On the Record: Tony Christiansen

By Carly Gibbs

They took away his legs but they didn't take away his heart. International speaker, city councillor and daredevil Tony Christiansen is big, brash and bold and proves when you're feeling down on your luck - you've only got yourself to blame
If you read just one inspirational story today, let it be this one. The story of Tony Christiansen - the man with no legs.
And his story ironically begins where it almost ended. On train tracks in Te Maunga.
Christiansen was 9, and helping friend Gary Winters and Gary's dad, Mick Winters, load coal into sacks for the Lions Club.
But as he darted between wagons, one shunted backwards. The brakes failed and Christiansen copped it. As he lay, surrounded by metal and screaming onlookers, things began to haze over. He felt thirsty and the pain was overwhelming.
"The wheels crushed the arteries and cauterised them, otherwise I wouldn't be here today," he says. "So if there was a good to happen, that was it."
And that's the sort of person he is. Take a dreadful situation and turn it into a positive. In fact, when he woke in Tauranga Hospital and his legs were missing, he was the one saying to his mum, Doreen: "It'll be okay."
"It hit my mum harder than anything. I was the one consoling mum," he says. "I've got a photo of me taken about eight days after my accident and I'm sitting in a wheelchair with the sister and I'm smiling away."
Christiansen has never needed anyone to feel sorry for him. He's done more with his life than is possible to fit into one book. So, he's got three. Race You to the Top - The Incredible Story of Tony Christiansen, Attitude Plus - Tony Christiansen's Secrets of Success, and Don't Just Sit There.


On his website, www.tonychristiansen.com, is a video that's not unlike the introduction to TV show MacGyver.
In it, Christiansen is scuba diving, flying a plane, destroying planks with tae kwon do (he's a black belt, second dan), climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and sprint-car racing. It's all set to music.
Then there's the images of him at Bonneville in 2008, going 189m/h (304km/h) in a race car.
It's a life of adrenaline and no limits. One he may not have lived if he hadn't had his accident?
"That's the $64,000 question isn't it?" says Christiansen.
"So many people ask me that. Would I be the same person I am today had I not had the accident? I've got a photo of me, in fact it's the only photo my parents have got of me with legs. And I'm sitting on a log on the beach with my sister, and I'm a skinny little runt of a kid. I'm the type of the kid you kick sand in his face.
"Yeah, it's interesting.
"A lot of people say 'did it make you think life is short?' You know, the old cliche. But, oh, I don't know. Just because I don't have any legs shouldn't stop me from doing these things."
Christiansen, now 52, is a pretty happy guy. When he smiles his bearded face crinkles. His laugh hiccups when he really gets going. His eyes gleam. He's as Kiwi as they get, as outdoorsy and risk-taking as they come, and he likes to think his disability has been a light in the life of others.
Let me explain.
When his three kids were growing up, Christiansen used to help out at Welcome Bay School.
"I was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant coach for the soccer team.
"One afternoon none of the coaches turned up and here's me with no legs, trying to tell kids how to kick a ball."
The mind boggles, really.
"Anyway, they weren't listening to me. So I jumped out of my chair and went and sat at the goal and said 'the first kid that can get a ball past me gets an ice cream.
"In fact, I'll buy you all an ice cream if you get a ball past me and not one of them got a ball past me. I think it changed their attitudes about things."
Christiansen lets this little story hang in the air for a moment.
"Disabled is a label," Christiansen says.
"Disabled, in my mind, is a state of mind. I know more able-bodied people in this world that are far more disabled than I'll ever be.
"You can see my disability but to me it's a perceived disability because I can do anything I want to.
"I just have to want to do it bad enough."
Christiansen has a bucket list he's working through. He never gets tired of telling his life story, or predicting what's to come.
"I've got a story that I want to tell or believe needs to be told. A lot of [Tauranga residents] know of me but have never seen me. I encourage people to share their stories. Be passionate about who you are, what you believe.
"Everybody's got a story."
And he believes any misfortune is really mind over matter. Take his grandad, Frank Sherman. Sherman had a terrible stutter but he was a clever man, and Christiansen's hero - even today.
Christiansen owns signwriting company Commercial Signs and became a professional motivational speaker in 1997.
He was asked to speak to a group at a Beaurepaires conference and was so popular he started being booked left, right and centre.
He now gives talks throughout New Zealand, Australia, America, and Asia. Before becoming a Tauranga City councillor this year, it was a fulltime job.
"Not having legs is my point of difference," he says matter-of-factly.
During his talks, Christiansen climbs scaffolding and captivates everyone in the room. He reckons he's got 3.5 hours of notes in his head.
And if you've heard him speak it's unlikely you'll hear the same spiel twice.
Why? He keeps adding to his accomplishments. His life story keeps growing.
This year, he's joined the city council - he was the highest-polling candidate in the local-body elections.
He also travelled to Utah, where he had the opportunity to train with the US national ski team on mono-skis.
"From that, I had the opportunity to go in the Olympic bobsled Park City course in the four-man.
"It was the best minute of my life. We did about 82 miles an hour ... Now they do adaptive bobsledding. I'm putting my name forward to drive it. I just need to find someone to join me."
Christiansen wants to compete in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Russia in bobsled or slalom.
His bucket list also includes a trip to dive spot Truk Lagoon and to build an aeroplane to go in the hangar he's building at Tauranga Airport.
It's shake-your-head stuff.
"You've got to have goals and dreams," he says. "I think a lot of people have forgotten how to do that and be passionate about things. To me, it's a little bit sad. You can always find a way.
"Too many people in life are going through the motions.
"I've always had this never-give-up attitude and the harder it is the more I actually enjoy it. They say there's two sides to every story but I say there's four, five ... because it's all about perception."
Christiansen had prosthetic legs until he left Tauranga Boys' College. After that, he couldn't be bothered with them.
"I'm not going back to limb centre," he told his parents one day. So they took the legs to the dump.
"We came back a month or so later and here they are hanging outside the house at the dump with plants growing out of them. Somebody's trash is somebody's treasure. It was a crack-up, really."
Since then he's got around in his wheelchair, larger than life. Always willing to brighten someone's day - or be brought back down to earth.
He tells the story of visiting a class at Tauriko School on Book Day.
"I jumped out of my chair on to the floor and they all go 'woah'. I flipped up on to one of the desks and they're all going 'woah-woah'. And then one of the kids goes 'woah. We're not allowed to sit on the desks'.
"Here's me trying to impress them that I can jump from the floor up on to the table and the only thing they can think of is 'we're not allowed to sit on the bloody desks'. Well, what am I doing wrong here?"
He says it with a chugging laugh at the memory.
It's a lighter anecdote from Christiansen's life but surely there have been tough times too?
"Look," he says. "I think my parents were naive and I say that in a loving way because they didn't know what to do with a kid without legs. We're talking 43 years ago now. In today's world, you go on the internet, there's a thousand stories on people that have been run over by trains or lost their legs. There's 100 books in the library of inspiration and people that have had challenges. But 43 years ago, they didn't have that."
So Christiansen learnt to accept his fate and find strength from within.
"I had an instinct to survive." .
Christiansen's eldest child Nikki Tui says she and her two siblings, Lucas and Danielle, learned quickly to "never" say you couldn't do anything.
"You just don't mention that word in our home."
Tui says that growing up she didn't view her dad as different.
"Even now we forget. We'll have friends over and he'll tottle in on his hands and butt and they'll get a fright," she said and laughed. "He's been a positive role model and we now push it on to our kids."
Friend Larry Baldock says he's nicknamed Christiansen "the big sponge" at the council because of the way he absorbs knowledge. Baldock believes the only thing that would bring Christiansen down would be not being able to do new things and meet challenges.
"He's got a huge amount of self-belief."
Christiansen says: "I can get frustrated in life sometimes. It's harder for me to do things and slower ... But I can sit and wait for Lotto or just go out and be the best I can be. [For a long time] my mum still blamed herself for letting me go that day. And I just had to say 'Mum, let it go. I'm okay. I've had an extraordinary life and I've still got an extraordinary life to come'."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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