Terry Fox Is the Most Important Athlete in Canadian History
Fox's triumphant Marathon of Hope run was influential in raising much-needed money and awareness for cancer research. His legacy will live on forever, as his impact is still felt across the world today.
Photo via Canadian Press
On June 28, 1981, Terry Fox passed away at the age of 22 following a four-year battle with cancer. Thirty-six years after his death, the Marathon of Hope—in which Fox ran 5,000 kilometres across the country for 143 consecutive days, raising $1.7 million for cancer research—has become an essential story in Canadian history, and passed down from one generation to another.
Ask anyone about Terry Fox and they will marvel at how remarkable and resilient he was; how he defied all odds, running daily marathons with an amputated right leg, single-handedly writing one of the most inspirational stories in the country's history. For his efforts, Terry was the youngest person to be awarded the Order of Canada in 1980, and won the Lou Marsh Award as the country's top athlete in the same year. Canadians know Terry Fox like they know Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest and most accomplished athlete the country has ever produced. Ask Fred Fox, 60, and he'll tell you his brother Terry was just an average, ordinary kid who worked hard to reach the goals he set for himself.
It's a simple and effective message, and carries universal meaning for children across Canada and around the world. Fred works as the manager of supporter relations at the Terry Fox Foundation, which was launched in 1988 to maintain the vision and principles of Terry while raising money for cancer research through the annual Terry Fox Run.
As part of his role, Fred visits schools and delivers that message to children who view Terry as a Canadian hero. It humanizes the tale of Terry Fox, and lets them know there are many different goals to set, and many different ways to attain them.
"He wasn't the best athlete [or] the smartest kid in the classroom. He had to work harder than anybody else," Fred told VICE Sports.
Growing up together in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, Fred remembers inner-tube racing at a nearby river with his younger brother, playing roller hockey in front of their house together, or picking blueberries as teenagers as a way to raise money to buy golf clubs for themselves.
Whether it was making the grade eight basketball team, or learning how to play rugby in high school, Terry was an athlete, with a passion for basketball first. "He might not be the best [player] on the team," Fred said, "but he worked to be the best that he could at something."
The same message is echoed at the Terry Fox Research Institute, where Dr. Victor Ling serves as the founding president and scientific director. When the institute was founded in 2008, Ling decided there was a need to focus on translational cancer research in order to apply findings to the benefit of patients right away. Even with money flowing from the foundation, Ling admits that the size of the cancer research funding pales in comparison to other organizations with larger donors.
Ling focused on using the resources available to assemble teams comprised of the best scientists, doctors, nurses and healthcare experts. "We decided we should really do the hard things because that's what Terry would want us to do," Ling told VICE Sports. "He would want us to tackle the biggest challenges."
One of those challenges was in the area of lung cancer research, which if detected in its late stages has a survival rate of around 15 percent, compared to a survival rate of up to 90 percent if the cancer is detected early and before it spreads throughout the body.
The institute came up with an algorithm to target heavy smokers and people with lifestyle indicators that would be conducive to lung cancer, developing a low-dose CT scan for lung cancer screening for 2,500 people, 150 of whom were diagnosed with early stage lung cancer that otherwise would not have been found until it was too late.
Ling, who was inspired as a young scientist watching Terry's Marathon of Hope, has seen the cancer research community rally around Fox. "Because of Terry, and because of who he is, people are willing to work together and collaborate," Ling said. "There are a lot of scientists and doctors that get inspired by the Terry Fox Run, so they become scientists and doctors because of that."
One of those people is Dr. William Lockwood, who received a $450,000 grant from the foundation in 2006, and works at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.
"I think he's inspired a whole generation of people to be actively involved in this cause of trying to cure cancer," Lockwood told VICE Sports.
"My kids now are doing the Terry Fox Run and [when] the whole thing started, it was such a smaller-scale thing. Now they have a whole week at school dedicated to learning about Terry Fox. That's probably the coolest thing, because now when people talk to me and find out I'm a cancer researcher, they're actually quite interested in it."
Dr. John Bell, the lead investigator for the Terry Fox Research Institute's Canadian Oncolytic Virus Consortium, was so inspired that he named his first son after the national icon. "It was incredibly moving to see this young man make the ultimate sacrifice," Bell told VICE Sports.
