(ISN) – CALGARY– To say that retired alpine ski racer, and two-time Olympian Brad Spence will watch his friend and fellow Calgarian, Sam Edney, at Saturday’s World Cup luge race with mixed emotions is an understatement.
Edney, a three-time Olympian himself, is the second in what Spence hopes to be a long list of Canada’s high-performance athletes to take part in Helmets for Heroes – a special project Spence conceived earlier this year when he met Calgary Osteosarcoma patient Gillian O’Blenes-Kaufman during a community outreach visit to the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Recognizing her incredible artistic talent, Spence asked O’Blenes-Kaufman to design and paint the helmet he wore to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games. Sadly, O’Blenes-Kaufman lost her battle with cancer on Monday evening.
“I learned so much from Gillian; she was the ultimate fighter and never gave up, and that helped me in sport, but more importantly, in my personal life,” said Spence, who joined Edney and Richard Flamenco, the young artist chosen to design Edney’s helmet to officially launch Helmets for Heroes at Bridgeland Market in Calgary on Friday. “I looked at my friends from different Olympic sports and I realized all of their helmets are blank canvases that could tell powerful stories, and also better connect an athlete with the community.
“Gillian and I discussed Helmets for Heroes, and we came up with the idea to match an artistic child battling illness with a local artist and an athlete to showcase these moving pieces of art.”
Before he embarked for his second Olympic Winter Games in Sochi last winter, Spence joined O’Blenes-Kaufman at the Alberta Children’s Hospital where she presented him with the hand-painted helmet he wore while competing at the Games.
“I was determined to find a way to share my Olympic experience in Sochi with Gillian, and it became an extremely powerful journey for me to wear her helmet at the Games,” added Spence. “It was one of the most emotional days of my life when Gillian presented me with my Olympic helmet. It was a powerful message that I was racing for much more than just me.”
Spence, who is now pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce at Royal Roads University,is now on a mission to launch the Helmets for Heroes Foundation with the goal of raising money for children battling life-threatening diseases while also generating awareness for helmet safety.
“I really believe in the power of paying it forward and that is what I want to do through this unique initiative,” said Spence. “While we are still at a very early stage, I ultimately want to see at least one athlete from all helmet sports participate in Helmets for Heroes by the next Olympic Winter Games in 2018.”
Enter Sam Edney who will help Spence officially launch the program this week during his first race of the season at the Luge World Cup in Calgary.
Spence introduced Edney to Richard Flamenco – a young artist who was diagnosed with Epidermolysis Bullosa, which causes painful blistering of the skin. Flamenco has spent the majority of his life at the Alberta Children’s Hospital where he receives treatment focused on addressing the symptoms of this incurable disease. It was through the Hospital’s art program that Flamenco discovered his artistic talents.
Kelsey Fraser, a local artist and graduate of ACAD, was selected to help guide Flamenco through the process of designing and painting the final product. Both artists will be waiting at the finish line with Spence to greet Edney during his race this weekend.
“I often say competing at the Olympics is the highlight of my life, but I assure you, meeting Richard this week has had a greater impact on me than anything I have done,” said Edney, who finished a heart-breaking fourth in the team relay event in Sochi. “Sochi was very difficult on my entire team, but a program like this and meeting Richard puts things into perspective for me.
“Staying positive and motivated helps the healing process regardless of the adversities we face in life. As an Olympian, I realize having an athlete you can look up to and visit with helps the young patients have something to look forward to,” added Edney. “But I have been so emotionally charged since meeting Richard and being introduced to this program. He is my new best friend. And, I know other athletes involved will gain so much more perspective, and acceptance, of their own challenges and hurdles once meeting their new friends.”
Spence – who returned his helmet to O’Blenes-Kaufman as a present when she fulfilled a dying wish to marry her high school sweetheart this summer – will have participating athletes wear the helmet for one race, then will collect the helmets to auction, or sell, for the charity. Until his Foundation is established, the proceeds for all helmet sales – including Edney’s – will go to the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
“With Gillian’s help, I know there is going to be an angel investor, or investors, out there that will breathe life into this program for Canada’s true heroes,” said Spence. “I realize we have a long road to go, but there is an opportunity this week for people to stand up and help us give these courageous kids additional hope.”
In addition to the opportunity to purchase the helmet artwork, Spence is still looking for the start-up funding to allow Helmets 4 Heroes to continue to grow. Currently, Spence is paying for all costs related to materials and processing for the helmets. He is confident the program will touch the right chord with the right person, or people, to come on board as founding investors. In the meantime, he is celebrating how far Helmets for Heroes has come since his first meeting with O’Blenes-Kaufman late last year.
“I’ll be watching Sam compete, wearing his Richard Flamenco original, with so much excitement, knowing I’m on my way to making Helmets for Heroes a reality,” said Spence. “I just wish I could watch him with Gillian by my side – but in some respects – she and Richard will both be on that sled with Sam this weekend. I know for sure Gillian will be smiling and celebrating our success from Heaven.”
To donate to Helmets for Heroes or for more information on the Foundation, please contactBrad Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org