Rich Vander Wal from Toronto, Ontario is an adrenaline-seeking, sports loving, father, husband and friend. He sustained a spinal cord injury in a motorcycling accident, at the age of 21. He was inspired throughout his recovery to continue his passion for athletics and adventure, by falling in love with adaptive sports. Read more about Rich and his story below!
How old are you? I am 52-years young.
What does your educational and/or professional background look like? I have a Bachelors of Recreation and Leisure Studies and a postgraduate diploma in Therapeutic Recreation. In 2008, my wife and I opened up Neurocore Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Our focus was neurological conditions and I assisted to run the business, and work with clients with wheelchair skills and seating. In 2016, I was diagnosed with cancer, was successfully treated, and have since stepped back from the clinic to focus on my role as a dad to my two young daughters.
Please tell us your spinal cord injury story. In 1992, I suffered a T4 complete spinal cord injury. My friend and I had swapped motorcycles for the ride, and we just entered the highway. I looked behind me to see where my friend was and as I turned back to the front, the vehicle I was following swerved to miss a stopped dump truck in the lane, which was pulling a trailer and had a backhoe tractor on it. I struck the back of the trailer, and my body flew into the back of the tractor in which the impact broke my spine.
For the first 6 weeks, I was in an acute trauma hospital. My spine was broken, and it was unclear if I had experienced a concussion or a traumatic brain injury due to the pressure built up in my head. I completed my rehabilitation at Chedoke-McMaster Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario. I chose the facility as it was closer to home and thought that it would be easier for my family and friends to visit. I did not understand what rehabilitation would be like and I soon learnt that even socially, your life changes following an injury of this type. It was hard for people to come visit and accept what happened to me, hard for them to make the time and effort, and also hard for me to see people from the life I knew before. I was also surrounded by individuals with incomplete and cervical injuries, who had difficulty accepting their injury and held tight to hope for healing. For me it was black and white, my injury was not going to change so I must build with what I had.
Where do you currently live? I have lived in Toronto, Ontario for 23 years now. I’m fortunate to have designed my own home that is accessible for my family’s needs where we’ve lived for 7 years now. The design allows me to fully fill my roles as a parent with my children. It is an easier environment to get around in. It looks like a normal house; there is nothing medical about it, simply more space in the rooms, and easier access such as in the bathrooms so I can fit and wash my girls’ hair and get around the bed to change sheets. It is ground level so I can easily carry in groceries and not deal with ramps in the snow.
What do you do for work? At this time my focus is my family. My involvement in Neurocore is minimal and I put many of my community roles on hold to focus on caregiving to our kids. I do everything inside the home and outside the home such as gardening and pushing my lawnmower. Things like laundry and cleaning take longer but I’m okay with that, and make sure my expectations are realistic. Sometimes it’s a juggling act, keeping my kids engaged and active in activities, while also making sure we have quality time and I make time for myself.
What are your hobbies/what do you do for fun? Truthfully, I had to compromise my personal hobbies in 2016. It was a turning point for me. My daughter Julia was getting older, we were rebuilding our home, my wife was increasing her work. It was also the year that I was diagnosed and treated for cancer. I was scared out of my mind, which made me check my priorities once again which of course was my family.
Prior to this, I enjoyed playing wheelchair tennis and alpine skiing mixed with lots of road and mountain biking. Activities with a SCI take more preparation, effort and time. I shouldn’t ride my recumbent handcycle in the city because I am not visible and so low to the ground, so I have to travel out to the country roads. That includes transporting the bike, strapping yourself in, riding and then doing all the steps in reserve. It takes half a day planning for a decent bike ride.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments? My kids, and also the mountain bike documentary “Adaptation,” I was recently in. With testimony from past clients who’ve become friends and hearing the involvement I have had in their lives, made me proud of what I have done. That documentary has true value and meaning to me. I’m also proud of the Half Iron Man marathon I did back in 2012, oh and every sit-ski endeavor because I was told I could never ski again post-injury.
