It is easy enough to be in awe of people who accomplish exceptionally great achievements. But when a person experiences tremendous adversity - then goes on to attain nearly impossible feats - it makes us pause in wonder about human potential and our own personal abilities. These types of people are the ones who, throughout history, most often inspire others to strive to reach higher goals.
Cato Zahl Pedersen is such a person. Now in his early 40s, Pedersen was born in Norway, and until age 13, his life was typical of boys his age. He enjoyed the outdoors and loved playing with his friends in the forest near his home. But on May 5, 1973, he encountered a life-changing catastrophe.
On this fateful day, Pedersen and a group of friends were in the woods making a hut from pine tree branches. Pedersen decided to climb partway up a mast that carried high-voltage cables to get a better view of the area. Although he was aware of the danger and used caution to avoid the cables, moisture on the mast somehow caused 19,000 volts of electricity to be transmitted through his body - enough to instantly kill a person.
Initially, his friends thought he was dead and quickly called for medical emergency assistance. He did not die; however, his entire left arm and half of his right arm had to be amputated.
The disaster would have been traumatic enough to convince most people to spend most of the rest of their lives indoors. But not Pedersen.
“You have to choose to handle what happens,” he says. “As young as I was at the time of the accident, I remember lying in the hospital bed with the realization that I had to restart my life.”
“Restart his life” is putting it mildly. Pedersen went on to accomplish goals that people without a disability would consider phenomenal. He has won 13 gold medals in track, cross-country and downhill skiing in the summer and winter Paralympic Games in 1980, 1984 and 1992. He also received the Ekeberg Prize of Honor, the highest award that can be bestowed upon a Norwegian athlete. Today, he is one of the most cherished personalities in Norwegian sports. r
In October 1980, Pedersen ran the New York Marathon and finished 709th of 14,500 participants. The following day, he married his wife, Martha, at the United Nations Chapel in New York City. Martha suffered with polio when she was 7 years old. The couple met when they were both involved in treating other people with disabilities. They have a teen-age daughter.
These accomplishments, however, were merely a warm-up for the goals that remained on Pedersen's growing list of “things to do in life.” On November 4, 1994, he conquered the South Pole on skis.
The trek across the South Pole, self-named the “Unarmed Expedition” by Pedersen and his two companions - Odd Harald Hauge and Lars Ebbesen - would be written into history as the first Pole crossing on skis by a person with a disability.
“One must be prepared physically to accomplish such a goal as crossing Antarctica,” Pedersen says. “I know people with all of their limbs who cannot function as well as I can without arms - but it all has to do with determination and conviction. Your essence is not determined by whether you have limbs or not. It is determined by your deepest being. I control what I set as goals for my future, and I control how I deal with those goals.”
Following his accident, his own inspiration came from a nurse in the hospital where he was recovering, Pedersen says.
“I lay there in bed for days just reading,” he says. “At first, the nurses would come running to turn the pages of the book for me every time I called for them. On this one particular day, one of the nurses became frustrated with me. She told me that she would not come running every time I called her to do such a menial task as turn a page in my book. She said that if I wanted the page turned, I would have to learn to do it myself.
“At first I was really angry,” Pedersen continues. “I asked for a different nurse, but no one would come to my rescue. I finally realized that if I wanted to read, I would have to find a way to do it myself. After some experimenting, I discovered that if I held a pencil in my mouth, I could turn the pages with the eraser end. That moment was an epiphany for me. It made me realize that I could find a way to do anything I set my mind to - if I wanted it badly enough.”
Walking across the South Pole is not as simple as putting one foot in front of another and so on. The supplies required to survive such an extreme expedition are heavy and burdensome. Like Pedersen's nurses in the hospital, his companions were not going to carry Pedersen's load for him either. If he wanted to accomplish this feat, he would have to learn to fend for himself. He devised a way to pull a sled loaded with 200 pounds of supplies the entire distance. He used his prosthetic hook to hold a ski pole, which was hooked onto the sled. This enabled him to drag the heavy sled behind him as he surged forward.
It took the team eight weeks to cross the Antarctic. Pedersen refers to the landmass as “one gigantic shield of ice,” saying that few people realize that it is larger than the U.S. and Europe combined. The average temperature was minus 50 degrees Celsius, but walking approximately 10 hours per day kept his body comfortable - even warmer than desired on frequent occasions. To prevent their bodies from getting too hot, the team members wore clothing made from thin polypropylene.
“We consumed between 2,000 and 3,000 calories a day,” Pedersen says. “But the extreme conditions and our constant physical movements would have required a diet of approximately 7,000 calories a day to maintain our weight. We ate mostly dry food, such as cooked rice, to keep the weight of our supplies as low as possible. When we began the expedition, I weighed 160 pounds. When I reached the American research station two months later, I weighed in at 120 pounds.”
