These days, Kevin Rempel is best known for his exploits on a sled. But in 2006, it was another vehicle entirely that changed Rempel’s life unalterably.
The Dundas native lived to ride his dirt bike. Not only did he ride, he sought most to bask in the pure, adrenaline-fueled freedom of the motocross jump.
Four and a half years ago Rempel realized this dream, only to see it quite literally crash down around him. Losing control of his bike in the midst of a jump, he found himself plunging to the ground. And when his fall had come to an end, Rempel knew that his life would never be the same.
He had experienced the reality of paralysis since 2002, when his father Gerald suffered an accident while hunting and became a paraplegic. Four years later, it was the younger Rempel’s turn to experience a life-changing injury.
“I remember staring up at the sky and thinking ‘oh crap, I’m paralyzed’,” said the 29-year old of his fateful crash. “In that moment everything just froze. I recall that when I saw my dad fall out of the tree, my life was going to be little bit different forever in dealing with his injury.
“When I crashed I knew once again that my life was again going to change.”
Horrible as it is to say, Rempel’s previous experience with the harsh reality of paralysis served him well in the aftermath of his incident.
That’s because in the wake of his 2002 accident, Gerald Rempel had struggled and ultimately failed to cope with his disability. He spiraled through depression and a resulting gambling addiction, and eventually ended his own life.
When it came time for the younger Rempel to do the same, he chose to pursue a different path.
“My dad was a great person, and I have nothing negative to say about him as a father,” said Rempel. “But unfortunately, he let his accident defeat him and he became a victim of his disability rather than seeing the bright side in that he still had a lot to live for.
“I took that experience and decided that I didn’t want to live like that. In my recovery I wanted to do the opposite and live a prosperous life regardless of what the outcome was going to be from my injuries.”
Two years after his accident, Rempel discovered the sport that would come to dominate and redefine his new life. He had played hockey as an able-bodied individual before the crash, but had never experienced the sled variety. When a friend introduced him to the sport, it took only moments before he was hooked.
“I had played hockey for about 14 years before I got injured, but by no means did I have a future in it,” said Rempel. “I was just playing in beer leagues and recreational leagues. It was two years after my accident before I heard about sledge hockey.
“As soon as someone told me about it I wanted to try it, and as soon as I got on the ice, I knew that this was something I wanted to do for a long time.”
Rempel began to play with the Niagara Thunderblades team out of St. Catherines in 2008, and very quickly took to the game, ordering his own custom sled and gaining the attention of coaches at Sledge Ontario.
Battling through a prescription medication addiction to make the provincial squad, the Dundas native continued his climb to the very top of the national sledge hockey ranks. Within two years, a man who had known nothing of the sport saw his name on the roster of Team Canada.
Not only is Rempel donning the Red and White these days, he’s thriving as part of the successful team. Most recently, the Canadians won the World Sledge Hockey Challenge in December, and look poised to be at the top of the heap when the World Championships roll around this year.
Despite the fact that the majority of his teammates are similarly paralyzed, Rempel indicates that the atmosphere in the locker room is never one of commiseration. Rather, the athletes enjoy making light of their shared situation.
“We’re all troopers,” said the 29-year old of his teammates. “We’re all so strong in getting to this point. To be on Team Canada and to reach this level with a disability means that we’re pretty strong as it is. If anything, we poke fun at each other and joke about our disabilities.
“You’ve got to have that attitude, not just in the locker room but in life as well. You can’t take these things too seriously.”
In his continued search for improvement, Rempel works with the training staff at McMaster’s Pulse Fitness Centre, being led in his routines by experienced trainer Jeremy Steinbach.
Steinbach indicates that the sledge standout’s success derives from his competitive attitude, a determination that sees him persevere despite his physical challenges.
“He is motivated to get better, that’s the main thing,” said the trainer of his charge’s mentality. “He works his tail off and comes in here with a good attitude, and is never afraid to try new things. We’ve tried things before and they haven’t worked because of his disability, but we troubleshoot things as we go.”
New things have come in droves for Rempel since his accident, and he has discovered a talent outside of sport that he never knew he possessed. Since the crash, the Dundas native has begun motivational speaking, through no design of his own.
“It was a total fluke that I got into it,” said Rempel of his public speaking engagements. “Just by talking to people, they told me that I had a powerful story and that I should be a public speaker. It was through my college co-op program – where somewhere knew me and my story – that I was asked to do my first event.
“I did my five-minute speech and suddenly I was getting a standing ovation. Someone noticed me, got me my next gig, and I thought, ‘wow, I guess I’ve got something here and people like hearing it.”
Now, when he’s not on the ice, Rempel is mounting the stage at schools and convention centres across the region to tell his story. He hopes that through his example, audience members can find the strength to overcome their own obstacles.