Josh Cassidy spent his early childhood defeating cancer, dealing with paralysis in his legs and learning to prop himself up with canes and braces.
He was born in Ottawa with neuroblastoma, cancer of the spine and abdomen. Paralysis started in the baby’s feet and spread into his legs. He underwent surgeries and chemotherapy, but doctors gave the boy little chance to survive.
On Monday, at age 27, Mr. Cassidy won the Boston Marathon wheelchair race, conquering the streets of Boston, including the gruelling struggle of the infamous Heartbreak Hill, which sits imposingly 29 kilometres into a 42-kilometre ordeal. He did it in summer-like heat that had others dropping out.
But he’s far from satisfied. The thought of winning a gold medal at September’s London Paralympic Games drives him. This victory suggests he’s a serious contender.
Mr. Cassidy missed out on a medal at his first Paralympics in 2008 in Beijing. His family – including five brothers and four sisters – didn’t travel to Beijing, and the heartbreak of missing that set them to collecting Aeroplan points for a trip to London.
“We’re all set for London, I won’t miss it,” said his mother, Anne. “We have tickets for all nine siblings.”
Mr. Cassidy was only three weeks old when he had the first of many surgeries.
“It was a scary start for a young couple with our first baby, but from the start, he was a fighter,” said Ms. Cassidy. “After a full day of surgery on his abdomen and his back, I remember we called his name and his eyes opened. We knew he was kept here for a reason, and he always comes through.”
In and out of hospitals until he was seven, Mr. Cassidy remembers flashes of those years and the surgeries on his hips and legs. The Ernie and Bert dolls that he held for comfort. The mustard-like smell of the mask that would cover his nose and mouth before surgery.
The stronger childhood memories for this cancer survivor are ones of growing up in a warm family home, days often filled with sports. Yes, sports.
His dad was a military pilot so the family moved often. Mr. Cassidy grew up with a little feeling in his upper legs and scooted around the house however he could manage.
He was the oldest of the 10 kids and their unquestioned leader.
Mr. Cassidy was the goalie in their road hockey games, speeding across the crease on his knees. He rolled over the grass in his wheelchair as they hutted him the football and he led the way as quarterback. He would crawl into the exposed rafters in their family basement and swing from his arms while his brothers swung by their legs.
“He made the rules for every game, he was the captain for everything,” said Ben, Mr. Cassidy’s brother. “We followed him everywhere. He was our goalie not because he couldn’t play elsewhere, but because he was a seriously awesome goalie. He was good at everything.”
He was the kid in the wheelchair heading the pack of little brothers on bikes across the military base, directing them into artistic formations to mimic the iconic jets their dad piloted as part of Canada’s Snowbirds. Mr. Cassidy would do a head-first military crawl down the stairs of his family home, and his little brothers would try to follow in the same fashion.
Mr. Cassidy was always heading the pack, just as he was Monday at the Boston Marathon.
He took the front of the race early instead of saving some energy by sticking within the pack. He had several champion wheelchair racers charging behind him – men who had won the world’s most prestigious marathons numerous times. He battled to victory in a time of one hour, 18 minutes and 25 seconds – more than three minutes before any other competitor. He smashed the world record by two seconds.
“It kept me moving pretty hard knowing what kind of guys were behind me,” said Mr. Cassidy by phone from Boston. “There were seven guys in the race that could have won, so I didn’t dare slow down. I had done it [the Boston Marathon]twice before, so knew the course well, but I finally got a chance to crack it in my peak, my prime.”
Mr. Cassidy won the wheelchair section of the 2010 London Marathon and followed that up with Canadian titles at 400, 800 and 1,500 metres. He will compete in the 2012 London Marathon later this month wearing a racing suit with the name of Niamh Curry, a six-year-old British girl battling the same cancer he had. He is trying to help her raise funds to go to Philadelphia for treatment.
He has met the Paralympic standards but must still be selected to Team Canada with his performance at the Canadian Track and Field Championships, which open in late June in Calgary. He hopes to compete in four events at the Games: 800 metres, 1,500 meters, 5,000 metres and the marathon.
Mr. Cassidy trains twice a day, six days a week, riding across the Humber College campus, along Toronto’s lakeshore or far north of the city on rural roads with big hills to test his muscles and his mind.
At the stroke of midnight bringing in 2012, as most people were ringing in the new year with celebrations, Mr. Cassidy chose to be home alone, working out in a chair on training rollers, focused on a year ahead, which would include the London Olympics.
“It was a personal thing for me,” he said. “I have a resolution for the London Paralympic Games, and I wanted to bring in 2012 already working toward it.”
With a report from Jim Christie