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Steve Fonyo's Run for Life

Broadcast on CBC's The Current

ANNA FONYO (STEVE'S MOM) 3:09 “Boxes and boxes, here I can show you . . . 3:22 Here, DRAWERS FULL OF DOCUMENTS AND PAPERS, Yes, it’s all pictures, and here something PHOTO ALBUMS lots of things here 3:40 SO THESE HAVE BEEN HERE FOR 25 YEARS That’s right . . . 4:37 Well, it’s a good memory, some of it, but . . . it’s all gone (laughs.)”

SUZANNE FONYO 3:55 “What he did was just outstanding, it was great, and we’re all proud of what he did. What we’re not proud of, is what he did after.”

MUSIC and MANSBRIDGE 0:26 “Good afternoon, from Victoria BC, I’m Peter Mansbridge. It is fitting perhaps that it is raining here in Victoria . . . an incredible journey comes to an end on this day 14 months after the day it started in the snow of St. John’s Nfld., the journey, of course, that of Steve Fonyo . . . “

For a brief, brilliant moment, 25 years ago, Steve Fonyo had a country’s undivided attention, and mostly, its gratitude—a 19-year-old high school dropout with one leg, a big ego, and a brash crazy idea . . . to do what Terry Fox had been unable to do . . . to run from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a battle against weather, an unforgiving landscape and a physical handicap . . .

(MANSBRIDGE) 1:05 “Today those battles are all behind him and today is a day of celebration . . . . “(fade down)

Fonyo’s celebration lasted several months . . . he raised more than $13 million in his fight against cancer . . . and he became the youngest ever inductee into the Order of Canada . . But the battles weren’t all behind him . . .

(MANSBRIDGE) 2:39 “Are you looking forward to what’s going to happen after the run? FONYO I’m looking forward to a good long vacation in the Cook Islands.”

What Fonyo couldn’t foresee then was a lifetime of battles against a host of personal demons: Alcohol. And cocaine. And depression. And debt. And the sudden death of his father. At one point, he even stuck the barrel of a handgun into his mouth, and almost pulled the trigger. Another time, he had his leg stolen while in a drunken stupor under a tree in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside . . . But on this day in 1985, riding the crest of international celebrity, anything was possible.

MANSBRIDGE 48:27 “It was brief, but it was a moment of magic, and a moment you will see spread across the newspapers of this land tomorrow morning, and it will be a moment of history in Canadian books for years and years to come, Steve Fonyo with his foot in the Pacific Ocean . . . 49:00 Steve you made it, congratulations! Thanks. What did it feel like when you did that? It feels great!!”

FONYO 1 0:31 “It’s been a bad trip. It’s been a bad trip. I’m putting it behind me.”

On a crisp February morning …25 years later, I’m driving Steve Fonyo home from jail in Maple Ridge, BC. He’s just completed a two-month sentence for violating a judge’s order not to contact his girlfriend Lisa after a fight. The order has since been lifted, and Lisa is with us in the car.

FONYO 1 0:52 I enjoy just being free. I don’t know how to explain it. How do you explain something like that? Can you explain that? LISA I just think you’ve learned to not take so many things for granted.”

Fonyo’s problems with the law are not new. They started in 1987, the careless behavior of a young celebrity—too much booze and partying. But then the bad stuff began to accumulate: theft, fraud, assault, drunk driving and driving without a licence. When I visited him in jail in February, he had no friends, no money, no driver’s licence and his car was impounded. He didn’t have access to cigarettes, writing paper or even a clean change of clothes. He needed me to drive him home.

FONYO 1 4:56 “I need a job, I need to get back to work soon . . .5:06 unfortunately things aren’t free in the world, the phone bill, rent, behind in rent, stuff like that, it won’t fall from the sky.”

But to understand the Steve Fonyo today … it helps to know who he was and what he did more than 2 decades ago…

(SUZANNE) 0:52“He just took one day at a time and he just did it . . . (fade down.)

Fonyo’s sister Suzanne was a pillar in Steve’s life back then. She left the family’s perogi restaurant in British Columbia to handle logistics for the first six months of his cross-Canada run. It was called The Journey for Lives.
Suzanne is 13 years older than her brother … she says she was his second mother, driving in the motor home that followed Steve, talking him through his moods, and arranging his public appearances.

