During this holiday where we give thanks for our fortune, I thought it appropriate to share with you the story of Bill Hansbury, whom I interviewed for my 50 Athletes Over 50 book. Enjoy his touching story.
“Boston Bill” Hansbury’s story is a testament to the power or being receptive to opportunities. A 72-year-old cyclist and runner, Bill lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, and owns a sunglass company named “Boston Bill’s.” He became active at the age of 28 when a friend he hadn’t seen in awhile visited. Bill asked his friend how he managed to look so great, and his friend replied that he had taken up running.
Bill jumped up, went to his bedroom, put on some sneakers and said to his friend, “Let’s go!” Since that time, he has been running regularly, stopped smoking, and lost a lot of weight. He got so good that he ran an under-three hour marathon. He also performed in ultra-marathons and took up cycling.
Unfortunately, a couple of years ago Bill lost a leg to an aggressive, antibiotic-resistant infection. Recently, he has been helping others with disabilities to live a better life by helping them get prosthetic limbs.
Q: Your story is remarkable and touching. How did you come out from an amputation, feeling so strong?
A: After my amputation, I remember sitting on the edge of the hospital bed, looking down, and seeing that my foot was gone. In the hospital, I did a lot of thinking about what I was going to do, and I vowed that I would get back to running and cycling as quickly as possible. I wasted no time with regret or sadness over losing my leg.
I decided that I would use the technology that is out there and treat that prosthetic leg just like it’s my real leg. The day that I came out of surgery, I called a friend that was a wheel chair athlete, and asked him if he would please have a hand-powered cycle waiting for me when I get out of the hospital. He did, and after I got out, I was on it within a few days. Since then, I’ve been able to resume regular cycling as well as running.
To help amputees obtain prosthetic limbs, I created the Boston Bill Foundation. It is an interesting story how I came to this. I had finally gotten back to where I could ride my bike comfortably, and headed out one morning for a group ride. I’ve used clip-in pedals for years, but at one point on that ride, I could not get one of my shoes to release from the pedal. A couple guys who were on the ride grabbed me to keep me from falling over, while they worked to free my cycling shoe and my foot. They ended up taking my foot out of the shoe because it was so stuck in the pedal.
It was quite an ordeal, and when the shoe finally came free, I sent the other riders on while I regrouped. That’s when a man and woman pulled up in a car and said, “We saw you with your prosthetic leg on the bicycle and we wondered if you would talk to our son Jake. He is seven years old and we are on our way to the children’s hospital. He is going to have his leg amputated this morning.”
Jake had been run over by a riding lawn mower three years before, and his leg had sustained major damage. He had undergone a series of operations, but he still couldn’t play with his friends anymore. His parent had been struggling with their decision to have his leg amputated, and seeing me that morning―a 72-year-old man with a prosthetic, riding a bike―they felt they had made the right choice. I agreed to speak with Jake, and when we were done talking, they went on to the hospital and the little boy had his leg removed.
Somehow, the St. Petersburg Times picked up the story and did an article about Jake and me. Later, People Magazine did a photo shoot of us. One day I got a call to come to San Diego and present a prosthetic running leg to Jake. Now, to see him run and play is extremely touching for me.
One other thing is that, you can believe what you want, but that shoe had never stuck in my pedal before or after that day. For some reason, on that day, at that time, it got caught, and brought Jake and me together. I created the Boston Bill Foundation to help others with disabilities live a good life through exercise.
Q: Since losing your leg, what about running has changed for you?
A: When I was in the hospital, they spoke to me about phantom limb sensation, and kept telling me that it would eventually go away because your brain doesn’t realize your leg is gone. That seemed so silly to me. I thought that if I had a leg for 70 years that it would be crazy for me to want that sensation to go away. So, I started doing little exercises, like tapping my heels on the floor, both of them at the same time, and letting the sensations travel up my leg. There’s a series of six exercises that I worked out for myself and I still use them every day.
As a result of these exercises, when I ride a bicycle now, my right leg and my left leg feel exactly the same. I can feel the pedal and I can feel the pressure in both feet. I try to teach this to some of the other amputees that I deal with. When they do these exercises, it also gives them a sense of feel that helps them walk better, climb stairs better, descend stairs better, ride a bike or even run.
Q: What is your biggest challenge, and what do you do to manage this challenge?
A: My biggest challenge is in doing very long rides or runs, as I am still learning about my prosthetic. I need to make sure the equipment I’m wearing is up to the task. It would be a bad situation to be out there, break a piece of equipment and not be able to replace it. I’m learning how to deal with this on a daily basis.
Q: Where do you draw your inspiration from?
A: My inspiration comes from inside me. When I was 11 years old, I remember getting ready to deliver newspapers early one Sunday morning. It was raining and snowing at the same time, and I had a load of papers in a sled that was so heavy I could barely move it. My dad had just come home from a long days work, and I remember going in to ask him if he would come out and help me.
He told me, “You go out and do your job; I just finished mine.” I was so mad, that I went outside and I moved that sled, and was able to do complete the paper route that Sunday morning. Every time I go to do something difficult, I think of that day; I go and I pull the sled. I thank my father every time I remember that day, because he did me a big service by enabling me to be strong.