Ben Leclair: New Purpose in an Adventurous Life
- By Laurie Watanabe
- Apr 01, 2020
PHOTO: SIMON DUBÉ
As a professional wakeboarder from Canada, Ben Leclair is used to traveling the world, competing as an elite athlete, pushing through pain during training, and appearing on film with the great outdoors as his backdrop.
In November 2016, while training in Florida, Leclair sustained a C3 complete spinal cord injury that changed his life.
But Leclair will also tell you that some things haven’t changed at all.
Learning New Possibilities
Today, Leclair is still an athlete, still trains, and still travels the world. “I’m probably more of an athlete now than ever before,” he noted. “I eat better, I train much harder, and I’m constantly giving my body the tools needed to optimize.”
Filmmaking remains a big part of his life, both in front of and behind the camera.
And rather than slowing down, he’s actually added credentials to his résumé. In 2019, he became an ambassador and spokesperson for Amylior, a power wheelchair and seating manufacturer in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec, and will help design and develop future products. And he remains an ambassador for O’Neill, the surf wear/lifestyle brand, as he was during his wakeboarding career.
Leclair has come a long way from November 2016, when he was on a ventilator and a feeding tube, rehabilitating first in Orlando, Fla., and then in Montreal.
He shares his adventures not just to encourage people living with disabilities, but also as a much-needed lesson to the able-bodied world. The message: “People are capable and deserving of all the adventures and possibilities that life has to offer.”
Part of the goal is to share advances in assistive technology to make everyone more aware of available seating, mobility and electronics options, and what a difference those options can make.
“It’s hard to know what’s out there, even though there are more social media pages now,” Leclair said. “When you’re new to this world [of assistive technology], it’s not easy to find. When I was at my rehab center in Montreal, they tell you what they know, and you think that’s all that’s out there.”
PHOTO: GOPHRETTE POWER
A priority of Leclair’s is to help people to use technology to move forward in new ways.
“When I was there, I couldn’t move my arms,” Leclair said, of his starting point during rehab. While he said he was aware that some people undergoing rehab with him were “going to be able to play rugby or some kind of sport, which might give them a passion,” Leclair didn’t learn until much later that wheelchair sports are available for people with various levels of injury. “I just heard recently that some people play soccer in wheelchairs, with cages and the whole thing. It’s things like this I’d like to share, and make videos for people to enjoy and see there are so many more things you can do. It’s not about the level of your injury. There’s probably something you can do at almost every level.”
A Cinematic Career
Filmmaking is front and center of Leclair’s life now, just as it was before his injury. “I was working for a wakeboard company that did a bunch of wakeboard events in Canada, and it was televised on a French-Canadian TV channel,” he said. “I had a TV crew that followed me around, and they came to Asia and Europe with me a couple of times.”
Spending so much time with the TV crew taught Leclair cinematography.
“That’s where I really learned about it, how to film and edit, from them,” he said. “We were all in the same hotel room, and they were always editing things that needed to get out in three days. I got the work ethic from them.”
Today, Leclair makes his own films. “Camera gear got a lot less expensive and a lot higher quality, so you don’t have to bring this huge camera around,” he added. “You can throw a small camera into your backpack, and the quality is pretty amazing.”
The films Leclair wants to make will do more than demonstrate what it’s like to use a wheelchair. Leclair wants his films to be professional, with the polish and beauty that he became accustomed to when TV film crews were turning their cameras on him.
“I don’t want them to look medical,” he said of the films. “I don’t want people to feel bad when they watch it. I want them to feel happy for the people that they’re watching.”
New Dreams, Familiar Dreams
His partnership with Amylior gives him the freedom to create films and to educate along the way.
“I’ve been working on a couple of videos with them, showing a little bit of a motivational video,” he said. “It’s not really ‘corporate.’ It’s wakeboarding, and then me transitioning into filming and a couple of shots of me filming from the wheelchair, what I can film now. I’m proud to associate myself with a company that has the same kind of values as me, that’s pushing towards something better, and showing what I’m doing right now: filming, editing, a little bit of background. And then the other videos coming up are more about my lifestyle, simple things like going outside into the snow with the chair, or going to the grocery store.
PHOTO COURTESY AMYLIOR/DIANE MAQUET
“We’re adapting a camera onto the wheelchair so I can control the most I can, and we’re fine-tuning all the adaptations. Once that’s ready, I think I’ll be ready to make product videos. There’s so much more to show.”
Leclair’s competitive nature also continues to get a workout, now through handcycling. When he began rehab in Montreal, “I could pedal a bike slowly with one hand, and I would strap the other hand on there and try to make the movement, even though I couldn’t feel my arm,” he said.
He kept at it, buying a stationary hand-cycle system and practicing at home. In 2017, he traveled to NextStep Orlando to continue his rehab and training.
“I tried one of the bikes they had there, and I wasn’t strong enough to pedal it,” he recalled. “I kept working for six months and I told myself, ‘I’m going to buy a bike either way, and at one point I’m going to be ready.’”
He set his sights on a Red Bull Wings for Life run, which raises money for spinal cord injury research. Leclair had been invited to the Montreal event; organizers asked him to appear in person and pose for photos. Leclair had other ideas. He reached out to Top End, who promised him a bike that would be much more efficient to pedal.
“I got the bike a week before the race,” he said. “I told them two weeks before: ‘I think I might be able to pedal a couple of kilometers in the competition. If people help me to turn, there are straight lines [within the race course], so I’ll be fine.’”
The host of the event, a veteran marathon runner, said that if Leclair could pedal for five kilometers, he’d run with him. “So on that day,” Leclair said, “I was like, ‘Let’s do the 10K. Let’s do the whole thing.”
And he did.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Leclair said, “but I was able to do the entire 10 kilometers with a couple of people pushing me here and there for the curves.”
Three years after his accident, how much does Leclair still use his professional wakeboard training and the lessons he learned from it?
“I think 100 percent of what I used to do is what I use now,” he said. “I’ve been working through injuries in the past, never as drastic as this. Pain is part of the process, and pushing yourself isn’t going to be good all of the time, there are going to be bad parts.”
Then, he chuckled. “You always get the cake at the end.”
Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.