Feature Story                                                                             Tuesday, February 21, 2017

 

Go West Young Man

Winnipeg's Wichers a power fundraiser for disabled kids

Staff/Voice photos

 

John Wichers in Chilliwack at the Royal Hotel.

 

(Continued from the previous page)

Things were different in 1957.  Eisenhower was president, Elvis was playing on the Ed Sullivan Show, Frisbees were just introduced to the world. When the lanky, young John Wichers stepped off the boat fresh from Holland, there were many challenges ahead. Life doesn't come with a playbook. He was travelling alone, couldn't speak English, didn't know anyone. There was no social support. He eventually moved to Winnipeg and made a home there while working his way up the chain until he was in places like the Manitoba Legislature and having lunch at the governor's house.

Wichers is a big man in more ways than one. Aside from an athletic stature that belies his age, his compassion and devotion to the community is in a class of its own. He rides weekly, runs—sometimes through knee deep snow for miles. Now he's wall-climbing rappelling 25-storey's off skyscrapers to raise funds

Throughout his life Wichers has grabbed the bull by the horns and plowed though every challenge with sheer determination. Now, at 79, Wichers faced his biggest challenge—to ride across the country.

He's one of those rare Canadians who can proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other heroes like Terry Fox. They're the type of people who think that it's not about what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

"Terry Fox was one of my heroes. I knew Betty and Rollie quite well for a long time," he said.

A month before Wichers left on June 24th, he the family were in the Legislature where they presented him with a certified and thanked him for everything he's accomplished and to wish him luck on his next endeavour.

Wichers knew what he was capable of before he even left. There was meticulous logistics of it like route planning, hotels, foods. 

From a riders point of view, the wall of mountains begins at Hope and soon becomes a chain-stretcher. At some places it's quicker and easier just to get off the bike and push it. But Wichers never did. He did however take a rest every 15 minutes after covering about 50 feet.

"I left Hope at 5am and got to Merritt at 7pm."

He didn't camp. One luxury he gave himself for the hard work was a soft bed and basically planned his trip on riding from one town or city for a hotel room and get the road dirt off him..

He had a special rack on the back and I bought a full-sized cooler 9" high but he wanted frozen bottled water and always had the hotel do that for him.

Even though he's a spry for a man his age, he had some difficulty swinging his leg over the cooler many times a day.

"Many times a day I would grab my handle, I'm not that flexible but at 78, and do that several times. A good drink of ice water was great," he said. I have an insulated holder on my bike to put it in," says Wichers.

When he got into Westbank he stopped for three days in Oliver to see his sister. Then he went back and picked where he left off.

There were many memorable moments along the way he remembers and he slightest details like they were yesterday.

Wichers made friends all the long away. When he got into Sicamous he stopped at what he described as awesome with a stunning view, a beautiful river nearby, a golf course. There was even a slight breeze as he sat.

A gent who was working in the kitchen noticed him on the bike, and suggested he go rest up in the quietude of the bar and said he'd talk with him shortly "

"The bartender bought me a beer," Wichers said with a chuckle.

Meanwhile, the cook had come back and called his mother saying "You got to meet this guy mom". So the affable Wichers was invited to have dinner with them.

As he moved through the Okanagan it was a searing 40C but he says he can take the heat. Heading off the Coquihalla he didn't have to hit the pedals for the next 30 km.

"I could see the lake. Then you have about 32 Km, down, down, down. I never stopped. So I'm working the brakes and I stopped about 2 or 3 times just to grab my water, drink it an then go again. Every day I could feel it just got warmer."

"So then I had a rest day, and my sister and her husband came out the next day and we had lunch together, and then like I said, I went to Sicamous and that beautiful place there and stayed the day. One of the guys bought me dinner," he said.

In Revelstoke, he ran headlong into a monsoon that turned to sleet and snow on Kicking Horse Pass. Rogers Pass had the same thing. His legs were purple by 10:30am and riding with pants on was too difficult, so he headed to a hotel to try and wait out the worst of the weather.

Once he was going again, he was in the chest by a small stone on Rogers Pass.

"It didn't hurt me. Good thing it didn't hit me in the glasses. His mirror got cracked somehow and needed repairing.
 
Wichers said in the rain you can hear stones coming down cliffs

"Every once in a while you see a fist-sized stone laying at the side of the road.

"When he approached Lake Louise there was a bear at the side of the road and it was sitting right on my path. So I kept my distance for awhile. The some people were there taking pictures  and he thought that's a bear, don't go so close.," he thought.  "Then more people and it went onto the railroad tracks and I thought I better go. There were 8 or 9 elk on the road as well and truck ran by and he honked the horn and  hat got them off the road and he saw and stopped. I had a word with him."

Other than that, now it was long, straight trips through the prairies. He had a tailwind in Saskatewan.

There was smoke from the fires at Lake Laronge and he ended up have to ride through that for 8 days.

It was long days. I had a hotel in the west part of Calgary for a couple of days, so in them morning I got up early. The next town was Becelles and it was 141 km away from the hotel.

Among other things he had to navigate road crews with maintenance. So if there was a MacDonald's, I would get my break and just go through the drive-thru, so I got a lot of comments," he laughs. "Hey buddy, whatcha doing?" they'd say.

In Alberta, in Brooks, there was a Denny's and I was talking with a guy there and he said "Breakfast is on us." I gave them a brochure. Did I ever give you one of the brochures? I don't have many left.

