How to Overcome Fear

Josh Vander Vies looks at Nicola Godden's "Icarus" - a lifesize statue of a winged human figure.

It has been about 10 months now since the 2012 Paralympics. It seems that most people ask me the same question. “When you were at London 2012, how was the Paralympic Village?  What was that like?”

I usually respond by telling them that it was awesome.  There were people from every part of the world there, wearing every colour imaginable. They had an energy that you could actually feel. You saw expressions and body language, and knew that virtually everyone there meant business. They better have. We were all about to try and be the best in the world at something.

I also tell people that it was a taste of utopia, or socialism that works.  No one is using currency in the Village, all meals are free and there was a 24-hour cafeteria.  To get to any sport venue, hop on any bus at a depot just outside the Village. Dedicated London lanes were yours. Flash your accreditation badge and you had the best seats in the house at virtually any sport. Even the vending machines are not operated by coins, but unlimited swipe cards. My Lithuanian wife Dalia and I noticed that the currency-free, pseudo-socialism of the Village works because it has an army of volunteers, National Paralympic Committees and corporate sponsors behind it.

What I don’t always tell people is that I barely noticed any of that until afterwards. When I was actually in the Village, I was too terrified to do much other than think about my game plan, train, eat correctly and sleep.  The atmosphere was tense.

Feeling fear thunder through me, and continue on to win a Paralympic medal has made me reflect on the nature of fear.  The London Paralympics was certainly not the first or last time that I would be afraid, but the energy I was expending was so focused, that I think the experience was valuable.

I wanted so badly to do well.  And, I knew that if things did not go as planned, all the hours of work, all the things I gave up to be there, everything I had invested would lead to nothing.

Have you ever felt that fear?

I had felt it before, at the 2007 World Cup when I was trying to qualify for the Beijing Paralympics.  Fear was coursing through me.  In our game of millimetres, by the end of that competition, we came one point short from finishing in the top 8. Because of ranking points, I did not make the cut for Beijing.  But, I went to China as a spectator anyways and cheered my teammates on. I watched my competitors and learned.

I think what I learned the most, was about fear.  In the 4 years after Beijing, we eventually qualified for London 2012, but I was always afraid.  I was petrified on the court, and at training sometimes, as the overwhelming challenge of the world’s top athletes loomed.

So we became good friends fear and I.  I controlled it with breathing and intentioned thinking: I know I can beat the top athletes in the world because I have the innovative strategy to do it, and I have put in the training hours.

But what if they still beat me?

I passed a huge winged statue each day outside the dining hall, which I later learned was made by London artist Nicola Godden.  At first I only saw the visual. A sad and beautiful winged figure. I still remember reading the inscription on its base for the first time, as my stomach was in knots for the pinnacle of tournaments to come:

“My audacity was my joy not my disaster,
I reached a glory higher than Olympus,
My fall was worth the flight.”

Josh Vander Vies looks at Nicola Godden's "Icarus" - a lifesize statue of a winged human figure.

I realized it was Icarus.  When given wings to escape the island of Crete in Greek mythology by his father Daedalus, Icarus was told not to fly too close to the sun.  Overwhelmed by the thrill of soaring, he of course flew too high. The sun melted the wings’ wax, and Icarus drowned in the sea.

The statue and its words gave me final permission to fail.  Even if I did not win a Paralympic medal, I would go out in a blaze of trying something hard. That in itself would be worth it.

I ended up winning bronze with my doubles partner Marco, but I did not play as great as I did because I overcame fear.  I took the sheer terror of crashing into the sea those days in London last September – on the boccia courts in front of sold out crowds, and in the dining hall – and hung out with it.

I didn’t conquer it.


My First Instagram Post is My Favourite


I remember starting to see all of the hipster tinged pictures showing up in my Twitter and Facebook feeds many months ago.  It was likely around the time that Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion, that I realized what those sepia filtered photos were.  Naturally, I decided to get an account and create my own.

I made the decision sitting in the Air Canada London Lounge at Heathrow Airport.  It was after a week of speaking to elementary schools in East London, around where the Olympics and Paralympics would soon take place.  My thoughts were swirling, as I was glowing in the excitement of all those students, and gearing up to compete myself.

So, I photographed the coffee and water I was drinking, framed the table and background at an angle and applied the glorious filter, before posting to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.  Drafting the caption was part of the thrill:

“My last European coffee for a while”


It was also Canada Day.  So, I reflected on Britain’s role as a former Empire, and Canada’s journey away from associating itself as a colony – luckily, and with lots of help from Britain’s enemy, France and their satellite people, Quebec.  The snapshot oozes nostalgia for me.  I am not afraid to embrace the full power of the Nickelback Instagram parody (Google it if you have not seen it yet).

Today, I researched what the Air Canada lounge is called at Heathrow, and learned that it will be closing soon.  I took the photo from where the arrow is pointing in the photo.  The nostalgia meter for this very first Instagram photo I took was cranked up even more.

It captured my anxiety about putting my years of boccia training to the test.  It reminds me of the Canada Day I spent in the British Empire’s former capital and how I felt glad to be Canadian.  It celebrates the rich and bold quality of coffee available seemingly everywhere in Europe, and expresses my anguish at having to return to a land where most coffee is barren and largely not delicious.

I am not sure if I can produce another Instagram picture with as much raw meaning.  I hope you will click the main photo above and follow me on Instagram as I try.

What is your favourite Instagram photo?

A Reluctant Advocate

One of Dalia’s friends recommended we meet her at an art exhibition opening this weekend.  It was of an artist her friend knows, on Granville Street, where Vancouver’s art galleries are concentrated.  We planned to go and I was looking forward to it all week.  When we arrived, we were met with stairs.  No problem, we thought – this is Vancouver; almost everything is accessible here.

