10 Dec 2008
BY JOE O'CONNOR
[log in to unmask]
'This is big'
Chantal Petitclerc was " s t r essed." There was a snow
storm raging outside her window, and reporters from a sports television
channel and a national radio station were rapping on her front door.
PHOTO BY BENOIT PELOSSEChantal Petitclerc was dominant at the Paralympic
Games in Beijing this year, winning five gold medals for Canada - three in
world-record time. Petitclerc joined an elite group when she was named the
country's top athlete yesterday.
On top of that, the phone was ringing, constantly, and Petitclerc's agent,
the person she actually pays to arrange interviews and to protect her from
things like a horde of media besieging her loft on a Tuesday afternoon, was
nowhere to be found.
"I don't know where my agent is, but I need him now," a harried-sounding
Petitclerc said on the phone from Montreal. "This is crazy. Can you call me
back in half an hour?"
Petitclerc has no one but herself to blame for the chaos. She is the
Canadian wheelchair racer who went to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Paralympic
Games in September and blew away her competitors to win five gold medals,
including three done in world-record time. And yesterday morning in Toronto,
a committee of 16 sports journalists, broadcasters and one former Olympic
athlete decided that Petitclerc would be the 2008 winner of the Lou Marsh
Award, presented annually to Canada's top athlete.
"This award is really big, and I know only Rick Hansen got it as a
Paralympic athlete - and that he has been the only other one," Petitclerc
said. "I am in good company. I was looking at all the award winners in the
Hansen, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby, Silken Laumann - who
chaired the voting committee yesterday - Jacques Villeneuve, Steve Nash and
now a 38-year-old Montrealer who has had to rely on a wheelchair to get
around ever since she snapped her spine in a freak accident 25 years ago.
Petitclerc knows her disability is there. She can't deny that she cannot
walk. But she sees herself through what she does, which is competing and
winning and harvesting medals at the highest level of her sport, 21 in all
at Paralympic Games since 1992.
"I have been using a wheelchair longer than I have walked and I don't think
about it," she said. "It is not how I see me. How I define myself is by my
actions and what I do. And what I do is exactly the same as any high
performance Olympic athlete. It is not denial. It is reality: every day of
my life is about being an athlete more than it is about being a person with
The attitude and accomplishments have made her a national hero. People stop
Petitclerc in the streets just to say hello, and to tell her that she is a
role model. She receives the same message from school kids in the e-mails
they send to her Web site. Petitclerc did not set out to be an inspiration
to others, or to be the ferociously competitive face of the Paralympic
"I never set myself on a mission to change things and to provoke change,"
she said. "But I can see it happening."
Her first trip to the Paralympics was in 1992 in Barcelona, an event that
drew 3,000 athletes from 82 nations. There were 148 countries and 4,200
athletes competing in Beijing, where Petitclerc was the brightest star.
"She is one of my heroines," British Paralympian Shelly Woods said after
finishing second to the Canadian in the 1,500 metres in Beijing. "Racing
her, you want to get tough and beat her. But at the same time you are in awe
of her." Woods, 22, is among the new wave of athletes seeking to replace
Petitclerc on the podium.
China was Petitclerc's last hurrah. She is still training, and will compete
in road races and even try her hand at the New York marathon in November,
2009. However she is retiring from the Paralympic Games, and is not entirely
sure what she wants to do next.
"That is a big question mark," she said. "I think it is going to hit me,
that it is over. The other day I was at a ceremony with my coach, and
because this was our last Games, I had all my Paralympic racing numbers -
from Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing - framed together to
give to my coach.
"And when I got it at the framing store, I was almost crying. It was very
emotional for me. It was 20 years of my life behind the glass - and over -
and I am sure I am going to have to deal with that at some point."
But not yesterday. Yesterday was a day to celebrate. It was snowing outside
and the media was at her door and the phone was ringing off the hook. Amid
all the chaos was a gracious Montrealer, with an interior-decorating problem
on her hands.
"I don't keep my medals on display because our loft is a contemporary
style," Petitclerc said. "But I am going to have find a space for this
award. To win it after my last Paralympic Games - my last and best
performance ever - it's just great."
To change your mail settings or leave the C-PALSY list, go here: