“Lean forward and put your chest on your knees,” a man in a penguin suit tells me.
No, I’m not hallucinating.
I’m sitting in a wheelchair, getting ready to take part in the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario’s Wheelchair Relay Challenge.
I pull on my gloves and head out to take a practice spin around the parking lot. Getting the wheelchair to go straight is easy enough, but I’m going to need speed if I want to stand a chance in the race.
I lean forward. I put my chest on my knees. I’m going a little faster now, but I can’t tell if it’s only because I’m going downhill.
Before long, my shoulders are burning. I look back, toward penguin suit man, and realize I’ve gone only about 20 metres.
I think I might be making a mistake.
But there’s no time to dwell on it. Everybody else is gathering around an arch of balloons that marks the starting line. I relinquish the wheelchair and get ready to make a fool of myself.
The team I’ve been placed on is called the HSH Penguins, and is almost entirely composed of Canadian Paraplegic Association staff. The man in the penguin suit is Richard McCallum, lead job developer with the employment services department. He tells me the penguin is the department’s mascot.
So how’d he get saddled with the suit?
“I drew the short anchovy.”
It’s race time. Starting on the line for us is Diana McCauley. She’s one of just two on our team who actually uses a wheelchair.
At the horn, McCauley’s off, but she immediately gets shoved into the boundary cones by another chair. She keeps it together, though, and maintains a good pace around the track and back to the line.
Errol Cyrus is second. He gets around without a hitch.
And then it’s my turn. Cyrus hits the line and gets out of the chair. I jump in. I lean forward. I put my chest on my knees. I push.
I get a good start off the line and head into the first corner. The whole team seems to agree that it’s the tougher of the two. I nearly wipe out a few inside cones on the bend, and actually manage to pass somebody as I come out of the turn.
Cyrus has recovered from his bout and catches up with me, following alongside, clapping and shouting encouragement. It works, because I fly along the straight faster than I thought I was capable of.
Then I hit the hill.
My momentum carries me up the slope, but there’s another wheelchair ahead of me starting into the second turn. The sign tied to its back falls off, and its rider stops to recover it. I have to slow to a near-halt, path my way around the outside of the stalled chair, and get myself rolling again.
The grade is minuscule, not even one percent, practically unnoticeable when walking, but I feel like a tractor-trailer going up the side of the Rockies. I haul myself around the turn, pull by laborious pull, and struggle the rest of the way to the line. I make way for our fourth rider and try to imagine having to do that every day for the rest of my life.
“Your whole life changes in that one day,” says McCauley. She has been using a wheelchair for over 25 years, ever since she injured herself while skiing. “But you deal with what you have to deal with. There are a lot of things to deal with, not just mobility issues and getting around. There’s all the other things — just trying to get by in a society that’s not very accessible.”
The Penguins finish with the thoroughly average team time of about 12 minutes, four minutes off the best time. I feel like I won a marathon.
I ask Cyrus how his lap had gone.
“I said to myself: Finish,” he says. “The important thing is to finish, that and to not fall out of the chair.”
Yeah, I know what that feels like. But how was it last September?
“Grueling. You had to do two laps.”
I think I picked the right year to start.
About the association
The Canadian Paraplegic Association has been helping people with spinal cord injuries and mobility disabilities since 1945, when it was founded by injured World War II veterans.
According to its statistics, one Ontarian suffers a paralyzing injury per day.
“The Canadian Paraplegic Association is a really important organization for people who had a spinal cord injury,” employment services manager Diana McCauley says. “We play a really important part once people [with an injury] leave a rehab centre. We’re there to support people once they go back into the community.”
Over the past 16 years the Wheelchair Relay Challenge has raised more than $3.6 million in Toronto alone to support services for people recovering from spinal injuries. This year’s tally sits near $112,000 with more donations still arriving as of press time. The top fundraising team gathered more than $8,800 and a single racer brought in $7,000.