Ben Hagkull sits back sometimes and marvels at how far he’s come.
Wednesday morning he’s in the staff room at Cheam elementary school, using a gold sharpie to sign his name on a stack of cards that will be handed out to students.
A few feet away, a large framed picture of the 20 year old rests on the table, soon to be hung on a wall for all to see as the school recognizes a famous alum.
A few minutes later, the wheelchair basketball star rolls into the gymnasium to tell his story of perseverance, hard work and success.
Looking out into the audience, he can picture himself, a decade ago, sitting in that same gym as a Cheam student, listening to someone else speak and waiting to be inspired.
“It’s really cool to be back here, and be able to share my message with kids who are going through the same experiences I did when I was here,” he said with a smile. “Sharing the message that it doesn’t matter where you come from. As long as you have a dream anything is possible.
“I have an opportunity to impact kids’ lives, and if they take something away from my talk that will stick with them in their lives, that inspires me to do this.”
Ben was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that has confined him to a wheelchair for nearly all his life.
He’s never let it slow him down.
He completed two triathlons before he was eight years old and has finished 14 in his lifetime, but his greatest accomplishments have come with a basketball in his hands.
He’s in Prince Edward Island this weekend playing for the B.C. Royals at the Canadian Wheelchair Basketball nationals.
A member of Canada’s junior national team, he’s represented his country in a world championship and he stands a good chance of being on the Canadian senior team roster for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan.
Used to being in the spotlight, Ben isn’t fazed talking to a gym full of elementary schoolers. He enjoys it just as much, if not more, than his audience.
“It’s interesting, and kind of funny sometimes, because they have questions that not many adults would think of asking,” he says. “It definitely stretches my brain a bit because I’m not always prepared for what they come up with.”
Questions like what?
“When I was at (Chilliwack) Central elementary, one of the kids asked me how I get into bed,” he laughed. “It seems normal to me and I don’t think about it, but I explained that I have good upper body strength that lets me transfer into the bed and lay down like anyone else.
“Another kid asked me how I shower in the morning, which was very funny.
“Little questions like that take me by surprise.”
At the end of the talk, Ben hopes the kids see more of him and less of the wheelchair.
“I hope they feel like I’m just another kid who may have some challenges, but is going through life the same way they will,” Ben says. “And I hope they feel inspired to pursue their dreams no matter what their circumstances are like.”
— Ben was at Cheam speaking on behalf of the Petro-Canada FACE program, which has provided him with funding since 2017 to help offset the costs of training and competing.