to help propel me up the hill."

Will he back? Hansen said yes, although, in a nod to his age, he didn't specify exactly how he'd do the arduous climb again.

"If I'm around in 25, I'll be here," he said. "I may not be doing it with my arms but I'll find a way to get up this hill."

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com