Never Say Never: Driscoll Wins Races From Her Wheelchair
Jean Driscoll has won the Boston Marathon eight times. She's won silver medals in two Olympics and was recently ranked No. 25 on Sports Illustrated for Women's Top 100 Female Athletes of the Century. Amazing, yes, but even more amazing when you learn that Driscoll has done all that from a wheelchair.
Driscoll, now 33, was born with spina bifida, a disabling birth defect caused by failure of the spine to close properly during the first month of pregnancy. She was also born with a fighting spirit.
She began her life in a wheelchair at 15. Eventually, a coach convinced her to become a wheelchair racer, and she excelled. Today, she's one of the most highly sponsored Olympic athletes, disabled or not. And she continues to excel in a sport that's gaining notoriety around the world.
Driscoll's on target to compete in the Paralympics, the Games for disabled athletes which takes place October 18-29 in Sydney. She's also vying for one of eight spots to compete in an Olympic wheelchair exhibition event. The Olympics hosts two: the 800-meter sprint for women and a 1500-meter race for men.
She admits that sprinting, a skill necessary for the 800-meters, is her weakness. No matter, Driscoll will do all she can to win gold, for as she jokes, "Gold goes well with my eyes."
Driscoll's book, Determined to Win: The Overcoming Spirit of Jean Driscoll , will hit stores in October. Karen Asp caught up with Driscoll who shared her story.
At age nine, you taught yourself to ride a bike. What was that experience like for you?
Driscoll: I could ride a bike with training wheels, but I hadn't mastered a two-wheeled bike. There were lots of humiliating experiences because of that. I just wanted to be like other kids. One day, after my friend learned to ride a two-wheeled bike, I went to her house and borrowed her brother's bike. He was younger so the bike was smaller; my feet could touch the ground. And I did it. For the next eight hours, I rode without stopping except for lunch and bathroom breaks. Later, my parents took off the training wheels on my bike, and I experienced a freedom I'd never felt.
Your life suddenly changed, though, at 15 when you dislocated a hip. What happened and how did it affect you?
I was riding a 10-speed bike. I took a corner too sharply and slammed on the brakes. My hip burned, but I rode home, not realizing I'd dislocated my hip. Later, when I got up to get a phone call, my hip dislocated for good. Doctors had told me I needed to stop walking so much because I would damage my hips and knees. I didn't listen. I then underwent five major hip surgeries and spent a year in a body cast. I held onto this hope that I'd be able to walk. When doctors told me I wouldn't be able to, my heart sank. Then when I got my first wheelchair, I was devastated. I thought my life was over, and I became depressed.
Did you ever think you'd be as accomplished as you are today?
It's ironic because as a kid, I always wanted to be in sports. Instead, I got to be team manager or statistician. I couldn't get dirty with the other kids because I wasn't strong enough. I used to admire my brothers' and sisters' trophies. Later, I found out about wheelchair sports. If someone would have told my parents that one of their kids would win the Boston Marathon, they'd never have guessed it would be me. Now I'm the fittest member of my family.
You've done things most people can only dream of doing. Where do you find the courage to do that?
I have a strong Christian faith, and I believe God has a plan for me. Plus, from the time I was born, I've had this prove-you-wrong attitude. It's also about attitude. I had to learn not to let my disability be my focus, and for a long time it was. Now I realize that it's a characteristic just like my hair or eye color. I liken my chair to somebody's eye glasses. To get through the day, they put on their glasses. They don't wake up and get depressed because they have to go through another day of being far-sighted or nearsighted. That's how I look at it. My chair is the first thing I look for in the morning, but then I don't think about it.
What do you think people need to learn about disabilities?
That you can have a disability and still be athletic and fit. You're not damaged goods because you're disabled. My heart still needs to be strong, even though my legs don't work.
You have a slogan that you live by: Dream big, work hard. Explain that.
You have to make sacrifices and work hard to attain goals. Your biggest limitations are the ones you and other people place on yourself. I speak to children a lot, and I'll ask them how many dream of being in the Olympics. Almost all their hands go up. Then I ask how many think they can do it, and very few hands go up. Why do they dream big but think they can't do it? Because parents, friends or siblings tell them they can't. So I tell them they can live their dreams. I did and look what I had to overcome.
International Paralympic Committee
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