When Paralympian Jeff Tiessen arrived at Balmy Beach Public School to give a speech for Spirit Day, he found the gym full of kids wearing white and blue – it was also the Blue Jays’ home opener.
Never mind that he grew up near Detroit and cheers for the Tigers, Tiessen is a big baseball fan.
As a double-arm amputee, people have asked him what he would do if he could get his hands back, just for one day.
“I would play baseball, maybe all day,” he said. “And I would feel the stitches on the ball.”
Being able to pack a snowball would be nice too, he said, adding that he owes his kids some payback after the super snowy winter this year.
Another question Tiessen gets is whether he would get transplants if he could.
His answer is yes, so long as he can keep all the good things that have happened because he’s an amputee.
After joining amateur and university track teams in his teens and twenties, Tiessen competed in three Paralympic Games: New York, Seoul and Barcelona.
He won silver in high jump, plus a bronze and a gold in his best event – the 400 metre. His 54.89-second run at the 1988 Seoul Games remains the fastest ever for a double-arm amputee.
Back when Tiessen was putting in six- and seven-hour training days for Seoul, he was also taking journalism classes at the University of Windsor – a move that led to the Disability Today Network, a magazine and book publishing company Tiessen founded at 26.
Two decades later, Disability Today is going strong, as is Blaze, the kids’ horse-riding magazine that Tiessen started in 2003 after he and his wife began riding horses at their home near Smithville, Ontario.
Speaking to students at Balmy Beach, where his niece goes to school, Tiessen said it’s the challenges he’s met that define him, and not his disability.
“I’m not Jeff the guy who can’t bowl, or Jeff the guy who can’t paddle a canoe,” he said. “All the things that I can’t do – that’s not who I am.”
Tiessen credits his parents for teaching him to strive even when the odds are long.
They had already seen their son recover from a nearly fatal accident. Tiessen was 11 years old when he jumped a blown-down fence around a hydro building and got shocked by 27,000 volts of electricity.
It took a long time before Tiessen learned to use his prosthetic arms and “hands” – a pair of split hooks he can open and close by rolling his shoulders.
Once he had that down, his father pushed him a step further. He built him a special hockey stick, and signed him up for a regular minor-league team.
“It was probably one of the best decisions he ever made for me, but I was really against it,” Tiessen said.
He couldn’t tie his own skates or play like he used to, but even after he switched to track and soccer, playing hockey again taught him he could do just about anything if he kept at it.
Tiessen brought that attitude to publishing, too.
The first disability magazine he got involved with failed after financial problems with his business partner resulted in the loss of the founding money.
Rather than fold, Tiessen struck out on his own, and he surprised some people by making Disability Today a for-profit business that, as he says, aims to do good, but also to do well.
“That’s been a challenge in the disability community, because there is that underlying pretence that it’s all about charity,” he said. “I don’t believe that. Obviously, I have a disability and can run a business, and so can others.”
As a journalist and Paralympian, Tiessen has watched the audience, sponsors, gear, and media coverage of the Paralympic Games grow exponentially from what it was when he ran in the late eighties and early nineties.
“The representation has changed,” he said. “They’re not covering those legs up anymore with what looks like a calf and a cosmetic foot.”
“There is a pride in their uniqueness, and their difference. It makes a tremendous statement about how comfortable they are with their situation, and I think that extends to the able-bodied community.”