Now that the late wheelchair racer Andre Viger has been pegged for induction
into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, I've had a
chance to revisit his career and reflect on all that he's done. And I've discovered that his legacy is immense.
When I worked at CBC Montreal as the late-night sports reporter at the tail end of the 1980s, I became acquainted with a man by the name of George Athans. He was my senior colleague, the host of the supper-hour sportscast (when we had such things) and had also been a world champion water skier.
"You've got to meet this guy Andre Viger," George would constantly say to me. "He's won the Boston marathon in a wheelchair. He's truly an inspiration."
At the time, I never fully appreciated my eventual encounter with Viger. He was kind of understated and, besides, in a sports market where the hockey Canadiens and baseball Expos dominated my thoughts, he seemed to be a peripheral figure in the grand scheme of things.
Now that Viger, who died of cancer in 2006, has been pegged for induction into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame this coming October, I've had a chance to revisit his career and reflect on all that he's done.
And I've discovered that Andre Viger's legacy is immense.
While Stanley Cup winner Joe Sakic, curling great Russ Howard and the other four worthy members of the class of 2013 deserve all the accolades they get, perhaps it's Andre Viger who we should strive to know better. It seems to me his trailblazing journey in wheelchair athletics has traced the essence of sport and the difference it can make to the lives of so many.
"He was passionate about racing," says Chantal Petitclerc, the winner of 21 Paralympic medals, 14 of them gold. "He saw no reason why he could not enter every race and to prove to people that he was an athlete, nothing more and nothing less."
Indeed, Viger, who lost the use of both his legs in an automobile accident at 20 years of age, went on to win the Boston Marathon's wheelchair division three times, in 1984, '86 and '87. He also competed at five consecutive Paralympics from 1980 in Moscow to Atlanta 1996, ascending the podium 10 times while capturing three gold medals.
From a Canadian perspective, Viger was the leader of the pack when it came to wheelchair racing.
A check of the video material in the archives reveals that his early equipment was pretty basic. With their four wheels, his wheelchairs looked more like standard, everyday models than the high-tech versions of the modern era. In addition, his physical preparations were of his own conception.
"There were no biomechanics studies, and programs were adapted from runners' programs, and that was inadequate," says Petitclerc. "Equipment was adapted from everyday chairs. So he had to try and experiment, go out and get people like coaches and welders who followed him in becoming pioneers in the sport. I always say he was there when duct tape and tie wraps were still standard equipment. He was a pioneer in the true sense."
Viger's contributions didn't end with his retirement from competition. He opened a shop in Montreal to manufacture racing wheelchairs and Maison Andre Viger quickly becoming Quebec's largest company dealing in the field of home care. Since the early 1990s the business has bettered the fortunes of many citizens by providing them with access to mobility devices such as motorized scooters and wheelchairs as well as orthopedic aids and comprehensive wound treatment.
But Andre Viger's passion was always entwined with his sense of being an athlete.
"I would sometimes go to the shop and talk with him and until the end he always wanted to know the speed and times the guys were doing," says Petitclerc, who won the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's athlete of the year in 2008. "He never set up an agenda to be in the media or to be recognized. He just wanted to be the best he could and win races while showing by his actions that you can make your dreams happen."
'Changed my life'
For Petitclerc, who has become Canada's most celebrated athlete with a disability, the mark that Andre Viger made should never be overlooked. He paved the way for her and so many others who followed.
As a 13-year-old from rural Quebec, she lost her mobility when a heavy barn door fell on her legs. She's recovered from that, indeed been empowered by it, to evolve into a Companion of the Order of Canada, one of the country's most influential public figures, and next summer will lead Team Canada to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland as Chef de Mission.
All this came about because of her determination and with the help of lessons she learned from Andre Viger.
"I was only one year injured when he won the Boston marathon," Petitclerc recalls. "And for me to have a guy racing in a wheelchair make the front page of the newspaper and the headlines on television as the champion of a sport I didn't even know truly changed my life. I was from a small town with no role models, new in a chair, and he made me realize that I still had more potential than limits."
My colleague George Athans was right all those many years ago. I was exceptionally fortunate to meet Andre Viger and to become aware of his exploits.
He's a true Hall of Famer who the fans of sport should get to know.
Viger was a builder, but above all an athlete who made the field of play accessible for countless people who were once relegated to the sidelines.
Scott brings vast experience, passion and knowledge to his role as host of CBC's Sports Weekend on CBC. A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell has covered nine Olympic Games and co-hosted Olympic Morning for Beijing 2008: The Olympic Games. The Gemini-Award winning broadcaster and acclaimed author has also worked as a host and rinkside reporter on Hockey Night in Canada and has covered triathlon, gymnastics, rugby, cross-country skiing and biathlon at several Olympic Games, Pan Am Games and Commonwealth Games.