“There are lots of people who’ve done lots of things without fanfare, but they’re amazing. No matter who you are, no matter what you are. The reality is that that doesn’t matter.” -Andrew
It may be difficult to believe that Andrew still attempts to hide his disability. He tells me that, sometimes, he prefers to cover his prosthesis or mask the gait that highlights his above-knee amputation. The wooden casing on his prosthesis is perfectly formed, looks just like his other, whole leg and even bears a tattoo of the widely recognized Canadian national symbol of a bright red maple leaf on the side calf. The bottoms of his shorts, when it’s warm enough in Toronto to wear them, are long enough to end just below the prosthetic’s knee joint, the last obvious sign of a physical difference until the floor. On “bad leg days,” as I call them, Andrew admits that he does his best to overcome the limps and aches especially in front of his wife. “I’ve never let [her] see me that way…” he says, resolute. I’m both surprised and relieved to hear this. Though Andrew is a multiple Paralympic medal winner and world champion swimmer, he’s still human. I empathize as I think of all the times I desperately wanted to ghost through my days, my errands, my community, without my prosthesis loudly calling out to people to ask me questions, stare, or worse, avert their eyes. Andrew is regularly on a podium receiving medals or in front of a podium giving speeches, often in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and still feels affected by people’s generous Othering.
I’ve never met somebody before Andrew who has such a similar physical disability journey as mine: able-bodied beginnings, illness, hospitals, sobering understandings of mortality very young, and above-knee amputations soon after, still far too young. Hearing his tale cut to the quick of my own experience, as it mimicked mine so closely. At one point in our interview it seemed as if we were not even really talking, but rather offering mere words and phrases up, the weight of them still heavy as we took turns shifting the onus, relieving, validating, empathizing with one another. We were not in the same war, but our trenches looked very similar.
“Dating…,” I remember, wincing from the memories.
“So weird,” he agrees, nodding, remembering his own experiences.
“Like…I didn’t…,” my words stumble over the flood of my then adolescent and 20-something awkwardness.
“Yeah. The leg…,” he responds, understanding my gibberish.
“Or, like…snow,” he offers.
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, no.”
“Neither can I,” he confirms.
This unique kind of therapy goes on for a while.
I begin to wonder how much of our respective shame and hiding, for lack of better nouns, had something to do with the ages in which we lost our legs and the environments in which we grew up. When Andrew was diagnosed with sarcoma at just six years old, his parents were told that the only thing that would save his life was an above-knee amputation. The choice was obvious. After the amputation, another bout of cancer, and chemotherapy, Andrew felt like he was the token disabled kid in his community. His twin brother had—and still has—a total clean bill of health. “Some people’s numbers get picked, and some people’s don’t,” he shrugs, explaining why he was the lucky winner of cancer and his twin wasn’t.
Like many people with disabilities, Andrew was the only person with a disability in not only his family, but in his entire hometown, Cape Breton, and possibly all of Nova Scotia, he claims. During such formative years in which building one’s identity is difficult enough, Andrew, of course, found it difficult to isolate how he felt about himself and how others felt about, viewed, and treated him. He rattles off examples, “I’[d] walk to school and I’[d] limp and people [would] look at me and the kids [would] look at me… I’[d] play sports and I’m, like, always the last person picked or, you know, I’[d be] playing baseball, and [would] run to first base and get a pinch runner… Anyway… I’m an athlete! I wanted to run around the bases! I wanted to hit a home run or a triple. But I can’t because I’m not…” Now, the same verbal stumbling that I’d done moments earlier is happening to him. I patiently wait and imagine that he’s going through the mental list of things he was (an athlete? strong? powerful? resentful? frustrated?) and wasn’t (appreciated? treated fairly? an athlete? strong? powerful?), assessing his reality, and trying hard to convey it, landing finally on another example: “Well…by the time it took me to get to second, most people were already at third. Anyway…not one person in my town had a disability that I knew of. So it was difficult.” In all the interviews I’ve conducted so far, the least was said in Andrew’s, but the most was shared.
“I remember, right after I lost my leg,” he continues, “I went back to a place call North Sydney in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and I was just like, ‘There’s nobody around here with one leg. Nobody! There was nobody!’ There was one guy who had epilepsy, but that’s a different disability. Nobody had lost a limb. There was me. That’s it. Seventy-five hundred people in my town and not one person had a disability. So I was different.” But he did his best to persevere, ostracized and uncomfortable. “You do it because that’s all you know.” It was all he knew until he turned fifteen, anyway.
By the time Andrew was fifteen, he attended a pre-Paralympic swim meet. There he experienced a completely different world: every single person either had a disability or were supporters of people with disabilities. He went from being the only person out of thousands to have a physical disability to being in an auditorium of hundreds of disabled people just like him who didn’t even look twice at what he was lacking.
“I got there and then, all of a sudden, it’s like…’Ho-LEE*! There are people with no arms, no legs, one arm, one leg,’ you know? ‘There are dwarves here…there’s blind athletes here…this is great!’ For me, it was great. I saw all these different athletes who had disabilities. And we were all there and nobody could care less if [I] had one leg. I mean, that’s what [I was] there for! So, it was great. You were expected to have a disability. It was great to be 15 years old, impressionable as anything, and be able to go to a competition like that and see that there are other people that are worse off than you are.” He emphasizes that, not only did he feel amongst his people, but that the perspective he gleaned from seeing individuals who were amazing athletes with fewer body parts or more limitations than him, really helped shape his personal drive.
