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Discipline and resilience is taking UNB engineering graduate to 2024 Paralympics

Author: UNB Newsroom

Posted on Feb 27, 2023

Category: UNB Fredericton , UNB Saint John

In 2012, Alexandre Hayward was a competitive hockey player experiencing his draft year for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). While playing spring hockey in Quebec City, his life changed forever when an accident on the ice left him paralyzed from the neck down.

At the age of 16 and suffering from an incomplete spinal cord injury, Hayward’s aspirations to pursue professional-level hockey ended and his everyday became about discovering if he’d walk and have normal body function again after becoming tetraplegic.

“I understand that I died on the ice for 45 seconds to about a minute when the accident happened,” said Hayward. “I had a full out-of-body experience and then came back to life on the ice, totally paralyzed from the neck down. The C3 vertebrae in my spinal cord, all the way up in my neck, starts to touch important things like lung function. The doctors had no idea what might happen after I woke up.”

University of New Brunswick (UNB) faculty member and Stan Cassidy medical director Dr. Colleen O’Connell was involved in Hayward’s rehabilitation at the Stan Cassidy Centre for Rehabilitation in Fredericton.

“Alex suffered a catastrophic injury to his spinal cord, which all elite athletes fear,” said O’Connell. “While Alex can use his arms and legs, all four of his limbs are impaired. Being tetraplegic comes with challenges ranging from breathing, body temperature and blood pressure control, and bowel and bladder function.”

Wheelchair basketball team captain and part-time UNB student

Every few days, Hayward would wake up and some of the swelling in his spine would subside and the blockages from his brain to his body would lessen.

As his rehabilitation progressed, Hayward enlisted the help of the UNB REDS hockey team personnel to get back on the ice. Using his walker for assistance, Hayward tried to skate again and found that he could do it, even in full hockey gear.

It was clear, however, that competitive hockey was no longer an option. This was due in part to the spasticity in his limbs (involuntary movements, stiff muscles and loss of dexterity) and issues with proprioception (knowing where his arms and legs are in space without looking at them).

Resolving to finish high school on time while managing his rehab, Hayward settled on wheelchair basketball thanks to a recommendation from Parasport New Brunswick.

“I’m an athlete,” said Hayward. “There was a big void I needed to fill, not being on a team and not being able to compete. As soon as I could do it, I played wheelchair basketball competitively. I went to a few Canada Games, graduated from high school and decided to do that full time for a couple of years in Toronto at the National Training Centre.”

Hayward worked hard and excelled, making the junior national team and becoming captain of the team. He also made the senior national team in wheelchair basketball to represent Canada.

After a couple of years of full-time competition, Hayward felt it was time to pursue another one of his goals, studying engineering at UNB Saint John.

“It's funny because when you think about it, all my family ties to UNB,” said Hayward. “My grandparents did their degrees here. My grandfather and my dad completed Engineering degrees like me. Mom’s an alumnus; several uncles and cousins are too.”

He started his studies part-time, while still travelling for tournaments. While he found the jump to university-level studies challenging, as many other new students do, he loved it at UNB. With support from the UNB communities he was part of, Hayward made it work.

Suddenly, full-time student during a global pandemic and world-class para-cyclist

Going into fall 2019, Hayward transferred to the Fredericton campus to finish his degree and streamline his athletic activities to full-time studies.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted both his in-person studies and athletic pursuits. His wheelchair basketball practices needed to happen over Zoom. Hayward wanted a change.

That's when he had an epiphany. Cycling had been a big part of his fitness and rehab. He began doing the cardio side of his wheelchair basketball training on the bike using Zwift to gather data on his rides.

"I’m starting to do group rides once that’s possible,” he recalled. “I feel as if I’m finally able to do an able-bodied sport without accommodation. I get attached to that feeling and I want to go further.”

Parasport NB noticed Hayward’s progress and he eventually found a coach to help him develop as a para-cyclist. He hit the standard he needed in his first race of the year and then won the road race and the time trial for the para-cycling category at the Nationals.

His disciplined training and competitive fire culminated in an invitation to join the Canadian para-cycling team just in time for the World Cup and World Championships in the summer of 2022, which both took place in Canada.

As the cycling career blossoms, Hayward interns for a summer at IBME

That summer, Hayward was also about to wrap up his engineering degree at UNB. With a burgeoning interest in biomedical research, he joined the UNB Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME) as a summer intern.

“We had an amazing cohort of summer interns this summer at IBME, including Alex,” said Dr. Jon Sensinger, IBME director, “who brought a tangible energy of curiosity and positivity as they approached their summer research projects. Alex was actively involved in his research project with Dr. Chris McGibbon and helped to design a sensor apparatus that can measure how hard your brain is thinking.”

Sensinger and Hayward often cycled to work together, and they talked about bikes and Hayward’s competitive pursuits. These included his successes during the World Cup and Championship events, which occurred while they worked together.

For Hayward, it was a summer of discovery and realizing his potential, both as a para-cyclist and a UNB student:

“I have a big interest in biomedical engineering, which you can imagine encompasses my whole life,” said Hayward. “When I was at IBME working with Dr. McGibbon, I was also doing the Nationals and Worlds races. I can really see myself doing a masters in biomedical engineering someday now, but I’ve got some unfinished business as a para-cyclist first.”

First races in a velodrome and preparation for 2024 Paralympics

As Hayward completed his fall term courses, the last ones he needed, Hayward competed in a para-cycling track event in a velodrome in France. The venue is the same facility which will host the Paralympic Games cycling events in 2024.

Despite lacking experience in track races, Hayward exceeded all expectations by setting a 12-second personal best record at the event and set a national record. He missed the podium by a few seconds. He became the fifth ranked pursuit competitor in the world in his para-cycling category.

“We joked on the flight home from France about how I should move to Bromont, Quebec, near where my coach lives and start preparing for the Paralympics in 2024,” said Hayward. “They’d just finished building the Multisports Velodrome, one of the very few Canada even has.”

That joke became a reality after he graduated from UNB in December, thanks to federal and provincial funding for athletes that allowed him to move to Quebec to train as a para-cyclist full-time. His goal: to “do something special” at the 2024 Paralympics.

We find Hayward does something special every day just by being himself.