Victoria, BC. A mid-September morning stroll takes me through the Uplands, past Cattle Point. The soaring heat of the summer gives way to more pleasant temperatures as I meander along the promenade.
It is my favourite time of the year. Time to walk, time to think, about everything and nothing. Various themes and ideas drift around in my head. Viewpoints to examine and re-examine. Or discard entirely.
Eventually, I arrive at Willows Beach. It is a popular destination for the locals, even if a bit early in the day for swimming, volleyball, skimboarding or flying a kite.
Across the strait Mount Baker looms, majestic and snow covered.
I sit on a bench near the swings. Swirling around in my mind are countless inspiring performances at the recently completed Tokyo Paralympic Games. So many examples of courage and perseverance. And, as always, I further marvel at the exploits of Terry Fox, the greatest ever Canadian. The annual run, in his memory and in support of cancer research, even if virtual this year due to the Covid 19 pandemic, will take place in three days’ time.
Then, off to my left, I notice a young mother lying on a blanket with her infant son. Perhaps ten or eleven months old, he is restless. He keeps trying to get up. He wants to walk.
I watch him for the better part of half an hour. He struggles to his feet, then immediately falls over. Wobbles up again, edges forward a few precious inches, then collapses in a heap. Over and over, again and again. Any success is fleeting.
Regardless, he persists. At no time does he get discouraged, never thinks to himself that maybe this walking thing is not for him. Instead, he keeps trying.
In so doing, he offers a salutary lesson. Indeed, I think to myself that a baby can be one of our greatest teachers in terms of tenacity and resolve – of falling, getting up, falling, getting up, falling and getting up again.
On a similar tack, I recall the story of Glenn Cunningham, perhaps not a household name to many, but a highly regarded middle-distance runner from long ago. At the peak of his career, as the dominant American miler of his generation, he wins the Sullivan Award for top amateur athlete in the United States in 1933.
His is certainly no easy and straightforward road to success.
Indeed, when just eight-years old, his legs are very badly burned in a freak schoolhouse explosion. Much worse, his brother Floyd, just turned 13, dies in the ensuing fire.
Doctors move quickly, recommending that Cunningham’s legs be amputated. Having lost all the flesh on his knees and shins, all the toes on his left foot, and with a shattered transverse arch, he is told that, at best, he will never walk normally.
It is not until 1919, a full two years after the accident, that he tries to walk again. Undeterred, thanks to lengthy therapy and rehabilitation, but more to incredible faith, positive attitude and will power, he not only takes his first halting steps but then slowly progresses to running.
Improbably, Cunningham goes on to race for the University of Kansas before representing his country in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, finishing 4th and 2nd respectively in the mile races. In the same time period, he sets a world record of 4.06.8 for the distance.
While theorists insist that breaking the 4-minute mile barrier is physiologically impossible, it remains his dream. Though in the end falling just short, he chases his goal relentlessly until his retirement from competition in 1940.
I emerge slowly from my reverie. The park is starting to come alive. Children now command the swings and the teeter-totter, maneuver driftwood logs into ready-made forts. Dig in the sand down near the water line.
Still, I continue to reflect upon bravery and mental strength. Think about grit, doggedness and sheer determination. About Paralympic heroes, about Terry Fox, about Glenn Cunningham and about the baby. And, as I begin to retrace my steps and start back home, about verse 40:31 in the book of Isaiah, “of others who also shall renew their strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint.”