There, nobody cared that he limped or needed extra time to prepare or had to hop to the pool. They all had to be just as creative and resourceful. All anybody wanted to know was how fast he could swim. And fast he was.
“I felt like I belonged in there, in the water, even more than where I grew up. I didn’t feel restricted. There are no limits in the swimming pool. My disability doesn’t matter to me there. But it matters to me on the ground.”
It was then, in this new environment, in this new limitless state, that Andrew began to focus. Though not a religious man, he says that twice, in pivotal moments in his life, he felt he’d received from something, somewhere, a clear message. And that message was to get out of his own way. The first time was in 1990 while on a plane, ironically. “I had this epiphany: ‘Andrew, you’re going to be a World Champion.’” From that moment, his determination was absolute. Then, again, two years later while at the 300 meter mark of the 400 Freestyle at the Paralympics, Andrew says, “I felt doubt for a moment. Like, should I make a move? Should I commit to this? What if I fail? I thought, ‘I can do this and can do well.’ But then that voice interrupted and told me, ‘Allow yourself to be great.’ So I just stopped thinking of the negative…and I kept going.” And keep going he did, medaling in the Games for the first time. From 1992 to 2002, Andrew would go on to win numerous Paralympic medals and world championship competitions, traveling the globe and shattering misconceptions about people with disabilities with his fellow athletes.
While we spoke, at length, of his medals and his successes, he beamed most lovingly and proudly of his wife, Renata, who he met in Brazil in 2003 and married in 2008, and his young daughter, Kristen. There, in a common room in his building that was typically used for parties, the window looking out onto a beautiful, pink sunset-stained Toronto skyline, sat a giant, someone who had taken a raw deal and achieved greatness, broke world records, and, in his own words, went from nothing to something, went from feeling like nothing, to feeling like someone.
Reminiscing of the early days of his disability journey, Andrew says, “It’s not a time I’d wish on anybody. I don’t want anybody to go through it. But now,” he spreads his arms open, not just indicating our beautiful view out the window and the awesome building we’re sitting in, but everything he’s told me up until that point, as if it’s just sitting on the table in front of us, “I’m here. I’m here,” he repeats, more grateful than proud.
So much of the Redefining Disabled Project is about interviewing the Average Joes and Janes of disability. There’s a (mostly jocular, somewhat endearing, maybe a little resentful) name for people like Andrew in our community: Super Crips. Super Crips are the people with disabilities who’ve overcome their limitations to become tremendous athletes, their fame earning them titles of disability poster children that the world then manifests into an expectation for everybody else with a disability as if to say, Can you snowboard/swim/row across oceans like Amy Purdy/Jessica Long/Andrew Haley/Angela Madsen? Geez, why not? So, while Andrew is a Super Crip and, arguably, not the “type” of person RDP typically highlights, it’s important to note that his disability journey was and is still as arduous as anybody else’s. That he makes the most of what he has every day is what makes him a perfect fit for the project and much like you or me. Like I said earlier, we are not all in the same war, but our trenches look very similar. And, together, we’re allies.
“We face problems every single day in our lives. The challenges we face define who we are. If everything is just easy and we don’t have challenges, then your character takes a beating. I want Kristen (his daughter) to have challenges. I want her to face hardships. I want her to cry. I want her to fall. Because, by crying and falling and facing those, not only will she learn how to get up, but she’ll also learn that when things are sweet and nice and when she won something, then she got it because of the trials and tribulations that it took to get there, not because anything was handed to her.”
I end by asking him, “What do you wish people knew about you?”
“Despite obvious…limitations,” he begins, motioning to and, again, seeming embarrassed by his amputated leg, “I think I tried to make the most of what I had. Deep down, I always believe that there will be better days ahead. I think that everybody in your audience has the power to be somebody amazing,” he makes clear the message he wants to share with the RDP readers. “There are lots of people who’ve done lots of things without fanfare, but they’re amazing. No matter who you are, no matter what you are. The reality is that that doesn’t matter. I don’t want people to read this and think they can’t achieve what I achieved. I grew up no different than a lot of your readers. I grew up normal with humble beginnings. I was an average kid. I became better than average. I made who I was. I am self-made. I did it for myself. They say that about the States: the land of opportunity. You can do whatever the hell you want! I was a nobody. But I became a somebody. I became a somebody because I wanted it. I worked my ass off. Yeah, I did things that are amazing. And if you haven’t done anything amazing, go do something amazing! Reevaluate who you are. Be amazing. Get out of your own way. And if you don’t want to be amazing to yourself, do something better: be amazing to other people and give up your time. Now, that’s amazing.
Soon, Andrew will follow his own advice to becoming more amazing by giving up his time to father a new addition to their family. Andrew and his wife are expecting their second child, due this summer. It is my honor that Andrew has allowed me to deliver their joyous news to you via this article. No stranger to challenges, he will undoubtedly embrace this next stage of fatherhood as he has everything else in his life: with grace, fortitude, and tenacity.
*Andrew’s G-rated shorthand for “Holy shit”