For many people, the thought of paralysis – losing function of any limbs – is petrifying. For Aron Anderson, it became a reality at just nine years of age.
As daunting as it was, he’s managed to turn this adversity into an advantage. It’s never limited him as he scales mountains (like Kilmanjaro), swims the seas (Sea of Aland) and adventures to places very few people go – in a wheelchair or not.
His latest achievement was winning his second consecutive Red Bull Wings For Life global championship. We caught up with him after his big win to chat about his story and hear some words of inspiration.
Goalcast: You lost the ability to walk when you were nine years old. What was your mind state at the point?
Aron Anderson: After having surgery for cancer at nine years old, I was forced to use a wheelchair to move around. At first, it was really hard on me, but the thing that brought my life energy back was sports. There, I found my place and something that I really loved doing and was pretty good at. The first sport I started was athletics, which later led me to compete at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
You’ve turned a tough situation into such a positive. At what point did you change and decide that you’re no longer going to be “trapped” or confined by the wheelchair?
Pretty early on, I decided that the wheelchair was something positive. The wheelchair gave me a second shot at life. If it wouldn’t have been for the surgery, I would be dead today so I chose to let the wheelchair give me perspective on life and see it as something positive that made it possible for me to do sports.
What advice do you have for someone who is facing a tough situation – whether it’s at work, with their health or elsewhere – and can’t quite reframe it? What advice can you share with them to help them see the positive light?
Perspective! Life is not about what happens to you but how you choose to react to it. I know it is such a cliché but at the same time it’s true.
And I think getting perspective on your situation is a big key to that. They say that progress in life equals happiness when you’re in a tough spot. Setting micro-goals is something that has really helped me to see progress in my life when I have been down.
Did you ever use anything like meditation or listen to motivational speakers?
Yes! I think meditation is a great tool. The last few months I’ve been experimenting with HRV-meditation using the Innerbalance app. That really helps me to relax when I’m all stressed out. As a motivational speaker myself, I listen to many of my colleagues to give myself a boost in the right direction and to improve my own speaking.
When you went on your first adventure, was it frustrating because you were physically limited or was it liberating that you were trying?
My first adventure was to become the first person in a wheelchair to climb Mount Kebnekaise (the highest mountain of Sweden). On the way up, it was sometimes really frustrating seeing people who were event close to my fitness level walking past me without any problem at all.
But the feeling to reach the summit after many, many hours or really hard work made it feel even more rewarding. I think our achievement means so much more to us when we really have to work for them!
You often speak about doing “whatever it takes.” How do you push yourself to that point? Many people shy away from hitting that boundary.
I have a mantra with three things that I repeat to myself whenever I’m close to giving up. They are:
- Micro goals. Is the something like a light post or marker that I could use as my goal right now instead of the real goal that feels too far away.
- Why? Why am I really doing this? I remind myself of my reason to push myself even harder. I do many of my races to raise money for kids with cancer and that is always a very compelling why when I’m having a hard time.
- Thankfulness. I try to find something to be thankful about when I’m having a tough time. When I skied to the South Pole last winter, I brought a picture of me and my friend Saga. In that picture, she doesn’t have any hair on her head since she’s going through a similar kind of cancer that I had as a kid. She’s still the most awesome and happy girl ever and that really gave me perspective to keep going even though I was really feeling sorry for myself. Thinking of Saga made me thankful!
What was the most challenging thing you’ve ever done – either physically or mentally?
Making it through cancer. Sometimes I refer to my time with the cancer as three years of mental training. That period in life made me who I am today and forced me to learn mental strategies to get through whatever life throws at me.
There are many people out there in the world who are dealing with forms of paralysis. What advice do you have to share with them about being mentally strong and overcoming this physical challenge?
Accept your situation. I think that’s always the first step. To accept what abilities you have and then to choose to make the most out of them. Being in a wheelchair is not the end of life. You can do a lot of things and find avenues where you can really excel.
What do you say to the people who are fully healthy and maybe take something as basic as movement for granted?
Be thankful! It’s so easy to forget how fortunate you are to have a fully functional body until the day that you don’t. I have very limited function in my legs but I still remind myself every night before going to bed how thankful I am about the ability that I have in my body. Do that too and you will be happier!
How did your past experiences help you win your second straight Wings for Life World Run?
Going through cancer in my childhood, along with the surgeries made me stronger and able to push myself to the next level. I think that’s what made me able to keep pushing when my body was telling me to stop. That combined with a lot of mental training and physical training in my chair made the difference.