"I don't know that people today even grasp the significance of running a marathon on one leg. It's just mind-boggling, so all that was very much an inspiration to me."
The inspiration extends beyond Canada. Internationally, The Terry Fox Foundation has raised $80-plus million over 36 years (more than $715 million worldwide, including contributions made in Canada). Over 50 different countries have organized Terry Fox Runs, with roughly 30 nations actively participating. Those initial international runs started in 1992, beginning at Canadian embassies before spreading to countries like Belgium and China, and have continued growing, with new events set to take place this year in Australia, Brazil, and Turkey.
The scope of runs in Canada alone is immense, with coast-to-coast participation from school kids and adults alike. But what's truly remarkable is the international impact Terry has made. In addition to the many runs taking place in the United States, Cuba, and countries as far east as South Korea, there are more planned across the globe—everywhere from Japan to Egypt , Portugal to Argentina.
While siblings Fred and Darrell have been involved in the foundation for longer, Judith Fox, 52, the younger sister of Terry, needed time to find a definitive role for herself. Before becoming the foundation's international director in 2008, Judith would speak at schools and attend Terry Fox Runs, while raising four kids and working in the parks and recreation department for a local municipality.
Judith was 16 when her brother passed away, and for a long time, everyone at school simply knew her as Terry Fox's sister. "In a way, I lost my own identity," she told VICE Sports.
In her nearly full decade as the international director, Judith has found her calling. "It's been such a gift to me," she said. "I am grateful beyond words for being given this opportunity. Every day is such an inspiration for me. I'm just so grateful."
She's travelled to Mumbai and Abu Dhabi, and watched over 15,000 people participate in Terry Fox Runs overseas. Every one of those moments in Judith's travels is particularly emotional for her, and reminds her of the way Terry started his triumphant journey, the Marathon of Hope, in Newfoundland on April 12, 1980.
"When Terry dipped his foot in the Atlantic Ocean, it's like how you drop a pebble in a pond, and it sends out ripples," Judith said. "The ripples have just kept going and are crossing throughout the world, and Terry's message is being spread."
Fred admits the emotional toll that comes with working so closely with individuals who are affected by cancer. He remembers visiting Yorkton Regional High School in Saskatchewan last September to see Chad Young, who had lost a leg and was recovering from osteosarcoma—the same cancer that Terry had. "This kid has such a wonderful attitude despite everything he had gone through," Fred said.
Chad passed away this February at the age of 17. "It was just one of those things that will always impact me," Fred said. "Here's a kid, all these years later, had the same cancer and was more or less the same age as Terry. It just hit me hard."
Talk to Fred and Judith long enough, and there are plenty of stories like Chad's, including Akash Dube, who, after being diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, set up a Terry Fox Run in India in 2009 before passing away at the age of 19 in 2012 while a freshman resident at Stanford Hospital and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where he was studying with the hopes of becoming a cancer researcher.
They've seen many people besides their brother who have been impacted by cancer. But there are uplifting stories, too, and a sense of pride that all these years later, Terry has continued to inspire kids across the world and impacted the advancement of cancer research.
"I think Terry would be satisfied knowing that because of what happened to him, it has saved the lives of so many other people," Fred said. "Terry realized at a very young age that he was given a purpose in life, and that was his purpose, to make a difference."
There have been athletes in Canada with a more esteemed career résumé at the professional level, and certainly singular sports moments that are more celebrated. But considering the impact of Terry Fox's story, which will be everlasting, and live on long after all of us have passed away, there's no question he is the most influential athlete in Canadian history.
"He considered himself an athlete. Running a marathon a day was a pretty athletic achievement," Fred said. "Terry would be happy to know that people see him as an athlete, and not just some guy who was running across Canada."
In 1981, just months before he passed away, Terry realized his goal of raising a dollar for every Canadian to fight cancer, as the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope fund totalled $24.17 million when the national population reached 24.1 million. Almost four decades after his death, he's still contributing to the field of cancer research, and inspiring people across the world.
His life had a beginning and end, yet his legacy and impact will live on forever.