What advice or motivation did you receive to get back into recreational sports? In 1992, there wasn’t as much exposure and programs for wheelchair sport. A popular magazine in the hospital was “Sports and Spokes”, which became my bible. It focused on events and activities for spinal cord injury. It showcased hard core athletes doing crazy things that I didn’t know existed. The magazine showed me that there was so much more out there, it was my first exposure to what my new life could be like.
We had outings while in rehabilitation. One time the recreational therapist took us to watch wheelchair tennis at Mohawk College. We loaded on the accessible bus, and when we got there, we saw people transferring out of regular cars, pulling out specialized wheelchairs for tennis, all with flashy colors. In the match, players were calling out bad line calls loudly, and playing competitively and that’s when I realized disabled sport is like the sport I knew before. Sports gave me hope and were a learning tool. Many of the people I met weren’t athletes before their injury and didn’t care for the competition, but they participated in sports because of the social aspect, the sense of community. It was one of the few places, you could be around people who were similar to you.
What is one tip of advice you have for anyone just injured and facing life post-injury and getting back to their hobbies? Talking to people and encouraging people is sometimes not enough. It helps to take their hand, go to the events, go to the community outings, even go to the mall. You have to encourage people not to have that fear and just try it. Whether it’s sports, past leisure activities you used to enjoy, give it a go. I can guarantee things will be different, but there will be pieces of the activities that you valued in the past and you try it. You can then make the decision of whether it’s for you or not.
What is something you didn’t think you’d be able to engage in post-accident that you have since accomplished? What was that journey like? Just before my injury, I had just lived in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta for two winter seasons as a stand-up skiing and snowboard instructor, so it was a big part of my life and identity. I wanted that role again. Initially, I was told that to use a monoski, you had to have trunk muscles to control it and ski independently. I didn’t want to accept that I couldn’t ski without trying and I asked them to duct tape my trunk to the top of the seat of the monoski. It was a slow learning curve to be independent, but eventually I did it and I took it to a level that people were impressed with. It rebuilt my self-esteem and confidence which carried over to every other part of my life.
I was also unsure about being a parent. I didn’t know if I could step into that role. Initially, I didn’t know if anyone would want me in that role or wish to share the parenting role with me. I saw other dads and the things I couldn’t do, like holding them when they were climbing on the monkey bars, and it hurt me to see because I knew I couldn’t do that. I wondered how much value I could have to my kids. Those fears and self-doubt were still there once the girls were born. Adapting the crib, finding the right stroller and using straps to assist my balance all helped early on. As the girls have grown, I’ve learned the most important thing is sharing love with them, building their confidence and just keep trying to do what I can. The kids are always parked on my lap and tell me I’m a great dad, so I guess I’m doing something right there.
What is something you wish people would know about spinal cord injury/disease? Initially, people often have the perception that spinal cord injury or disease is only bad and negative and that it closes doors and brings limitations. But a wheelchair is empowering, it gives you freedom and new doors will open. There is obviously some inaccessibility to many places, but for me a shift in priorities along with advances in technology have eliminated many of those barriers. Now there are many more opportunities and awareness which helps to create that perception that life isn’t over. It’s important to empower people with knowledge so their attitudes stay positive for change.
One frustration I still encounter from time to time is in a mall. I could be approaching from a distance and a mother comes and grabs her kids out of the way to make room for me and apologizes. It plants a thought of fear and confusion in the child’s head. Kids love asking questions and I want to give them the knowledge to carry on to their friends and families. I think the biggest obstacle still faced is the general attitudes of some people. They sometimes are uncomfortable with our differences and are too afraid to learn and ask questions.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why? I don’t want a superpower – I want my abs back. Kidding. The ability to fly would always be fun. I wish that with a wink I could put people around me at ease and at peace. At a time when there is a lot of tension and confusion in the world, spreading peace, calm and acceptance would make a difference today.
Interviewed by Tamar Gelb