Dalia went up to inquire how I could get in.  There was no other way.

I really don’t enjoy being an advocate.  It is not very pleasant to complain and bring attention to troublesome realities. It is especially bitter when irksome issues are not anyone’s direct fault.

I am not sure if Elissa Cristall Gallery, where the exhibition was held, rents or owns their gallery space. From what I saw from the sidewalk, the second level space is quite stylish. In Vancouver’s property market, I am sure it is a valuable spot.

I am not sure what the BC Building Code has to say about accessibility. Access to the Code document is not cheap – behind a pay wall like that, perhaps not everyone who needs to consult it can.

[UPDATE – If a building was constructed before accessibility provisions in the BC Building Code came into effect, it is only required to become accessible when there is a transfer in ownership, or a major renovation AND to become accessible is “practical.” These are very weak regulations.]


The gallery we wanted to go to should not take all the blame though.  Sadly, the two galleries beside it, Master Gallery Ltd. and the prolific Heffel, that proclaims itself to be “Canada’s National Fine Arts Auction House,” were not accessible either from what I could tell.

So, I did what I had to do. I waited outside, while Dalia went up and met her friend and listened to the artist speak. They came down afterwards and it was a nice chat. I didn’t get to meet the artist, or see her work in person, but saw some of the photos on the Internet and my phone, taken by Dalia.

Most disabled people and their families have to fight for their whole lives.  We call it being an effective self-advocate. My parents had to fight to allow me to go to a French immersion elementary school instead of an essentially segregated one when I was small. Then they had to fight for me to have an assistant.

As an adult, I am ready to assert what I need, and go after it. It won’t always be easy as I go forward. A good advocate always needs to ask for what they want though. If we don’t ask, how can we get?

So what should I ask for here? Should I travel around with a lawyer on retainer to write threatening demand letters to force public places to become physically accessible?  Should I launch claims in the Human Rights Tribunal? I won’t make many friends if I take that approach.

I don’t have all the answers. I know making spaces accessible costs money and can be a logistical challenge. I know that I might have bought some artwork this weekend if I could have gotten into the galleries. These galleries don’t know how many sales they are missing out on.

I don’t know what the best outcome for this type of situation is. If I do not talk about it when I am explicitly denied access to a part of my community, it will not be dealt with, and others will be excluded too. I am not sure what I want to happen in the specific case of these galleries.

I do know that I wish I did not have to write this article. Being excluded from something that I really wanted to participate in hurt.

Visite d’un médaillé paralympique à l’école Madeleine-Bergeron

Québec, 19 février 2013 – C’est avec beaucoup de fierté et d’enthousiasme que l’école Madeleine-Bergeron, une école spécialisée, recevra le médaillé paralympique Josh Vander Vies à prendre la parole et à jouer au boccia le vendredi, 22 février à 10 h, dans le cadre de l’édition 2013 de la Semaine scolaire paralympique présentée par le Comité paralympique canadien et Petro-Canada.

L’école Madeleine-Bergeron est ravie d’avoir été sélectionnée pour faire partie des 25 écoles à travers le pays pour qu’une présentation soit offerte gratuitement par un athlète à l’occasion de la Semaine scolaire paralympique 2013.

Vander Vies est originaire de Sarnia, en Ontario et il habite maintenant Vancouver. Il a pris part aux Jeux paralympiques de Londres 2012 où il a remporté une médaille de bronze en boccia avec son coéquipier Marco Dispaltro. Il est bilingue et fera la présentation en français.

L’école Madeleine-Bergeron est une école spécialisée qui accueille une clientele, dont l’âge varie entre 4 à 21 ans, vivant avec une déficience motrice et dont plusieurs pratiquent le boccia.

Les médias sont invités à assister à la présentation, à prendre des photos et à avoir des entrevues avec des élèves, des membres du personnel et l’athlète.

QUOI : Présentation par un athlète dans le cadre de l’édition 2013 de la Semaine scolaire paralympique canadienne

QUI : Josh Vander Vies, médaillé de bronze en boccia, Équipe paralympique canadienne de Londres 2012

OÙ : 1088, route de l’Église, Sainte-Foy, Québec

QUAND : vendredi, le 22 février, 10h – 11h



Kim McLachlan

Comité paralympique canadien

Cellulaire : 613-883-1477

Courriel :


La semaine scolaire paralympique tombe à un moment opportun, car il reste un tout petit peu plus d’un an avant que l’équipe paralympique canadienne s’envole pour prendre part aux Jeux paralympiques d’hiver de 2014 à Sotchi. Les préparatifs en vue des Jeux parapanaméricains de 2015 à Toronto sont en outre eux aussi très avancés.


Pour diffuser le message « Participez, », les meilleurs athlètes canadiens ayant un handicap effectueront des présentations inspirantes et motivantes dans plusieurs écoles, de Victoria, en Colombie-Britannique, à Halifax, en Nouvelle-Écosse, et jusqu’à Iqaluit, au Nunavut.



Pour obtenir de plus amples renseignements, veuillez consulter le site ou communiquer avec :


Claire Savard

Conseillère en communication

Direction générale, Commission scolaire des Découvreurs

418 652-2121, poste 4173


Kim McLachlan

Coordonnatrice sénior, Relations d’athlètes et protocole

Comité paralympique canadien

Tél 613-569-4333, poste 225 / Cel 613-883-1477


Martin Richard

Directeur général, Communications et marketing

Comité paralympique canadien

Tél. : 613 569-4333, poste 224 / Cellulaire : 613 725-4339