Nearly a year ago, Craig Blanchette became the first star of a Nike television commercial whose message wasn't "buy these shoes."
Blanchette, the most curious of this company's sure-fire sells, wore the look of nonconformity--gold earrings, scruffy beard, pink-tinted hair--squinted at the camera and delivered, "I've been working out for quite a few years now . . ."
The 30-second spot cut away to a hard-bodied athlete pumping iron, shooting baskets and diving to make a return on the racquetball court. Between splices, Blanchette continued to talk.
" . . . and I find it's easier to stay in shape when I do a lot of different things . . . "
The camera did not focus below Blanchette's waist.
"That way I never get bored . . . "
Until his message was complete.
"So I never quit."
The commercial ends. Blanchette does a 180-degree spin and jams off into the sunset riding a wheelchair.
Finally, we see. Craig Blanchette has no legs. What does he need them for? He's a world-class wheelchair racer and one of track and field's most colorful young stars.
Blanchette, 21, won a bronze medal in the wheelchair 1,500 meters at the 1988 Olympics. Last June, he set a world record in the mile in front of his hometown fans in Eugene, Ore. With a full house at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field standing, stomping and chanting his name, Blanchette exploded in a wild rush of adrenaline and emotion. His time, 3 minutes 51 seconds, shattered George Murray's existing wheelchair mark by 8.4 seconds.
That was one of four world records he set in the sport last year. He entered 1990 with 24 victories in 27 races, including last year in the first Sunland/Kenny Souza Invitational Wheelchair Criterium in La Jolla. That he would return for Sunday's second running of the event as anything but the favorite to win it again wouldn't seem right.
Blanchette led from start to finish and had such an easy time of it that he spent more time waving, winking and exchanging hellos with the crowd of 20,000 than he did checking out the competition.
"It was a magical thing," he said. "As I went around each lap, I just felt so dominating that I could slow down and wave to the (other racers), then I could sprint and leave them. I could talk to people on the course."
The wheelchair criterium will start at 2:20 p.m. Sunday and separate the day's two main events--the sixth La Jolla Grand Prix bicycle races. The women's 20-mile race starts at 1 p.m., the featured men's 40-mile race at 3.
Team 7-Eleven and Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney may take the event's headlines, but Blanchette turns heads. He has been called controversial by his peers. He has also been called the greatest athlete in his sport.
Blanchette wears florescent shirts and dyes his hair matching colors. Right now, the color is red, the length shoulder. He has a diamond stud pierced into his right nostril.
"It was something I thought was me," he said. "So I did it."
Carlsbad's Bruce Cornell, a wheelchair racer who organized Sunday's criterium, caught his first glimpse of the man as Blanchette was skateboarding down a hotel hallway--doing a handstand.
"He brings an air of flamboyance to the sport," Cornell said. "But that's a good image for us. I'll tell you, the guy can back it up. He won every (14) major race last year. That's an incredible feat."
Blanchette snow and water skis and, as Nike documented, plays a mean game of racquetball. In his free time, he works as a disc jockey.
His senior year at Springfield (Ore.) High, Blanchette made the varsity wrestling team and won 12 of his 18 matches at 106 pounds.
"My goal was to get a varsity letter, and I did that," he said.
Blanchette pinned six of his opponents and spooked many others. He would shuffle onto the mat wearing a hockey goalie's mask to protect his face from banging into the other guy's knees.
"I looked like Jason in those Friday the 13th movies," he said. "That had to be a little intimidating. I couldn't look at myself in the mirror."
Said Cornell: "Craig's never considered himself disabled. He's just done without."
Blanchette holds world wheelchair records in the 10 and 12 kilometers. In his record-setting 10K race, his mile split times averaged around 3:30--16.32 seconds faster than Steve Cram's world track record for the mile.
Until this year, he also owned world-best times in the 15K and 1,500 meters. After he signed with Nike in 1989, Blanchette began to transcend his sport. He popped up on the Arsenio Hall Show, The Today Show and Evening Magazine. He's now recognized in every city, including Sydney, Australia, where he picked up his only victory this year on Jan. 26.
None of this would have happened had Blanchette not seen his coach, Kevin Hansen, cruise past his house in a racing chair while he tended his mother's garage sale one day in 1985. Hansen put Blanchette on a 30-mile-a-week training regimen--designed to maximize speed and recovery ability--applying the same principals as Bill Bowerman, former Oregon coach, used with his track athletes.
Such training revolutionized the sport, as was witnessed in the Seoul Olympics. Though Blanchette finished third in the 1,500, many felt the race's eventual winner, France's Mustapha Budid (who broke Blanchette's 15K record in February) was holding on for dear life for the first three laps. Blanchette opened inside lanes for Budid after he led the first two laps. Budid refused to make a move and stayed in Blanchette's draft. Budid and Belgium's Paul Van Winkel finally jumped on a tired Blanchette on the final lap and nosed him out by 2 1/2 meters.
"I heard (Budid) say I was much too strong for him to go around me," Blanchette said. "I ran as fast as I could go. I ran, in my opinion, the kind of race that's supposed to be run in the Olympics. He was being a wimp. He was putting out about 40% less effort.
"If he didn't hold back, I would have definitely beat him. I ran my fastest race ever and came up with a bronze. At the time, it was hard for me to understand. But I've learned and grown."
Blanchette is now learning about the spoils of success. He took part of the winter off from training. And, although he appears on target to break his mile record in June, Blanchette has started 1990 slowly. His last three races have produced second-, second-, and fifth-place finishes. Not bad by most people's standards. Not good by Blanchette's.
Said Hansen, "He's in the same class as Greg LeMond. Both had great years last year and have been on the banquet circuit. Now he's going to have to come back and show what a true champion he is."
"I don't think he's even touched his potential," said Cornell, who expects to be chasing Blanchette for the lead in Sunday's race. "He's had a down period lately, but he's still got a lot of doors to unlock.
"We had 20,000 people on that course last year. This should be right up his alley. I think it's show time for him."
Craig Blanchette's biggest competition should come from Doug Kennedy, Jim Knaub and Rafael Ibarra. . . . The rectangular course in downtown La Jolla starts and finishes at the intersection of Girard and Silverado. . . . Activity includes a bicycle products expo at 11 a.m. and a bicycle freestyle stunt show at 12:30 p.m., a human-powered vehicle race at 2 p.m. and a celebrity race at 2:40 p.m. . . . La Jolla will also be host to its sixth half marathon foot race from Del Mar Race Track to La Jolla Cove, beginning at 7 a.m. Sunday.