SUZANNE 1 3:20 “It was the impossible dream, I mean Steve was only 17 at the time . . . 3:33 he was only 17 and we’re saying, what the hell are you doing, you’re just a kid, no professional training, he wasn’t a professional athlete, he didn’t have a proper diet, it was almost impossible but he did it.”

FONYO 3 6:20 “When I started in Newfoundland, the first day, I ran 12 kilometres and it was nothing like anything I’d expected, all the training I did, those 12 kilometres I thought what did I get myself into, and that was in a snowstorm on the very first day and I thought, Oh my God, what did I get myself into?”

(SUZANNE 1) 3 56 “He was quite determined, he said I’m gonna do this and when I was on the run with him, there were times when I just I couldn’t believe that he was still going on, in the winter in Ontario it was 40 50 below with the wind chill and I was driving the motor home at 2 or 3 km an hour and I was watching him and he had his headset on and just going going going.”

(FONYO 3) 6:45 “I stuck to it, I plugged through it, I did it, every day I was out there, every single day, go go, go, go, go.”

(SUZANNE 1) 4:22 “And he had a lot of trouble with shin splints and being tired and going to all the meetings and receptions and that was hard on him as well because he had to go off the road and run into this city and run into that city and do another interview here and there , it took a lot of his time from the run as well . .

ANNA 2:45 WAS THIS HIS ROOM? He was here, he was back and forth . . .

In a trailer park in the Okanagan region of British Columbia, I meet Steve’s mother Anna, 77 years old, an immigrant from Hungary who supports herself with hairdressing work, and selling homemade perogis. She doesn’t see Steve much, but her trailer is a museum of memorabilia from her son’s run—plaques, testimonials, paintings, boxes of souvenirs that are getting moldy with age. One room is set aside for him, the bed made, but he hasn’t been there in years. All the photographs are of a young, smiling teenager, full of promise.

(ANNA) 4:08 here is one pictures, when I was with Mulroney, that was on her (?) 20th birthday when we was in Ottawa, THAT’S YOU AND YOUR HUSBAND SHAKING HANDS WITH BRIAN MULRONEY Yeah, yeah WARM GOOD WISHES FROM BRIAN MULRONEY, I have another 2 3 but I don’t know WHERE IT’S ALL all in the box. .
5:38 WHERE ARE THE HATS, YOU MENTIONED 200 HATS? I gave it away, YOU GAVE THE HATS AWAY. Yeah, because it all gets moldy the wintertime in boxes, I give it to boys and girls, I went to the farmers market once a week I have some handicrafts I sell and I take the whole box there, anybody who wants it take it not for sale but just to give THESE WERE HATS THAT HE GOT AS SOUVENIRS IN HIS RUN. . everywhere he gets the hats, all kinds 621

The success of the Journey for Lives launched Fonyo on a celebrity rollercoaster ride. He had money in his pocket, the party invitations poured in. He met Michael Gorbachev and Tina Turner. Sylvester Stallone told Steve he was his inspiration for the movie Rocky 4. In 1987, Fonyo went to England, hoping to run another marathon against cancer. It was there that he got the bad news.

(FONYO 2) 2:35 “I got a call from my mother. I was living in England and she said you’d better come back, your Dad’s very sick. And two days later I’m back in Canada and I see my Dad in hospital. I couldn’t believe what I saw, it was beyond awful, on morphine, didn’t recognize me, in and out very very emotional lung cancer .. the next day he’s dead . . .

Steve has trouble telling this story, swearing, choking back tears.

3:33 And It’s fucked me up, man, I had a real tough time, didn’t know what to do,(choking up) lost the best friend I had in my life, didn’t know how to deal with it, so hit the drinking very heavily. . . 352 I’d been drinking before but casual, not abusing it, not getting drunk and doing stupid things. This went on and on, I was gonna commit suicide, I used to have lots of guns because when I was a kid I used to hunt with my dad . . . and I had a 9mm semi-auto handgun which was registered, I had it legal, and I was gonna blow my fuckin’ head off, didn’t know what to do. (I had it in my mouth) I was gonna pull the trigger (the rest if not very clear.)

