2007 Person of the Year: Chantal Petitclerc

 

Photo by Caroline Bergeron

Canadian wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc is unquestionably the world’s fastest woman on wheels. In the 2004 Paralympics, she achieved a clean sweep of all five women’s wheelchair track events, taking the gold medal for each race. In 2007, Petitclerc continued to dominate her sport, winning every major national and international event and setting two world records. Every world-class athlete must be driven to succeed. Petitclerc’s pursuit of excellence, however, cannot rightly be described as single-minded. Along with being an elite athlete, the 38-year-old racer is also a gifted public speaker, a popular television personality and an appreciator of the arts. Whether encouraging young people — with and without disabilities — to play sports, or serving as an athlete-ambassador to communities ravaged by war, Petitclerc is actively engaged with the larger world. Her success both on and off the track has raised the profile of wheelchair racing to an unprecedented level, and her vibrant personality and passion for life offer a vision of disability that is wholly integrated — a view of disability as ordinary as she is exceptional. New Mobility is proud to name Chantal Peticlerc as our 2007 Person of the Year.

In response to Petitclerc’s performance in the Athens Paralympiad, she was showered with honors from across Canada: She was named Maclean’s weekly news magazine’s Canadian of the Year, Woman of the Year by Chatelaine, an influential French-language magazine, Nation Builder of the Year by The Globe and Mail, Sports Personality of the Year by Montreal’s La Presse and Sports-Québec’s International Athlete of the Year.

Yet for all the awards she has accumulated, an illuminating story about Petitclerc arises from one that she declined.

In 2004, Athletics Canada, the national governing body for track and field, awarded Petitclerc its top honor — but named her co-recipient with a nondisabled hurdler, Perdita Felicien. While Felicien had a good year, she fell in her Olympic final and didn’t finish the race. Petitclerc left Athens with five gold medals and three world records.

“I thought about it for two days. I tried to be objective,” Petitclerc says of her decision. “I knew I had to refuse the award, for myself and for my sport. But at the same time, there was another individual involved, who I respect both as a person and an athlete, and I didn’t want it to become personal.”

Petitclerc risked being portrayed as ego-driven or self-serving. Bad publicity can quickly translate into lost sponsorship — which in turn can short-circuit an athlete’s career. “We had some young girls on our team at the time,” Petitclerc remembers. “I thought, if I accept this award, I’m telling those girls that, no matter what your level of success, you will never have this prize on your own. I could not do that.”

Petitclerc thought the issue could be handled quietly, kept between herself and Athletics Canada. She laughs, remembering her naivete. “At 7:30 the next morning, my doorbell was ringing, and there were two TV crews waiting for comments! It was on the front page in The Globe and Mail.”

Public reaction was overwhelmingly in Petitclerc’s favor. Many Canadian newspapers ran editorials praising her choice, and hundreds of positive e-mails poured into Petitclerc’s website. Naturally, Canadians with disabilities lauded her decision. Petitclerc’s coach, Peter Eriksson, says, “People were shocked at what [Athletics Canada] had done.” He calls the incident “a humongous embarrassment for the leadership of Athletics Canada. It was an insult to Chantal, to the sport, and to the entire Paralympics movement.”

The episode can be seen as a microcosm of Petitclerc’s approach to life. She looked beyond the honor of the moment to see the larger issue. She did her homework, then acted from a place of integrity and self-respect. She did what she felt was right, for herself and her community — and she succeeded.

A Role Model — If It Happens
Public figures who have disabilities often hear from newly disabled people who look to them for inspiration. Petitclerc is no exception. “I get e-mails from people who already knew of me, before their accident,” she says. “They say that because of that, they know they have a future, they know there are possibilities.”

In Petitclerc’s case, inspiration is not limited to wheelers. She also receives e-mails from young nondisabled athletes seeking training advice and encouragement. “That’s also very positive,” she says, “because they are relating to me as an athlete and as a person. The wheelchair doesn’t play into the equation.”

When asked about being a role model, Petitclerc demurs. “I’m not on a mission. I’m a person doing what I enjoy doing. I think I have an impact, and I hope it’s positive. I don’t take it as a responsibility to provoke it, but when it happens, I think it’s good.”

Photo by Caroline Bergeron

If Petitclerc doesn’t adopt the mantle of inspiration as a burden, she doesn’t shy away from it, either. She is a spokesperson for an annual Quebec event called Défi sportif (“sporting challenge”). Similar to the Junior Nationals in the U.S., Défi sportif is a multi-disability, multi-sport event held in Montreal. Some athletes compete at the provincial or national level, but most are just ordinary kids who belong to local clubs.

Défi sportif works with schools to form adaptive sports teams that play year-round, using the annual event as a goal. Once a year, hundreds of kids with disabilities descend on Montreal. For five days they camp out on gym floors, play and compete. Petitclerc is there to talk, sign autographs, and cheer them on.

