‘Giving up’ is just not part of Mustang Madison Wilson-Walker’s playbook.
At the age of three, she contracted a rare form of meningitis, and had less than a two per cent chance of survival. Both of her legs and four fingers needed to be amputated, and she became deaf in one ear.
But none of those losses, nor the multiple surgeries that followed, stopped her.
On Monday, Wilson-Walker became the recipient of the 2022 Jeffrey Reed Courage Award.
A member of Western’s track and field team, Wilson-Walker is an internationally ranked para athlete enrolled in disability studies at King’s University College.
The 24-year-old received the award, which comes with $1,000, at Western’s Thompson Arena.
The Courage Award was created by veteran sports journalist Jeffrey Reed and his wife Elizabeth to recognize a Southwestern Ontario athlete who inspires others on and off the playing field. Reed, the publisher and editor of LondonOntarioSports.com, is a disabled athlete who, despite many spinal deformities, pitched for the London Majors of the semi-professional Intercounty Baseball League and was a golf pro and member of the Wilson Golf staff advisory team.
Reed said he was honoured to celebrate Wilson-Walker’s accomplishments and courage.
“Madison is one of the strongest people I know, and she is one of my heroes,” Reed said. “Her athletic accomplishments alone are almost incomprehensible. Even when she has suffered several debilitating sports-related injuries in recent years, she has never given up.”
Getting on track
Raised by her grandparents, Wilson-Walker grew up hearing the words, ‘Never say can’t.’ The motto, recently tattooed on her arm above one of her scars, has served her well in all aspects of her life.
“It can scare a lot of parents of children with disabilities to let their kids go try to do things because there could be bullying or they could get hurt more easily than others,” Wilson-Walker said. “But I think my grandparents’ attitude helped me live a more normal life and not sit at home having a pity party. It helped me be very open about my disability. I never tried to hide my legs from friends, and I never had an experience of bullying.”
Encouraged to live life to the fullest, Wilson-Walker was active in sports throughout her childhood. She enjoyed figure skating, horseback riding, swimming and golf, and by the time the Springfield, Ont. native entered Lord Dorchester Secondary School, she was eager to find “a sport where I could be more than average,” she said.
She found that sweet spot in track and field, excelling in the 100-metre sprint.
“I fell in love with the sport,” she said, “and shortly after my first race, I had my first pair of running blades made.” Wilson-Walker qualified for Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations (OFSAA) competitions throughout high school in both the 100- and 800-metre events. She continues to hold the Para 100 metre record within OFSAA, OFSAA West, the Western Ontario Secondary School Association and the Thames Valley Regional Athletic Assocation.
In 2015, she represented Canada at the World Para Athletics Championships in Qatar, running the 100-, 200- and 400-metre races, finishing sixth in the six-metre final.
‘Easy’ is not an option
Wilson-Walker continued to excel on the track as a Western Mustang until a dislocated knee and torn hip flexor decreased her speed and, for a while, her love for the sport.
She switched her main event to long jump, which brought its own set of challenges.
“It was really hard to get used to,” Wilson-Walker said. “For an able-bodied athlete, planting their foot on the board is one thing, but when you have a tiny, little blade, it can be frustrating when it’s not landing on the board properly. It was very difficult.”
But she persisted, with her efforts earning her a spot on Team Canada at the 2019 Parapan American Games in Peru, where she placed second in long jump and fourth in the 100-metre race. At the 2019 World Para Athletic Championships in Dubai, she was a finalist in the 100-metre.
Wilson-Walker’s “can do” approach to life, recently helped her land a modelling gig with athletic apparel giant lululemon. “I’ve been a fan of theirs since elementary school and as I was shopping online, I noticed how inclusive they are in their models, including amputees,” she said.
When she saw Paralympian and friend Beatriz Hatz, from Team USA as one of the models, she was inspired to email the company’s CEO and to see if there was an opportunity for herself. “I was half-expecting to get either no response at all, or one that let me down easy,” Wilson-Walker said. She got a response the next day, and was soon being interviewed by casting, trying on a new line and being flown to Vancouver for a photo shoot.
This is not the first time Wilson Walker has been in front of the camera, having been part of famed photographer Ann Geddes’ Win for Meningitis campaign in 2016.
Focused on France
As she wraps up her final year at King’s, Wilson-Walker is also studying to become a certified trainer of both able-bodied athletes and athletes with disabilities. She also has her sights set on Paris, home of both the World Championships in 2023 and the Paralympic Games in 2024.
As she accepted the award on Monday, she noted the impact it will have on the days ahead.
“I’m so thankful to receive the Courage Award, which will assist me as I continue to train and compete to the best of my ability, and continue to live by the words, ‘Never say can’t,’ every day.”