Most of us would have given up long ago, but not Josh Cassidy.
He’s been confined to a wheelchair since he was a toddler. But he has been anything but confined. He could have been content in life by doing enough just to get by. But Cassidy wanted more.
The elite athlete who will represent Canada once again at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto has an incredible spirit and relentless belief in himself that has touched many Canadians and many across the world. His superior attitude is on display when he competes, when you listen to him as a motivational speaker, when you spend time with him.
“My main message is that anything is possible,” said the 30-year-old Cassidy, when asked what he preaches when he gives a motivational talk. “You’re always going to face obstacles so you might as well embrace them. They’re always going to be there and they’re never going to go away.
“I guess it was something I always had within me. I guess I learned at an early age that I can do anything with passion and hard work.”
Cassidy put his remarkable character on full display at the 2012 London Paralympics. The top-notch results were pouring in for Cassidy.
He won the 2010 London Marathon. He set a world record time as the victor in the Boston Marathon two years later. He had dominated the Canadian scene and held the nation’s records in the 1,500-metre, 5,000-metre, 10,000-metre and marathon races.
My immune system was shot...I was devastated knowing that I had 26 empty seats in the stands and I had to watch a race that I was supposed to be in.
But all these stellar results didn’t matter in the days leading up to the London Paralympics. The man with the Mohawk-style coiffure, the eye-catching “Cassidy” tattoo above his left bicep, had been floored by a mystery flu.
The illness could not have arrived at a worse time. But there was little he could do, except take some antibiotics that seemed to sap his energy even more. All that hard work seemed liked a waste of time.
“My immune system was shot,” recalled Cassidy, who added that 26 family members and friends were in the stands for his 5,000-metre semifinal.
To add more drama to his race, a transportation snafu took Cassidy to the training track and not Olympic Stadium. This left him with little time to properly prepare go through his pre-race warmup. He finished with the 20th best time and didn’t qualify for the final.
“I was devastated knowing that I had 26 empty seats in the stands and I had to watch a race that I was supposed to be in,” he said.
Cassidy stayed in his room for 48 hours and didn’t talk to anyone. His health was inching along and now he had to get mentally stronger for the rest of the Games.
In the 800 metres, another athlete crashed into Cassidy. But despite the accident, Cassidy managed to dust himself off to finish an impressive fifth.
“It took me two days to get over the 5,000-metre disappointment,” he said. “I was laughing when I hit the finish line in the 800-metre race and was over it by the time I left the track.
“After it’s done, it’s done. Whether you win or lose, whether you meet expectations or don’t, you’re over it in two weeks and you’re on to the next thing.”
Later that month, Cassidy had bounced back. He celebrated another victory in the Chicago Marathon.
Initially misdiagnosed as spina bifida, it took doctors three weeks after he was born to discover Cassidy had neuroblastoma, a cancer of the spine and stomach.
He wasn’t given much of a chance to survive. But, of course, he did and after five years of remission he was cancer free, but Cassidy was left partially paralyzed.
The eldest of 10 children was born in Ottawa, raised on the family farm near Port Elgin, Ont. and now lives in Toronto and trains part-time in Guelph.
Growing up with his condition and living in such a large family taught Cassidy to become independent.
He has loved sports as long as he can remember. He was a road hockey goalie and played quarterback in football games from his wheelchair.
When he was 15, Cassidy met national team coach Bob Schrader in a Port Elgin restaurant. Schrader helped the kid get his first racing chair.
Cassidy then became inspired watching the success of Canadian Jeff Adams in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney.
The two first met in Adams’ Toronto apartment, when Adams agreed to help measure Cassidy for a proper race chair.
“He told me that I was going to be great one day,” Cassidy said. “That meant so much to me. It kept me going.”
The 30-year-old Cassidy and the 44-year-old Adams share more than a friendship. They share the same Nov. 15 birthday.
Adams recalled the first time he met Cassidy: “I remember meeting him and seeing how excited he was. But it wasn’t until a few years later at a training camp [in Georgia] I saw how hard he worked and how much he wanted it. He had an attitude that you need to succeed.”
The mentor and protégé have stayed close. The message Adams now pushes with Cassidy is it’s not just about winning races, but raising awareness.
“He eventually went from someone I looked up to a teammate and also a friend and fellow competitor at the same time,” Cassidy said. “He always has been great to me. He’s helped me out with equipment and being a training partner. He’s shared race experience, tactical experience. He’s been a great mentor to me and now it’s my turn. I’m more than happy to give back.
“There’s a lot I know I can pass on from my experiences.”
What Cassidy is talking about now is his role as a mentor with CIBC’s Team Next.
In this endeavour, Cassidy has been tapped to mentor other athletes like Cody Caldwell (wheelchair rugby), Nikola Goncin (wheelchair basketball), Pamela LeJean (para-athletics) and Justin Karn (judo).
“It’s always been a concern and something I’ve been passionate about,” Cassidy said. “You want young athletes to have the funding, to have the opportunity to achieve excellence. Having a corporate entity like CIBC recognize how important it is to have experienced athletes truly has been a great development.”
An experience Cassidy is often asked about is the 2013 Boston Marathon, when the two different bombs went off near the finish line. He was about to have lunch a block away in Copley Square with some fellow competitors when he heard something out of the ordinary.
“I heard something,” he said. “It didn’t sound right. Then word spread quickly and we found out what happened. It wasn’t surreal. It was very real.”
Funny the way the world works, but his smart phone buzzed the rest of the day and next. Reporters wanted to hear from him. Family and friends wanted to make sure he was OK. He received more interest and calls that day than when he has won some of past races.
Cassidy wasn’t angered by this development, just disappointed. Still, he knew that what happened would only make the Boston Marathon better the following year. “I knew for sure that would be the case,” he said. “The next day I wrote a blog for cbcsports.ca that the next year would be amazing and it was.”
Cassidy is excited about competing at home and hopes that the Parapan Am Games will provide the same awareness about wheelchair racing that he experienced at the Paralympics in London.
“Canada is home,” he said. “I travel the world. I’m so proud to represent Canada. It means so much to me to I wear the Canadian maple leaf and now I get to compete at home.
“I’m hopeful that having the Games here in Canada will show everyone how incredible and exciting parasports can be. I saw it in London, it built more awareness, it galvanized the community, it attracted more corporate support because of our incredibly talented and dedicated athletes.”