(SUZANNE 2) 9:11 “If my Dad had been around it would have been 100% different, he needed that man figure and the support of his Dad, and I think that was one of the major factors that brought him down after all those years and all the support my dad gave him on his run, it was difficult for him to lose his father 933”

Fonyo spent a year and a half in therapy with a psychologist in Vancouver. He says that was helpful. But the depressive episodes continued. Without a sense of purpose, without supportive friends or mentors, he soon found more relief in cocaine.

(FONYO 2) 5:25. I was on my own, man, 5:40 I was so lost, I didn’t know what I was doing, living on streets, living in bushes, I just gave up on life, 10:00 when I used drugs and drinking, I used that to hide the pain, it puts you in another state of mind, it puts you another world, a fantasy world that doesn’t exist and that’s what it did for me.”

Fonyo slipped in and out of this fantasy world, but meanwhile, the real world offered some opportunities. They all ended badly.

(SUZANNE 2) 6:27 He ended up working in Edmonton in a bank in a suit and a tie, and he hated it, and that went on a for a couple of years and then he got a grant for helicopter training and he finished it, but what went wrong there, I think he went into a depression, started drinking and once you have that reputation a pilot cannot be drunk or involved in alcohol and I remember I was in the restaurant I wrote at least 50 or 60 letters to different airports and helicopter CEOs and nobody replied because he had already that reputation, he was in the paper, caught for drinking and driving, so that was definitely his fault. HE LOST HIS DIRECTION DIDN’T HE? Yes and he always wanted to come back and he tried, but he had his problems 733

(ANNA) 8:00 HE MADE SOME MISTAKES, DIDN’T HE , he made a big mistake, yes, he made a big mistake WHAT WAS HIS BIGGEST MISTAKE 807 I think it WAS drinking, drugs, and the bad friendship . . . he don’t have nobody beside him. 819 He was too young when he started, and maybe it went to his head,

FONYO 3 11:31 “I think I got a bad hand of cards . . . 12:35 I should have had proper counseling, I should have had proper guidance to steer me in the right direction, you know, really famous at 18 years old and really not knowing how to deal with it . . . you know I had a really difficult life.”

And it got more difficult while he was in jail. As the Olympics were ramping up and the torch was making its way across the country, Steve thought he would get a chance to carry it. A chance maybe for personal redemption. An acknowledgement of what he achieved 25 years ago.But it didn’t happen. He says he was overlooked because he doesn’t have the charisma of the late Terry Fox, or the polish of Rick Hansen

13:45 (FONYO 1) “I use Rick Hansen as an example. I’m not the pretty boy, well cut, like the speech yesterday by Tiger Woods, I don’t come across like that person, I don’t have the empire behind me and coach me about how to look good on camera, . . . I came across the person who I am, if you like it great, if you don’t like it, there’s not much I can do about it 14 15 this is me and I believe lying to people is not the right thing to do, 1424 I’m not saying that Rick Hansen is lying, I just don’t have that image and never will, I’m not gonna try competing with that. 1436 But don’t kid yourself, after watching the opening of the ceremony of the Olympic Games, you think I’m not pissed off. Sure I am, cos I should have been there too.

And then he hit rock bottom.
While he was in jail he was told that the Order of Canada he had been given following his run … had been taken away.
On that February morning, on the ride home from jail. Steve talked about this with his girlfriend Lisa… frustration and anger in his voice …

FONYO 1 9:38 Because I screwed up for driving with no license or had a couple of drinks or whatever, the only person I hurt was myself, didn’t get into a car accident by the grace of god, I could have, yes, could have hit a child and killed somebody, yes, I could have, I could have, I could have, but I didn’t 9 56 They’re judging me for something I never even did, and they’re taking it away. 1005 I got the order of Canada for an achievement, okay that’s why, now because I have some problems in my life they take it away?
LISA 1122 They’re looking at the picture where you’ve been warned many times to knock it off and you just don’t give a shit and just go ahead and do it again anyway, with your driving while prohibited, your drinking and driving, that’s the big one in my eyes anyway 1137 STEVE yes, but people forget last time I had drinking and driving was 1989, so people . . . look back and think it happened like last year, why didn’t they take the Order of Canada away 20 years ago? Why now, 20 years later they wake up and now we’re gonna take it away. You gotta let it go sometime . . . that’s what I’m pissed off about.”

