Darrel Harder was always an athlete. He loved to swim and run. He road biked around British Columbia and Washington. And, when he wasn’t hiking the North Shore mountains trails, he was bouncing over them on a mountain bike, avoiding logs and riders half his age. He was never want of courage—as a foreman in building restoration, he hung off skyscrapers for a living.
At age 49, Darrel was training for a triathlon, riding his bike just outside of Maple Ridge. “He wanted to do a triathlon before he turned 50—that was his goal,” recalls Darrel’s wife, Fran. “Unfortunately, it never happened.” A new driver went through an intersection, hitting Darrel. The impact to his spinal cord left him a quadriplegic.
Darrel spent months in rehabilitation, learning to use a wheelchair and accepting that his life would be different. The fact that he couldn’t ride a bike the way he used to weighed heavily on the would-be triathlete, but Darrel never let himself fall into self-pity or let his spinal cord injury (SCI) keep him from getting involved.
At GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre, Darrel met Brad Jacobson, an SCI BC Peer Coordinator and fellow spinal cord injury survivor. Through Brad and SCI BC, Darrel learned what it means to adjust, adapt and thrive after an injury, and how to live life successfully after an SCI. Years after he left rehab, Darrel remained a regular at the GF Strong education sessions, bringing in his therapy dog, Kipawa, and his sharp sense of humour, to help brighten up his old rehabilitation wing.
“Darrel loved being a part of the Spinal Cord Injury BC (SCI BC) community,” says Fran. “Though over the last year health sometimes kept him from attending events, he felt so good knowing that SCI BC was there for him and for others.”
Despite his own challenges—or perhaps because of them—Darrel found a way to be there for others as well. He volunteered to lead a monthly “Bean There” Coffee Group in Richmond, sharing stories, tips, and Starbucks coffee (“the stronger, the better”) with other men and women with SCI, and acting as both friend and mentor to anyone in need. “When he was running the coffee group, it was like a light went on in inside of him,” recalls Fran. “He let people talk. He didn’t feel like he needed to hear his voice, he wanted other people to be able to share. ”
And, though Darrel never completed that particular triathlon, he became part of a different team that made history. In 2012, SCI BC approached the organizers of the Scotiabank Half-Marathon and 5k Charity Challenge, one of Vancouver’s premiere summer races and not-for-profit fundraising events, with a simple request: that they allow wheelchair on the racecourse too.
That spring, with Darrel’s support, Team Walk ‘n’ Rollers was born.
“Darrel broke his neck while training for a triathlon and I think his training for the 5k was a way to not only get himself into better shape but also as way to redeem something in his life that had been taken from him,” says SCI BC Peer Coordinator and friend, Brad Jacobsen. “It was a chance to prove himself physically.”
For three years, Darrel joined the Walk ‘n’ Rollers, challenging himself on the 5km stretch of Seawall and, like many other participants with SCI, gaining something more: the intangible sense of accomplishment and the transformational effect the race has on a person’s outlook. With Fran and Kipawa by his side, Darrel watched the team grow from a handful of participants to more than three dozen.
This year, the original Walk ‘n’ Roller would have been one of 70 teammates. Sadly, after a brief battle with a severe stroke, Darrel passed away earlier this year. He was 61 years old.
In memory of what the Scotiabank Charity Challenge meant to Darrel, and what he meant to all of us, SCI BC is dedicating this year’s event to Darrel Harder—a man so determined that he pushed himself to succeed, so positive that he buoyed the spirits of others, and so generous that, as one last act of goodwill, he ensured that his vehicle and medical equipment were donated to SCI BC so they could benefit others when he was gone.
And, a man so compassionate and kind that, as he lay at the site of his own accident all those years ago, his thoughts turned to comforting those around him. “He was so amazing, hugging the boy that hit him with the car and reassuring him it was all okay,” recalls Fran.
“Right before he passed away, I told him to get out of his wheelchair and fly free,” says Fran. “I believe he listened.”
He will always be considered a part of the SCI BC team – this year, on June 26th, the Walk ‘n’ Rollers will will wheel, walk and run the 5km track in Darrel’s memory.