"So when I got into Medicine Hat, most of the times I didn't get anywhere near a grocery store was too far away, or it was closed already. I had days where I would leave at 5 in the morning and stop at 7 so I was on the road all day. I wasn't taking care of myself, so when I got into Medicine Hat . So, you carry a 12 of water, a couple bags groceries that was heavy," explains Wichers.

But I got into a hotel and wanted to have a shower and wondered what I was going to do with my bike? So I managed to get it in, only had to carry his bike up one flight of stairs. He only had to pack his horse up stairs four times over the trip.

He figured that from there to Swift Current was about 140—km way to far to go on a bike, there's a lot of hills.

"When my wife met me Maple Creek, she looked at me and said "Good God, you've lost a lot of weight!"

She told him their donation numbers were up to $25K which put more gas in his tank in the final push to 
Manitoba.

By then he was keeping it at about 50 km more or less.

The next day he rode easier. But before he left, he went over the map with Barb and pointed at a spot 3 hours away.

"I'll see you there, he said.

Off he went.

So, three hours later Barb was waiting at the rest area and began wondering. "Where is this guy?"

He Finally he arrived a couple of hours late. Barb had brought him some chocolate milk and other items.

"I drank a lot of chocolate milk because of it's protein," he said.

"Jesus, how far did you go?" she asked him.

"I looked at the map, 71km," he said laughing.

Mechanically, there were no issues over the entire 4,380 km. there and back on his $6K ride.

"I never had one flat tire," said Wichers "You don't have time to stop and take the wheel off, pull out the nails and screws and patch it up. I'd just dipsy-doodled around a lot around them. It's amazing how much junk you see along the road," he exclaimed.

There were a few times he was squeezed by semi tractor-trailers. Not many. Most drivers were polite and gave him plenty of room.

""I was listening to the rumble strips."

"The what?" asked Barb.

Once passed Regina, he started getting excited when Winnipeg signs began popping up. His magnanimous ride was finally coming to an end.

Traffic began to get heavier. It was the most dangerous part of the journey he explained.

"I was riding the white line and you hope and prayed no one got distracted," he said.

When he wheeled into Winnipeg, there was a crowd assembled and gave him a heroes welcome.

In the past, Wichers has been in more fundraisers in Winnipeg than he can remember. One was of them was when the man of steel man walked 800 km from Thompson Manitoba and back to Winnipeg.

"Again raising money for rehab for children," said Barb, who was listening intently as if hearing it for the first time.

Wichers was involved in fundraiser in a  jogged across Lake Winnipeg in a balmy -25C. It was more like a slog than a jog.

"It was through knee-deep snow for 34 km from Gimley to Hillside Beach." he said.

"He's crazy," said Barb.

Three years before that, he helped organize, and ran in, a week-long relay from Winnipeg to Thompson, Manitoba.

His latest achievement came when the Society of Manitoba of People with Disabilities (SMPD) and asked if I wanted to rappel down 25 floors. That was nothing for Wichers and didn't hesitate one moment.

The fundraiser is called the "Drop Zone". It's done in every major city in Canada. Traditionally in Winnipeg they always had it on a 17-storey building, but now it's 25 floors.

"You know what I said to John when he told me this?" asked Barb. "At least they're not making you climb up the building first," she said bursting out laughing.

Part of the program was a wall climb prior to the rappel. Organizers told Wichers, who three-weeks shy of 79th birthday, that he was by far the oldest person who'd ever done it. A 70-year-old man wore the crown before him.

Before rappelling, he met with organizers and said that he wanted to do it and that he was going to have some corporation backing. He needed to have a minimum of $1500 to take the leap. By the time the drop happened he had $2000. In 11 years, SMPD has fundraised over $1,200,00.00 and every cent goes to people with disabilities.

"I worked for 16 years in rehab so these are actually the children of yesteryear and now they're adults," he said. "When I came back from the meeting in March, I donated $100 to get me started in this fundraiser.

"So only a few weeks ago, I got about $680," he continued. "Then another company donated $200. Then it shot straight up to $1700."

Wichers goes the distance to thank donators. If he needs their names, Wichers will do some sleuth work to find out who made the contributions. Just the name is no help he says.

"I want to find out who are they and their address. It's a big deal," he said. "I'm always big on thanks, because you know never know when you never know when you need to give back."

But Wichers isn't quite done yet.

He still runs 3 times a week but before that he ran 5 days a week for the disabled kids.

"Sometimes he amazed when he reflects on something he's accomplished.

"Gee, did I really do that?"

"I got there at Tuesday afternoon and on Sunday I was running with my friends again. I felt great and that Saturday he rode his bike 100km. And they want me to it again when I get back and then the next day we'll do 120km."

He had a $7,300 bike given to him. They usually run about $6000 without all the gewgaws.

Ten Bikes for Ten Kids about $3000 per bike to help get people with disabilities as functioning as possible. When he left he says he was about $12-$13K. All together, there and back, he raised $32,000.

He eventually moved to Winnipeg and made a home there and has been astounding long after retirement. while working his way up the chain until he was in places like the Manitoba Legislature and having lunch at the governor's house.

Wichers, an amazing man who faced a brave new world with nothing, to being honoured in the Manitoba Legislature and having lunch at the governor's house.

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