For Petitclerc, the most compelling aspect of Défi sportif is the seeds it sows. Many of the participants live in rural areas, where they are unlikely to know other young people with disabilities. “If you are a kid with a disability,” says Petitclerc, “if you don’t live in the big centers, like Montreal, then access to sport and recreation is very limited.”

Petitclerc knows this from experience. She grew up in the small Quebec town of Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, then with a population of only 3,000. Her accident at age 13 — she is paraplegic, L1-T12 — made her the town’s first and only wheeler.

‘I Just Hated It!’
The first life decision Petitclerc would make after her injury provides another window into her personality. Home for the weekend, three weeks into a planned six-month rehab, young Chantal refused to go back.

“I just hated it!” Petitclerc says, laughing. “I was a teenager, and they wanted to do everything for you. They wanted to put you in the wheelchair, to help you in the bathroom. You couldn’t shower on your own because you might fall. I very quickly refused that. I would wake up early, dress myself and get in my chair before the nurse arrived.”

Thinking back, Petitclerc muses, “Was it a good decision or a bad decision? It took me years to learn how to do certain things because I didn’t learn them in rehab. But on the other hand, I went back to school after only a few weeks — I went back into life. It’s not something I could advise. But I was healthy. I didn’t need any more medical attention.”

The St-Marc-des-Carrières community was supportive in all the right ways. A lift was installed in the school bus, the school made accessible almost immediately. “I had teachers who were very dynamic, getting me involved in things, getting other students involved in inclusion,” she says. A phys-ed teacher named Gaston Jacques encouraged Petitclerc to swim for health and fitness. She loved it and swam throughout her high school years.

At the Université Laval in Quebec City, Petitclerc met another wheeling student, who introduced her to Pierre Pomerleau, a racing coach. Pomerleau invited her to a practice. That’s all it took.

Energy and Dynamic
That was in 1987, a turning point in the Paralympics movement. The 1988 Paralympics in Seoul would be the first held in conjunction with the Olympics. “Everyone was excited about competing in the Olympic stadium and living in the same Olympic Village,” Petitclerc remembers. “In Canada we had Rick Hansen, and we had André Viger from Montreal, who was very famous at the time. You could see that the Paralympics movement was growing up, becoming very professional and respected. The whole energy and dynamic was so inspiring.”

Petitclerc was immediately thrown into the culture of high-performance sports. “I saw other athletes getting their Canadian gear, traveling around the world to international competitions, coming back and telling stories about it,” she says. Petitclerc had already discovered her appetite for competition; now she had a direction in which to channel it.

In 1989, having researched her options, she contacted renowned wheelchair racing coach Peter Eriksson. Eriksson was in Edmonton at the time, and Petitclerc transferred to the University of Alberta to work with him. He remains her coach to this day.

Photo by Caroline Bergeron

Eriksson credits Petitclerc’s success to her tremendous focus and determination. “She is talented, and she was good right away — but that is different from being the best,” he says. “For 14 years, she climbed the ladder of success, staying focused on her goals. She took medals in ’92, she took more in ’96, then more in 2000, then she hit everything in 2004.”

“Everything” is not an exaggeration. In Athens, Petitclerc won gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter events — every sprint and middle-distance women’s track event — plus the Olympic demonstration race. Last year, preparing for her final Paralympics appearance in Beijing, Petitclerc broke the tape in 33 of 37 competitions. She holds the Canadian national record for all five events, and the world record in the 100, 400 and 1,500.

Eriksson, who advises high-performance athletes through programs of the Canadian Olympic Committee, calls Petitclerc “probably the most successful Canadian athlete in history, and certainly the most successful athlete in Paralympics history. There is no doubt in my mind.”

Beyond Courage and Adversity
In addition to racing, Petitclerc enjoys a thriving career as a public speaker. Nearly four years after her world-beating performance in Athens, she still receives more requests for speaking engagements than she can fill.

Public speaking is a common pursuit among wheelchair athletes, who often cater to the public’s seemingly endless appetite for stories about overcoming adversity. Petitclerc takes a different route: She barely mentions disability at all.

“I show DVDs of races — they see the chair, they can figure it out,” Petitclerc says. “I don’t need to explain all the different challenges this may imply.”

The focus is on high performance. “People want to succeed. You’ve done that as an athlete, and they want to know how — how to get there, how to stay motivated, how to deal with pressure,” she says. “Examples from sport transfer easily to other areas of performance. When I talk about my preparation, goal-setting, motivation, setbacks, my audience relates it to their more complex world of business. I find that very interesting, and I quite enjoy it.”

By all accounts, Petitclerc is a magnetic speaker, with a quick wit, an electric smile and an easygoing, unpretentious presence that captivates audiences. It’s easy to imagine the stereotypes falling away and sparkling new mental images of people with disabilities forming on the spot.

