Steve O’Brien has a simple message for the people of Canada; listen to your children. A former member of the Canadian Track and Field Team, O’Brien has been on the road since April of this year on a trans-canada “Walk, Run, and Roll” relay that has been a life dream for the last 35 years. Along the way he has travelled using a variety of different self-powered modes of transportation chosen by schoolchildren in his hometown of Lachute, Quebec, including walking, mountain biking, parabiking, wheelchair, rollerblading, scooter , longboard, pogo stick, snowshoes, and cross country skis.
“What I’ve been doing across Canada isn’t about raising money, it’s about raising awareness.” O’Brien said. “We’re there for our children, we have to listen to them and we have to change what our lifestyles are giving us.”
The 51-year-old athlete traced the original inspiration for his cross-Canada tour to the premature end of Terry Fox’s Marathon of hope in 1980.
“He was my childhood hero,” O’Brien said, “When he had to stop his marathon of hope because the cancer had come back, I think it affected the nation.”
While not questioning the impact Fox’s efforts had on the country, O’Brien shared that he feels most people don’t realize the magnitude of what the young man was doing.
“Thirty five years ago a young kid with one leg decided to run across Canada,” O’Brien said. “People don’t see how long this country is.”
With Fox as his inspiration, the young athlete went on to have a significant career in track and field that saw him attend national and international events like the Canada and Commonwealth games, starting from the running track at the University of Sherbrooke. O’Brien said that he gained a reputation as someone who suffers but never quits and made it his mission to carry things through to the end in life, whatever the challenge might happen to be.
That approach to life was tested, however, by what the runner called a “nightmare” in 1992.
“I remember asking my wife, why me? I was working 60 hours a week; I was training like a madman to go to the Olympics then, bang! I blew out my quads and that dream was over,” O’Brien said. “I couldn’t understand why it happened to me, but 25 years later I do understand. I’m doing something bigger and better now. Instead of running for my country, I’m helping kids across the country.”
Like his idol before him, O’Brien said that he has come to draw inspiration from the needs of the children and young people around him. After ending his competitive running O’Brien got involved in the world of education and has taught students at the
Elementary and Secondary level, as well as in Adult Education and Special Education programs over the last 25 years.
“I just listen to these kids and learn so much,” he said, explaining that the struggles of young people in school and society today led him to found the Steve O’Brien foundation and eventually to the mission of journeying across Canada to support the nation’s children.
“It’s been a pretty amazing journey, we’ve had a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” the athlete said sharing that he has seen acts of great kindness and generousity as well as great cruelty along his way. “Some communities they don’t have time to wink at you, but other communities will make the time. It depends on the community, and it depends on how they care about their kids.”
O’Brien and his team set out from Beacon Hill Park in Victoria British Colombia in April and had made their way 7628 km across the country by Wenesday morning. The runner pointed out that the mileage already surpasses the length of a direct route across the country, explaining that he has been making detours along the way to try to reach as many communities as possible. For example, on Wednesday the team planned to make the journey from Windsor to Drummondville, but they are set to start in Richmond this morning bound for Victoriaville. In total, O’Brien said he expects to surpass 12,000km.
“I cannot do this by myself,” the athlete said. “I need schools to believe and kids to believe,”
In an effort to make his project have a lasting event, the Steve O’Brien Foundation is organizing an event called, “youth relay day,” for April 28, 2016. On that day, O’Brien said, schools across the country will be invited to get out and get active to try to collect mileage of their own in whatever way they see fit. The foundation will collect those numbers to determine which project was the most engaged and to see if all the students in all the schools, put together, can out-do the milage he manages on his cross-country challenge.
The ultimate goal at the heart of all of this, according to O’Brien, is getting kids involved and engaged with their own development, and getting communities to engage with that process as well.
“If we help our kids, we have a bright future ahead of us,” O’Brien said. “We can make the impossible possible.”
More information about the Steve O’Brien Foundation is available at www.steveobrienfondation.com and the Walk, Run, and Roll team are making regular updates as to O’Brien’s progress both on the foundation’s Facebook page and at http://www.walkrunnroll.ca/.