Accessibility, community keep longtime Steadward member coming back

Sandy Saunders’ first time at the centre was as a young teen in 1978; these days the mom and grandma returns for fitness, health and inspiration.

Sasha Roeder Mah - 19 October 2023

It’s been 45 years since Sandy Saunders first worked out at the Steadward Centre, but she still remembers those early years like it was yesterday. The then 15-year-old had recently suffered a spinal cord injury and was getting used to using a wheelchair all while preparing to start high school. It was a time of challenge and change for the very active teenager, and the Steadward Centre staff was right there with her, helping her plot a new direction for her life.

We spoke to Saunders about those early years, and how the relationships she built at the Steadward have kept her coming back over the decades since.

What first brought you to the Steadward Centre?

I was brand new to a wheelchair, and brand new to my spinal cord injury when the Steadward Centre opened in 1978. I was used to being involved in many different sport activities; I had been a runner, high jumper and hurdler. I wanted the Steadward to help me plan new ways of being active that would be right up my alley. 

As I progressed through high school, the physical education program was not set up for someone with a spinal cord injury or in a wheelchair to participate. But my school allowed me to obtain all of my phys ed credits through the workouts I did at the Steadward. Knowing I was not only working toward being healthy and active, but also moving toward graduating from school, really inspired me.

What were some of your earliest experiences at the centre?

I remember it gave me my first experience racing in a wheelchair. It's also where I met a swim coach, which gave me an opportunity to relearn how to swim, which always helped me keep in shape. I also learned a lot at that young age about how to set goals, whether in sport or whatever else. It was a place where I could kind of grow into myself and start on a new path with new dreams.

Tell us more about those new dreams and how the Steadward helped.

My goal when I started was to become a para athlete, and maybe even go to national competitions in ’79. That was a pretty collapsed time frame, but I could not have been in better hands than with the Steadward coaching staff. My first coach was Cathy Wash — we are still in touch as friends to this day — and this was as new to her as it was to me. With her help I did eventually make my way to the 1980 Paralympics. Team Canada must have seen my potential, because I was just 17 when they picked me. 

What was it like being at the Paralympics?

I remember being so homesick I wanted to leave as soon as I got there, but the coaches were amazing and to be in a place where I got to meet Rick Hansen at such a young age was pretty incredible. It was such an eye opener. To be so young, and to be surrounded by people with so many disabilities and different wheelchairs, was such a learning experience. 

These days, what does the Steadward Centre mean to you?

After the Paralympics, I realized when you're competing at an international level, you need to be working out six days a week, and I was smart enough to know that track wasn't going to pay my rent. So I started working full time, got busy raising a family, and exercise wasn’t as much of a priority during those years, so I didn’t come often during that time. 

But these days, as a mom and a grandma, I feel like I need to lead by example, and I don't know if I would be able to do that if I wasn't keeping healthy. 

I started coming more regularly again a couple of years ago. The variety of equipment, programs and class offerings mean a lot to me. Everyone is so encouraging and positive — the staff, volunteers, the other clients — and it’s such an accessible and welcoming environment. I can get as much or as little assistance as I need, and I really value that. I love working out with the other persons with varying disability, who are so focused on becoming and staying healthy and strong. We're all working toward that same goal and every time I leave here, I feel inspired.

What would you tell others about how the Steadward can help them?

If anyone I'm talking to has a disability, if they want to be healthy and well and feel good about themselves and set some physical goals where they feel welcome and challenged, I tell them this is where they want to come. Whatever level they want to get to, if they are looking to be challenged and inspired, join the Steadward Centre!