Petitclerc’s charisma is known to an even wider audience in the province of Quebec. For more than 10 years (1994-2006), Petitclerc was a “lottery girl” — three times a week, she drew the winning numbers for Loto-Québec on TV. Her appearances marked the first time that someone in a wheelchair had appeared on Quebec television who wasn’t fundraising for a charity or playing an accident victim in a drama.

When Petitclerc auditioned for the role, her huge Paralympic splash was another 10 years away. She had just returned from Edmonton, and was fairly unknown. She showed up at the casting call, cold, and got the job. Here, too, disability was irrelevant. “I drew the numbers on TV, and I was in a chair, because that’s who I am,” she says. “It was just a very natural thing.”

Reactions, both on the set and with the Quebec public, were enormously positive. When Petitclerc returned from the Athens Paralympics, she was scheduled to work a few days later. Her co-workers surprised her with a live, on-air recognition of her medals and a presentation of flowers from the other “lottery girls.”

Because her schedule keeps her away from Montreal for much of the year, Petitclerc finally resigned from her lottery job, although she may resume it after Beijing.

Envisioning the Future
For several years, Petitclerc has ended her racing season with the New York City marathon. Distance is not her specialty, but the early-November road race forces her to continue training through the cold Montreal autumn. “It’s a very challenging course,” she says, “so it’s a nice last event for me.”

After she retires from track, Petitclerc thinks road racing will provide a good transition from a sports career to civilian life. She’ll change her training program to focus on distance — which may well alter the level of competition at major marathons. Before the 2007 New York City Marathon, Petitclerc said, “I’ve prepared, of course, but with no pressure. All the top women are here this year, so I’m just hoping to stay with the pack.” She finished fourth.

Photo by Caroline Bergeron

After the marathon, Petitclerc traveled to Mali with Right To Play, a unique organization that uses specially-designed sports and play programs to help children and communities affected by war, poverty and disease. “Athlete ambassadors” from around the world get involved in programs aimed at education, disease prevention, conflict resolution and community development. Right To Play enjoys a high profile in Canada, thanks to the active participation of several well-known Olympic athletes.

After Petitclerc was invited to join, she researched the group herself. “I like that Right To Play doesn’t only bring in some big names, do a good deed, and leave. They work with people in the host countries, so when the organization goes away, the program remains.”

The Mali trip marked Petitclerc’s first work in the field. “When I retire from racing, I’d like to be more involved,” she says. “So far I have only helped promote the organization and done some local events, but eventually I would like to take a more active, hands-on role.”

After retirement, she may also further develop her speaking career, or pursue more television roles. Long-term sponsorship from Alcan Aluminum expands her options. “I want to take my time,” she says, “and figure out exactly what I want to do.”

Playing Against Type
If the stereotype of a “jock” has any basis in reality, everything about Petitclerc shatters it. While in New York for the marathon, Petitclerc and her boyfriend attended Aida at the Metropolitan Opera and spent a day at the Museum of Modern Art. An avid reader, she names Umberto Eco and Milan Kundera as two of her favorite authors. She gets excited talking about le roman épistolaire, the genre of correspondence — such as between Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre — as a way to see history through the eyes of artists. On the road, she’ll tear through the latest John Grisham in English; while relaxing at home, she’s more likely to read Gabriel Garcia Márquez en Français.

Petitclerc also enjoys the outdoors, especially kayaking, but her schedule keeps those opportunities at a minimum. She loves foreign films, and theatre. “I like to have a little connection to the arts and to culture,” she says. “I like a balance.”

It’s that balance that makes Petitclerc such a fascinating person. She’s an elite athlete, a gifted speaker, she may have a future in television. She’s a Canadian, a Quebecker, a bilingual citizen of the world. She exercises her brain as well as her muscles. She embraces her responsibility to the larger community, while focusing unreservedly on her own success. And somewhere in there, she has a disability. It’s a fact of her life that she neither advertises nor avoids. It just is.

“I know there are things we have to fight for,” she says. “When you go to countries where the rights of people with disabilities are less developed, you see there is a lot of work to do. But my way of changing things is to try to do what I want to do, and be who I want to be. I feel that if I’m comfortable with myself and with being in a wheelchair, people will feel that, and react positively to it.”

When asked “What are you most proud of?” Petitclerc pauses before answering.

“Some people have one medal or event. For me, it’s more general and philosophical. I’m interested in the process of trying to be who you want to be. I want to be aware of what’s going on in my life, what’s going on in the world, the decisions you make every day that can have an impact.

I’m proud that I’ve been able to achieve my dreams and remain the person I want to be. I’m proud to have a passion for what I do, to wake up every day happy to do what I’m doing and to be who I am.”

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