In a moment of deep sadness and despair, Brad Spence found himself crying in his car parked at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. He was overcome by the heartache and tragedy of childhood cancer, and how it was slowly taking the life of his new friend, 17-year old Gillian O’Blenes.
Months previously, in 2013, a friend – a nurse at the Alberta Children’s hospital – had asked if Spence would visit O’Blenes, who was in treatment for osteosarcoma, and share his story of overcoming the odds to eventually race at the Olympics in alpine skiing.
(Spence had sustained a catastrophic knee injury just before the 2006 Games, at age 20, that sidelined him for over two years, but he made it back to the highest level despite a few doctors telling him he should never ski again. He ultimately raced at two Olympic Games.)
Spence agreed to visit Gillian, an aspiring dancer, but he was apprehensive at first. “I couldn’t compare,” he remembers. “I’d had some setbacks, but eventually I got back to skiing.” Still, he felt that if he could make a difference, he would.
The initial idea was for Spence to share his story and hopefully offer Gillian some hope, but very quickly it evolved to become so much more, as he realized the impact she was having on him. “I was so blown away by this young girl’s story,” says Spence. “She was so positive. She gave me so much inspiration.”
A strong bond was forged. Over time, Spence noticed that O’Blenes was passionate about art, but she was shy and closed off. “It was a coping mechanism for her, a positive distraction,” he recalls. “But she couldn’t see the talent she had.” One day, she finally showed Spence her work, effectively a visual diary, which had a profound effect on him.
It was then that the enormity of the situation struck Spence, and he found himself breaking down. “I took a minute to think, ‘why’?” says Spence. “I had faced adversity, but I could still dictate my life and live out my childhood dream.” The truth was hard to bear.
That bleak moment, sitting in his car with tears streaming down his face, was the genesis for an idea. That idea would take Spence and O’Blenes, and countless other athletes, artists and children, on a powerful journey through art, sport and the strength of the human spirit.
At the time, Spence was Sochi-bound, preparing for his second Olympics. “It hit me that with Gillian’s talent and art, would she paint my helmet for Sochi?” says Spence. He brought her a boring red helmet and told her, ‘I want you to be on my journey.’ O’Blenes thankfully complied and the project took flight.
The unveiling of the helmet was a special moment for Spence, one he says he will never forget. It was grand and dramatic, with a Canadian flag draped over the helmet, transformed by Gillian, who was by then quite ill, into a stunning piece of art.
That higher sense of purpose, the shared journey, completely changed Spence’s Olympic experience. Gillian was with him on the start line, and it was about so much more than one race. “At the Games the results didn’t matter anymore. I didn’t get a medal, but I didn’t care. I knew I had made such a powerful difference.”
Gillian O’Blenes died in late 2014, her young life cut short by a terrible disease. The loss was devastating and Spence struggles to find the words her friendship meant to him. But he’s clear about the legacy she left him. “She inspired me to do so many different things,” he marvels. She paved the way for Helmets for Heroes.”
The experience spurred Spence, who retired in 2014 and pursued a business degree, deep into entrepreneurship, with a greater vision of what Helmets for Heroes – as it became known – could become. “I saw the power of storytelling,” says Spence. He thought, “Maybe we can make this into something.”
Several projects arose from the growth of Helmets for Heroes, where an athlete, an artist and a child facing adversity come together to create a work of art on the athlete’s helmet, including luger Sam Edney, who won his first World Cup in 2014 wearing a helmet he’d created with local artist Kelsey Fraser and 19-year old Richard Flamenco, who suffers from Epidermolysis Bullosa.
But Spence had a bigger vision and recently the organization expanded further to become the Creative Impact Health Foundation, with Helmets for Heroes under its wing. “What’s stopping us from painting a kayak or designing a figure skating costume?” he wondered. “We didn’t want to limit to sports with helmets and also wanted to focus on concussion awareness and traumatic brain injury prevention.”
With a volunteer board and recent incorporation, it is still early days for the new organization, but the vision remains clear. “We want to keep these things super grassroots and meaningful,” stresses Spence. This is about the connection, impact and humanity that is shared by the athlete, artist and child.
As Spence reflects back on his career in sport, his journey through Helmets for Heroes and the challenges he has faced, he displays degrees of humility, gratitude and wisdom that have been strongly shaped by his own experience – with injury, with Gillian, with understanding that life is what you make it.
A self-proclaimed ‘yes guy’, Spence, who works in sales at software firm Benevity, knows that even though he didn’t realize his dream of standing atop the Olympic podium, his legacy extends far beyond his days on the slopes and traces back to that first, fateful visit with Gillian.
Still, Spence is modest and unassuming about his impact and has remained true to his founding vision. “We learned so many things along the way,” he remarks. “We wanted to keep it small, start with something and hope for the best.”
Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo courtesty of: Brad Spence