(SUZANNE 3) 027 He should be recognized for his accomplishment, He raised over 13 million dollars, he was a kid, 18-years old, he finished the run it took him a year and a half I definitely think he should be recognized, he should be honored . . .
1:00 I wish I knew who started all this, some government bureaucrat went up to the Governor General and said ‘oh look at this guy, they should take his Order of Canada away.’ I think it has something to do with the Olympics, they did it in the middle of the Olympics, WHY? . . . 128 it makes me sad when I look at the Olympics and I saw Betty Fox and Rick Hansen and Wayne Gretzky and I feel my brother should have been part of it. Who started it? I wish I knew and why? I don’t understand.

(RIDEAU HALL) 0:10 (sound of dialing, and ringing)

To try to answer those questions, I called Rideau Hall, the Governor-General’s residence in Ottawa. It’s the Governor-General who oversees the Order of Canada, assisted by an advisory council.

(RIDEAU HALL) 1:40 “Annabelle Cloutier, Bonjour.”

1:44“I’m doing a story for CBC Radio on Steve Fonyo and the Order of Canada. I wonder if you can answer a question or two for me. I’d like to know a little bit about how it was initiated, this whole process of rescinding the Order of Canada for Fonyo.

212 In this case we have two options, either someone asks the advisory council to consider a revocation or it can be done by the deputy secretary himself or herself . . .2:34 so I cannot say specifically how the case of Mr Fonyo has started, it remains confidential. YOU CAN’T TELL ME ANYTHING ABOUT WHO INITIATED THIS PROCESS No it’s confidential and it cannot be published or unveiled EVEN IF MR FONYO HIMSELF WOULD INQUIRE. No, and we’re not under the Access of Information Act, so no its confidential.”

Miss Cloutier said many Canadians have the impression that the Order of Canada is awarded for a single notable achievement. It’s not.

(RIDEAU HALL) 7:06 “It’s a little nuance that often people don’t do, they associate the Order for one thing you have done in your life but in fact it’s a lifetime achievement and you become a member, it’s like being a member of the Lion’s Club, it’s a membership, it’s not an award per se SO YOU’RE JUDGED ON YOUR BEHAVIOR OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR LIFETIME AS A MEMBER Yes.”


Today, most days, you can find Fonyo, covered in grease, in a truck repair shop in Surrey, BC, working on engines and transmissions.
After jail, he did manage to find a job.
Most of his hair is gone, so is the bright-eyed enthusiasm of the young athlete in the old photos. A middle-aged spread is starting to show, and his mechanics patter is laced with expletives.


He gets along well with the men he works with. They call him Fonzie, because of his obsession with cars. His boss says he’s an excellent mechanic . . . Fonyo says his time in jail taught him a thing or two about himself, where he went wrong, and what he has to do now.

FONYO 1 5:36 “IS THIS GOING TO BE A DIFFERENT STEVE FONYO THAT WE SEE Yeah, oh yeah, for sure RADICALLY DIFFERENT Yes . . . 5:50 I can’t take things, the law into my own hands, driving with no licence and stuff like that, doing foolish things 6:07 driving around thinking that I got this invisible shell around me that nobody can come through 632 YOU’VE HAD TIME TO REFLECT, HAVEN’T YOU, LOTS OF TIME TO THINK ABOUT YOUR LIFE Lot’s of time to think . . . I think I’m gonna be okay now. I think I’m gonna be okay now. I am.”

(SUZANNE 3) 5:17 “He needs to concentrate on positive things, he needs to concentrate more on his job and think of a bright future, don’t let all the negativity get to you.”

And that’s Steve Fonyo’s plan too. When he’s saved up some money, and found a stable place to live, he hopes to live a quiet life, out of the spotlight, with the addictions and the petty crimes behind him. It won’t be the Journey for Lives anymore. But rather, a journey for one, normal life.

1 comment:

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