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Wheelchair racer says obstacles are opportunities

Josh Cassidy spoke to Thursday to Guelph Chamber of Commerce event.
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Paralympian Josh Cassidy spoke at a Guelph Chamber of Commerce event Thursday.

Personal challenges are a gift, especially the hardest ones.

That was the message delivered by paralympian Josh Cassidy during a Guelph Chamber of Commerce “Thought Leader Series” address Thursday at the Hanlon Convention Centre. The event was sold out.

Cassidy was born into adversity. He was given a minimal chance of survival at birth when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer of the spine and abdomen. By the age of five he was declared cancer-free, but the disease left him partially paralyzed. He would spend the rest of his life overcoming challenges.

Cassidy, who trains in Guelph, told an audience of about 75 people that his earliest challenges prepared him for all the many challenges of life.

“Obstacles are always going to be there,” he said, speaking of a typical human life. “They are an opportunity to learn and grow.”

He has applied the lessons he learned overcoming those early-year challenges to all the obstacles in his life, he said. And he learned to appreciate those obstacles as a gift because they made him strong, made him persevere and rise above.

He rose to become a leading paralympian wheelchair racer, one of the best long-distance racers in the world. And he got to that level by losing, and then by committing himself to get better and overcome the obstacle of losing.

“In that light, the cancer was the best thing that happened to me,” he said, explaining that cancer defined who he was – not by the disability it gave him, but by the ability it gave him to transcend that disability.

People often ask him if he would like to walk again if some medical breakthrough allowed it. He said he doesn’t care about walking again, and never thinks about it.

“I’m fine how I am,” he said.

The oldest of 10 children, Cassidy was a leader in his family. Wheelchair or not, his siblings looked up to him. Always competitive, and always driven in the pursuit of personal growth, he discovered wheelchair racing at 15, and was soon a top-level competitor.

“I loved competing,” he said. “I thought, if I did well it would give me a platform on a different level.”

He wasn’t satisfied just to compete. He wanted to compete, win, and inspire people. But as hard as he tried, winning didn’t always come.

He made his first Canadian national team in 2006 at the age of 22, and competed in his first Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. He wanted to win there, but lost instead. And that tough loss, he said, made him quickly visualize winning the next time out – seeing in his mind what it would take to win. On New Years eve that year, as the clock struck midnight, he started to train.

He won the London Marathon in 2010, and in 2012 won the Boston Marathon in the fastest time ever recorded for that distance.

Everyone struggles in life. It is normal and necessary, he said. It is the way we grow. What makes all of the difference in a person’s life is how they go about overcoming their struggles, what they learn from them and how they grow from those challenges.

Even hitting rock bottom – coming to a place in your life when there seems to be no way out and up – is a great opportunity to grow. There is no other choice but to rise above it.

“If we can overcome these lowest of lows, then we are ready for it the next time,” he said. “We know what to do. We’ve been there before.”

 At the Parapan Am Games last year, Cassidy was pegged to win lots of gold. He won three silver medals. Even those shone brightly with opportunity, he said.

“Three silvers meant I had to work harder,” he said, adding that had he won three gold medals he would have eased up and slacked off.

Changing your perspective, he said, is the key to adjusting your happiness. There is choice to be made when failure and challenges occur, a choice between darkening your thoughts, defeating yourself and sinking downward into the vortex, or seeing the light and rising into the upper level of the vortex. Change the way you think and you change your future. 


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Rob O'Flanagan

About the Author: Rob O'Flanagan

Rob O’Flanagan has been a newspaper reporter, photojournalist and columnist for over twenty years. He has won numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards and a National Newspaper Award.
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