At 9, Tony Christiansen lost his legs in an accident doctors said would kill him. Fifty years on, he has lived an incredible life and is now giving back, writes Russell Blackstock.
It has now been 50 years since Tony Christiansen was told by doctors it was unlikely he would live past 20. When he was 9 he lost his legs after being run over by a train carriage near Mt Maunganui. He was helping bag coal for a charity fundraiser and was fetching sacks when a wagon shunted backwards and he was dragged under.
Astonishingly, Christiansen, now 58, not only survived but has gone on to live a truly incredible life. Since he was told as a youngster that his days were numbered, he has hardly wasted a moment.
The father-of-three and granddad of four went on to be one of the most in-demand inspirational speakers in the world. His list of achievements is long. Since becoming a double amputee he has been a successful businessman and best-selling author; represented New Zealand at a number of sports; learned to fly planes; reached speeds of nearly 300km/h in a drag race and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. Oh, not to mention his stints as a surf lifesaver; a fulltime Tauraunga City councillor and cycling the Otago Rail Trail with his wife Jiun Kiew on his three-wheeled hand cycle.
"A lot of people say when you have a tragedy in your life you work through it and move on," Christiansen says. "But for me it was just a beginning and to this day I still appreciate what I have and where I've come from. "Since the accident happened my attitude has been all about can-do. "I can dwell on the 2000 things I could never do but I choose to focus on the 500 that will make my life great."
Though memories of the accident in June 1967 are hazy, Christiansen appreciates how miraculous it is that he survived. He was helping friend Gary Winters and Gary's dad, Mike, load coal into sacks for the Lions Club beside the train tracks in Te Maunga. As he ducked between wagons, one shunted backwards. The brakes failed and Christiansen's world was changed in an instant. As he lay surrounded by screaming onlookers, everything went blank. He felt thirsty and the pain was overwhelming.
"The wheels went over my legs and crushed them," he recalls. "Doctors later told me I was lucky because the weight of the wagon cauterised the arteries, which stopped me from bleeding out and dying within minutes." Mike Winters and others applied makeshift tourniquets until an ambulance arrived. "My legs were still there," Christiansen says. "Everything was just hanging there. "The next thing I remember was waking up in Tauranga Hospital with no legs and my life was changed forever. " He recalls his mum Doreen was more upset than he was. "I have a photo of me taken about a week after the accident and I'm sitting in a wheelchair with my sister at my side and I have a big smile on my face. "
"It hit my mum harder than anyone. She blamed herself for letting me go out that day. She was told I'd be lucky to see 20 as it would be unlikely I'd be able to handle what had happened. I was the one who was consoling her and telling her everything was going to be okay."
Recovery was slow and painful because, back in 1967, artificial limbs were still in their infancy. It was well before the days of "blade runner" athletes like South African Oscar Pistorius and Kiwi Paralympic hero Liam Malone, Christiansen was given a set of wooden legs to get around on but because he was a growing boy he needed new ones every few months.
"They were a bit primitive, very uncomfortable and they had a gate hinge for a knee joint. "I got sick of having to travel to Auckland to get replacements and it was very painful to fit them on to my stumps. I eventually decided to ditch them altogether." He and his dad took them to the local dump one day and threw them away.
Christiansen remembers going back to the tip a few months later and they were hanging up outside and had been filled with flowers. "They had been turned into plant pots. I suppose somebody's trash is someone else's treasure. "
It was crack-up, really. But after that I decided it was much easier to get around in a wheelchair." Christiansen has never needed anyone to feel sorry for him. He turns every negative into a positive. He recalls that his friends treated him no differently after the accident than they did before. And he eventually went back to school.
"At first the school principal insisted I wore my artificial legs to look 'normal' but that was just the general attitude towards disability that existed back in the day. "But I was still doing things like climbing trees with my mates. And they would do things like put me on a bike and push it down a hill until it stopped and I fell off. We all thought it was a great laugh."
Christiansen says he simply adjusted his mindset in order to live a full life. His love of motor racing started when his dad made him a go-kart to get around in. "I mean, it was clear there were things I'd never be able to do - like becoming an All Black for a start. "But I was keen on sport and I simply decided that I could still enjoy that if I just did things differently. "Okay, I was never going to be able to run the hundred metres but I could still take part in things and could throw a javelin or a shot put around in my wheelchair, and I could play sports like wheelchair basketball. "For me, winning has never been the motivation for doing anything. The pleasure for me comes simply from being able to take part and give it my all."
