Born to an alcoholic father, and a mother still in her teens, our next story is about a person who was incapable to decide his own fate around 30 years ago while still in his mother's womb. Much too little to say no to parents who were going to separate over an affair after his birth. Much too little to decide just yet that he did not want a man who would hardly ever be there as a father to him. Much too little to not want a mother who would walk away from him and never return. Too little to understand the emotional affects of coming face to face with his half-sister whom he was to learn about for the first time only as an adult. Too little to even understand what fate had already decided for him: To be diagnosed at birth with Caudal Regression Syndrome or Sacral Agenesis- a physical condition that affects one in 25,000 live births. A disorder that damages the fetus resulting in an abnormal development of the lower spine, in which he would have to live his life in a wheelchair. Almost as if to seal this new born's fate, the doctor gave his his final verdict when he said that this child will never be able to move again.
Today, 3 decades later, this man, only 4 feet and 11 inches, is still in his wheelchair. This same man has also represented Canada at the Paralympics in Sledge Hockey, over and over again.
We are both proud and humbled to introduce to you, Brad Bowden: Assistant Captain of the Canadian Sledge Hockey Team. Bowden has also represented Canada at two Paralympic Winter Games, one Paralympic Summer Games and six IPC World Championships. He is a three-time world champion and has helped Canada to Paralympic gold in 2006 and fourth place in 2010. In 2006, he scored the winning goal against Norway in the sledge hockey final of the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Turin, becoming a back to back winner in the same year at the Summer and Winter Paralympics. In 2010, he was named Most Valuable Player at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver and became the first Paralympian to be inducted to the Orangeville Hall of Fame. In 2013, Bowden came out a winner at three tournaments: the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in Toronto, the Four Nations Tournament in Sochi and the IPC World Championships in Goyang, South Korea. In 2012, he was a silver medallist at the World Sledge Hockey Challenge and got bronze at the worlds. Bowden was also previously a member of Canada’s wheelchair basketball team, earning gold at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens and 2006 World Cup. Governed by the International Paralympic Committee, Brad Bowden is a member of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, a non-profit, private organization with 25 member sports organizations dedicated to strengthening the Paralympic Movement.
Something happened between the day he was born, when his doctor had predicted he will never be able to move again, to his parents leaving him, to now, when all eyes are on him and his team mates to bring back the medal from Sochi. Perhaps an anger towards his parents. Perhaps the challenge to prove his doctor wrong that his grandfather had taken up. Perhaps the inability to accept defeat that life was setting him up with. All eyes were on him even when he was a child, but then the looks he got were different.
“When kids made fun of me in school for the way I looked, it hurt. Getting stared at while strapped to my chair, a sense of insecurity had started creeping into me. I didn’t understand my own physical disability, so how could I understand others seeing me as disabled?” Growing up for Brad, meant an acceptance of his own condition, which was the hardest thing to do. Everyday watching other kids around him taking things for granted, and then coming to terms with what he himself could do, and couldn’t do, was not easy. “I hated it,” says Brad angrily, “when, while sitting in my wheelchair, random people would just walk up to me and smack me in the head, thinking it’s ok to do that...I would just hate it. It was humiliating. It’s not ok. If you think it is disrespectful to do that to an able bodied man standing tall on his feet, then it is disrespectful to do that to someone in a wheelchair as well. My body just looks different. But I feel just the same as any able bodied person. I felt just the same as another human when I needed my father the most, and he wasn’t there. I felt like any other human would feel in my place, when my mother never ever came back for me. Had it not been for my grand parents who took me in and raised me, I could have been out on the streets, running from shelter to shelter....maybe dead...maybe doing drugs...who knows....”
So what really changed for Brad from then to now, when he carries the national flag on his shoulders while everyone looks at him with hope?
“My attitude towards the way I approached life slowly started changing for me when I started meeting people with far more serious physical disabilities than my own. I’ve seen people completely burned, people with missing body parts, paralyzed and completely unable to move. I understood how much I could still do. I slowly became desensitized to my own condition, and what people thought of me, or said to me. It just wasn’t important anymore. Then there was no turning back for me. I shifted focus to choosing the right people in my life. I decided for my own self, how to make my life the way I wanted it to be, and not how others saw it. I chose friends from my own team. There is a rock solid bond amongst us, an unsaid understanding, a feeling of permanence and of being the best buddies for life. It makes a lot of difference.”
There is an eastern belief that goes somewhat like this: Eventually, only good things happen to good people. Brad found his ultimate happiness in Shanna, the woman who’s love for him went beyond looking at his wheelchair, and proved that true love really does exist that crosses all boundaries. Today, a very happily married man, Brad’s life has come a full circle where every bit of love, a sense of security, and a feeling of being complete has all come rushing into his life. Brad’s grandfather always told him to treat everyone with respect.
Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, so never to judge tomorrow the way things look today. Brad’s only regret is that he held himself back so much growing up. “I lacked the confidence to lead life...Now that I look back on my life, I feel I should have changed the way I felt about myself, changed my attitude....I wish I could have known then, how things would work out for me in the end....then I wouldn’t be so scared...so insecure....life is to live....and enjoy....”
So arresting is the sincerity and honesty on Bowden's face, that one can not avoid looking at him. Perhaps it is a direct reflection of the choices he made in life. For all those times that people stared at your physical disability, for all those times you got made fun of in school, you Brad, ultimately showed to the world that you are a true hero.
Brad Bowden, we bow in respect to you for the strength you have shown, and for showing others that it is in us to create our own life, no matter what the circumstances. Thank you for allowing us to raise our flags high at the Paralympics!
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All Images: Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee