Dr William Tan was diagnosed with polio at the age of two, which left him paralysed from the waist down.
Faced with questions such as “What possible good can come out of a handicapped child?”, his incredible journey is a testament to the power of the human spirit and offers valuable lessons for anyone seeking to overcome their own obstacles and achieve their own breakthroughs.
I had the privilege of being inspired by Dr Tan at the 49th IFPAS Annual General Meeting in person.
Here are 3 lessons I went away with.
1. Believe In Yourself
Believe in yourself even when no one else does.
From “What possible good can come out of a handicapped child?” and dropping out of kindergarten, he went on to top Selegie Primary School and to Singapore’s Premier School, Raffles Institution on a Ministry of Education Scholarship for his Secondary and Junior College education.
He majored in Life Sciences and graduated from the National University of Singapore. In pursuit of his dream to become a scientist and physician, he ventured abroad for postgraduate studies. Holder of a First Class Honours in Physiology, this Harvard University’s Fulbright Scholar and Oxford University’s Chevening Scholar has also trained at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in USA.
Along the way, he had to overcome doubts and critics who made statements such as, “If your disability is permanent, don’t come to my Lab” and “You are wasting a place in the medical school”.
Today, Dr William Tan, MBBS, PhD, M Sc (Hons), M Phil (Hons), MHSc, Sc M, MHlthSc, Moh, B Sc, PBM BBM is a Neuroscientist and Medical Doctor, Paralympic Wheelchair Athlete, World Records’ Holder, and an International Inspirational Speaker.
2. There’re No Limits To What We Can Do
“There are NO LIMITS to what we can do, be, or have except for the limits we place on ourselves,” said Dr William Tan.
Despite adversities in life – other than being paralysed from the waist down since he was two years old, he was also diagnosed with Stage 4 (end-stage) leukaemia in April 2009 – he didn’t let these adversities limit him.
Dr Tan’s unwavering determination, resilience, and positive mindset have propelled him to become a renowned Paralympian, medical doctor, philanthropist and multiple world records holder!
On 6 April 2007, Dr Tan became the first person in the world to accomplish a marathon in a wheelchair in the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 mins despite overwhelming obstacles and extreme conditions of –25 deg C to raise funds for Global Flying Hospitals.
On 19 December 2007, Dr Tan became the fastest person in a wheelchair in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes and 52 seconds to raise funds for international charities on 7 continents (including the National University of Singapore (NUS) ‘s Endowed Professorship in Paediatric Oncology).
On 6 Feb 2023, he became the first person to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 7 days in a wheelchair. The event is considered one of the most gruelling physical challenges in the world, as participants are required to complete a full marathon distance (26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers) in each of the seven locations, which are spread across the world and include Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Asia, Europe, South America, and North America, in seven consecutive days.
3. Turn Setback To Comeback
Things often don’t go to plan.
Besides the obvious adversities that Dr William Tan had to overcome in life, he also faced setbacks in the midst of pursuing his goals.
His record as the fastest person in a wheelchair in the world to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 26 days in 2007 took more than one attempt.
In setting the record as the first person to complete 7 marathons across 7 continents in 7 days in a wheelchair, he had to complete the feat even when his racing wheelchair was damaged during transit.
When faced with setbacks, he said: “Don’t kill the dream. Harvest useful lessons and knowledge from what doesn’t work.”
Step up instead of giving up, avoid the victim mentality and re-ignite and energise your passion every day, he said.
“The ability to adapt to disruptive changes differentiates who will win the race.”Dr William Tan