Christiansen has been a motivational speaker since selling his successful signwriting company in 1997. He took up public speaking after attending a book launch in Auckland where the guest speakers - the late broadcaster Paul Holmes and rugby coach John Hart - failed to turn up. Christiansen agreed to fill in and climbed to the top of scaffolding on stage to speak. "I spoke for 10 minutes and took the piss out of myself and other people's perceptions of me." He received a standing ovation from the 800-strong audience and afterwards was approached by people from professional speaking agencies. Since then he has spoken at up to 150 events a year in places as far flung as Melbourne, Fiji, the US and Bangkok. Christiansen, who is married to second wife Jiun, has three grown-up children and four grandchildren.
A memorable engagement was at his grandson's school in Tauranga. "You could have heard a pin drop when I opened my talk by telling the kids that I am inspired by drug addicts. "I then got a huge round of applause when I qualified the statement by explaining that whenever I see a drug addict I tell myself I'll never end up like that and it is best to leave drugs alone and make the most of your life. "It's a good way to get that particular message across. "It was funny because at one point I hopped off my wheelchair and sat on a classroom desk to talk to the kids and all they were bothered about was that I was allowed to do that and they are not. "They were enjoying themselves so much they had forgotten that I had no legs."
Christiansen has since developed his stage act to include making a show-stopping entrance by bursting out from inside a wooden crate, using a chainsaw. "When the dust settles the audience is amazed to see this legless guy sitting there on the stage. "I then make a joke about how I had heard their accommodation budget was tight but this is ridiculous."
The daredevil counts conquering Kilimanjaro in 2002 as among his biggest challenges. He was invited by Korean Broadcasting System to scale Africa's highest mountain with two disabled Koreans. One was blind and the other had lost his fingers to frostbite in an earlier mountain expedition. The Kilimanjaro expedition caused much anxiety among his family and friends. Most people did not believe he could do it. Christiansen climbed in his mountain-climbing wheelchair where it was possible and made the rest of the journey - about 80 per cent of it - on his hands and backside. He had only a pair of specially made hi-tech vinyl pants and a pair of gloves to protect him from the sharp volcanic rocks. He wrote a journal at Kibo Hut (altitude 4700m) where he spent several days waiting for the rest of his group to return after they suffered altitude sickness, and included the journal in one of his best-selling books, Attitude Plus.
However, Christiansen rates his three year-stint from 2011 on the Tauranga Council as being more difficult than some of his other feats such as qualifying as a pilot, doing competitive sprint-car racing, or becoming a black belt at tae kwon do. "The council job was very challenging because I wasn't used to having to work under constraints laid down by the Government," he says. "You are also very aware that hanging over you is the fact that one day the people will vote you out, no matter who you are."
His efforts in local government have prompted fellow Tauranga city councillor and politician Larry Baldock to comment: "I call Tony 'the big sponge', the way he absorbs knowledge. He's got a huge amount of self-belief."
Christiansen believes one of the secrets to being successful at so many things is being a good listener. He learned this from being around his grandfather, Frank Sherman, who struggled with a terrible stutter. "It would take him ages to get his words out and when I was a kid I would listen to him for hours. It taught me patience and how to listen to what other people have to say and to pass on to you."
Nowadays, five decades after he lost his legs and was told he wouldn't live long, Christiansen still has a bucket list he is continually ticking off. As well as travelling the world inspiring others with his rousing motivational talks, he still enjoys flying aeroplanes and fancies another tilt at being on the council in his beloved Tauranga. He is always positive.
"Too many people these days settle for trundling along in a rut and waiting for something to go wrong," he says. "I consider myself fortunate. I know so many able-bodied people who are far more disabled than me because of their attitudes. "When I do eventually die I think I'd like the words 'my job is done,' whatever that is, inscribed on my headstone." People need to find inspiration, create challenges and then be passionate about achieving them, Christiansen insists. "Anyone can do it if they really want to . . . if they just learn how to let go of old attitudes which are holding them back and instead tell themselves 'I am, I can, I will'."