Describing the frequent monotony of the trip, Pedersen says he put one foot in front of another. One day turned into another, then into a week, and then into month until the goal was finally in sight. The drudgery of such a rigorous daily routine caused moments of tension between the three men, but they passed quickly. Without television, radio or other communications of any kind - not even occasional news of what was going on in the rest of the world - the three men became totally separated from the rest of the Earth. Each one's survival depended entirely on being supported by the others.
“We focused on our friendship and camaraderie, and became dedicated to taking care of each other,” Pedersen says. “Being forced together this way ultimately developed into a tight bond being formed between us.”
Your essence is not determined by whether you have limbs or not. It is determined by your deepest being.
At the end of the expedition, the 140 people who work at the American Research Station near the South Pole greeted Pedersen's team. The station contains a small hospital and a galley. The Norwegian team earned their food by working at the station, but limited space made it necessary for them to continue to sleep in their tents. Pedersen's job was to catalog the crated food supplies at the station. His teammates were assigned the job of building cargo pallets and other tasks.
“American workers at South Pole Station are not usually happy to see expeditioners,” Pedersen explains. “These people often get stranded or injured while crossing the Antarctic, and those at the station have to rescue them. The workers usually regard such rescues as a burden and feel that U.S. taxes should not pay the cost of such rescue missions. The fact that we volunteered to work made a big impact on how we were received there. We made some lifelong friends.”
Although the team of three men did not need to be rescued during their trek, Pedersen says they did encounter some hardships, including a fuel shortage and the contamination of their food supplies. Although the expedition was financed by corporate dollars raised by the three travelers, once they were alone in the middle of the Antarctic, there was no one around to stop by and drop off needed supplies. Ultimately, they overcame these and other adversities and continued to press on. On November 4, 1994, the “Unarmed” team conquered the South Pole.
“People frequently ask me why I did it,” Pedersen says. “I tell everyone the same thing: My purpose was to show others that all things are possible. It is only one example of how I always try to be an example to others of how even the most difficult things can be overcome.”
Pedersen's determination to surge forward to new goals is equaled only by his dedication to being that exemplary example to others. He refers to himself as “differently abled,” rather than “disabled.”
“I remember having both arms and a perfect 10 fingers,” he says. “My options are to dwell on that time - to live in the history of when my body was perfect - or to move forward making my life the very best it can be. I choose to move forward.”
Today, Pedersen spends a great deal of his time addressing audiences around the world. Though he frequently speaks to groups of people with disabilities, his lectures are also a tremendous inspiration to those who have all of their fingers and toes. During one appearance sponsored by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and held at the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in New York City in the summer of 2003, he joked about his jet lag and the passenger sitting next to him on the plane during his flight that afternoon from Norway.
“The airline served a steak dinner,” he said. “The person sitting next to me offered his assistance to cut the steak. I turned to him and said, ‘It is an eight-hour flight - so I have about seven hours left to cut it. I think I'll manage by then.'
” People feel most comfortable when things are familiar and unthreatening, but Pedersen is used to not having the security of being able to cut a steak.
“It is the same with accomplishing other tasks that people with both arms and hands do every day,” he says. “People who don't have a disability take for granted those things that are monumental challenges to those of us who do. How do you do it? You take one day at a time and you simply ‘dive into' whatever you have to do to survive. That's how I crossed the Antarctic, and that is how you can accomplish anything you set your mind to doing. For the first several years following my accident, my mother had more problems with my disability than I had. It took her a long time to come to the realization that with perseverance and sheer determination, I would do whatever I set my mind to doing.”
Joking about himself comes easily, but, at the same time, Pedersen is also warm and honest. He knows that people who face major traumas need help from others. That needed help is one reason he founded CatoSenteret, a center for rehabilitation in Son, Norway, near Oslo. When he is not traveling to lecture or crossing tundras like the Antarctic, Pedersen dedicates his time to helping others with disabilities reach their own goals. The center focuses on collaboration between physiotherapists and adapted physical activity (APA) specialists to meet the needs and ability levels of its patients. CatoSenteret is the newest rehabilitation center in Norway to use APA in its programs.
Pedersen continues to set goals for himself - and to accomplish them. In 1998, he received the Ronald Reagan Media Award, which honors people for their contributions to sports. He is also the recipient of the IOC President's Disabled Athlete Award and the Outstanding Young Person of the World Award for Leadership.
He says his purpose is to show others that impossibilities do not exist. “All things are possible,” he says. “I will continue to try to show others that difficult things can be overcome.”
Visit Pedersen's Web site at http://www.catosenteret.no