"One of the things I really believe in is to never, ever underestimate the power of the human spirit. And when all else goes wrong, believe in yourself."
Bob Steadward is a pioneering leader in the field of disability sport and a highly respected teacher, author, sport scientist and community volunteer. His seminal work brought the Paralympic movement to the world’s attention and allowed athletes with disability from Canada and around the globe to develop and compete to their fullest potential. His efforts have also served to inspire all people with disability to pursue more active lifestyles.
Robert Daniel Steadward was born in Eston, Saskatchewan on May 26, 1946. His parents, Danny and Irene Steadward, encouraged Bob and his three sisters to be active in the community and take part in a wide range of pursuits. Bob did well at school and took a particular interest in riding horses. Early on he also discovered a great passion and facility for all sports such as hockey, baseball and track and field. His academic strengths led Bob to leave home at a young age in order to complete his high school years at Luther College in Regina.
Bob then decided to follow in a friend’s footsteps and study Dentistry at the University of Alberta. However he discovered that the field was a poor fit and he floundered in his studies. After a couple of years away from school, Bob returned to the U of A with renewed purpose. He enrolled in the Faculty of Physical Education and set about earning a bachelor degree with distinction. In 1967, he married Laura Thomson, a fellow student he had fallen in love with upon his initial arrival on the U of A campus. In time, the couple welcomed daughters, Tommi Lynn and Bobbi Jo. Bob divided his time between family and academic life, completing a Masters degree in Physical Education from the U of A and, later, a PhD from the University of Oregon.
In 1970, Bob joined the U of A faculty as a professor specializing in exercise physiology, anatomy and athletic injuries. Bob began to see that people with disability lacked the facilities and opportunities to pursue independence and physical fitness and develop their full potential as athletes. He decided to do something to fill the gap and set out on a series of endeavours that would help to turn Alberta and Canada into centres of excellence in the field of disability sport. In 1971, he began a five year term as President of the Alberta Wheelchair Sports Association. By 1977, Bob was involved in the creation of the U of A-based Research and Training Centre for Athletes with a Disability, which in time became The Steadward Centre for Personal and Physical Achievement. The multi-disability fitness, research and lifestyle centre was ground-breaking when it was first introduced and it continues to be an innovative and internationally-recognized model for independence and fitness training for people with disability. Bob also founded the Canadian Sports Fund for the Physically Disabled to ensure ongoing development in the growing field and served for 10 years as the Fund’s president and chairman.
Throughout the 1980’s, Bob began the slow process of uniting various disability sport organizations in a way that would give the growing field a much-deserved presence on the international stage. He wrote papers and proposals on the topic and began reaching out to colleagues and disability sport organizations around the world. His considerable perseverance and belief in the idea eventually led to international meetings and the support of the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1989, Bob was elected as the founding president of the International Paralympic Committee and in 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, Bob Steadward and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch signed a formal memorandum of understanding that brought their two movements together. Bob spent 12 years at the helm of the organization and was named honourary life president at the end of his third term in recognition of his seminal contributions to the Paralympic movement.
Bob has filled various roles with the Canadian Paralympic Committee, including national coach, chef de mission, national governor, treasurer and president. His significant contributions to the IOC include service as a member of the Committee’s Olympic Truce Foundation, the Environment and Reform Commissions and the Coordinating Commission for the 2008 Games in Beijing. He was an executive board member of the successful bid committee to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver/Whistler.
While he established his leadership in the world of disability sport, Bob became a leader in the academic community. He served as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation followed by a term as Chairman of the Department of Athletics. His extensive contributions beyond the halls of the U of A include travelling the world and supporting students from 13 different countries in their efforts to develop programs for people with disability. Over the years, Bob inspired more than 50 graduate students who have gone on to produce innovative work in the area of disability sport. Bob retired from his teaching duties at the U of A in 2001 with the title of Professor Emeritus.
Bob has also established himself as a consummate volunteer and fixture on the Edmonton sports scene in areas other than disability sport. He has served as president of the Alberta Universities Athletic Association, chairman of Accreditation for the 1978 Commonwealth Games and vice president of the 1983 World University Games. He also conceived the idea and co-chaired the bid committee to bring the 2000 World Track and Field Championships to the city and was an executive board member of the Edmonton 2005 World Masters Games. In his work as a sports agent, manager and counsellor, Bob has guided numerous Alberta athletes to success on the national and international stage. In retirement, Bob re-embraced his childhood love of horses and rodeo. He has served as president of Friends of Pro Rodeo, Miss Rodeo Canada and the River City Roundup Festival and has served as mentor and agent for country musicians.
The long list of honours presented to Bob over the years reflects the enduring nature of his contributions. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the International Olympic Order and the International Paralympic Order and an honourary life member of the Canadian Olympic Association. He was named a U of A Alumni of Distinction and earned the U of A Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the King Clancy Award for Outstanding Contributions to Canadians with Disabilities and the Lois Hole Community Development Award. He holds honourary degrees from the U of A and Leuven University in Belgium and an honourary diploma from Grant MacEwan University. He is a member of the University, Edmonton, Alberta and Canada Sport Halls of Fame and the Terry Fox Hall of Fame. In 2004, Bob was named one of the top Edmontonians of the century. More recently he was named one of 125 of Alberta’s greatest citizens over the past two centuries.
Through his tenacity, hard work and vision, Bob Steadward has achieved something that is a relatively rare accomplishment in any field. His exceptional body of work and tireless volunteer efforts have made the name “Steadward” synonymous with the best qualities of the Paralympic movement and disability sport in general. It is a name that stands for dedication, for positive energy and for an irrepressible belief in the power of the human spirit.