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Go-Getter : Boundless Optimism Propels Jean Driscoll Along Marathon Courses and Through Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best woman marathoner in the world has shoulders like a running back. She weighs 110 pounds and has bench-pressed 200 . . .

. . . and her feet never hit the ground during a race.

Jean Driscoll is not handicapped. She’s not physically challenged.

“That makes it seem like everything I do is a challenge,” she says. “Well, brushing my teeth and brushing my hair is not a challenge. Most of us hate ‘physically challenged.’ ”

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Political correctness be damned.

“There are a lot of cutesy terms out there,” she says. “What you are is a person first, a person with a disability. And you are an athlete. The disability is secondary.

“And we are not victims. Victim implies you are helpless against something. I am not helpless against my legs. And I’m not wheelchair-bound. I am not tied to that wheelchair.”

She gestures at it alongside the sofa where she sits, legs crossed, in the house of friends in Orange, and talks about world records and Olympic medals, of places she has been and wheelchair races she has won, all along daring you to write about her as a woman who has overcome adversity rather than as an athlete.

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“This chair is like a pair of glasses,” she says. “It offers independence, just like your glasses. You get up in the morning and put them on and forget about them. That’s what I do with this chair.”

She was born with spina bifida in Milwaukee, 30 years ago, and was told she would never walk, that she would never go to school with other children, that the best she could hope for in life was secretarial work, that she would always be dependent on her parents.

She walked at 2, with below-the-knee braces. She went to the same kindergarten as her sister. She took her last unaided step at 15, her last step with crutches at 23. Her lower body had given out.

By then, her upper body was driving her to her first victory in the Boston Marathon.

She has seven in all, and two Los Angeles Marathons. She goes after No. 3 on Sunday, hoping to fight off the challenge of Louise Sauvage, her closest rival.

Driscoll holds world records in the 10,000 meters and marathon. She has won two Olympic silver medals in the 800 meters, three Paralympic gold medals in the marathon and two in the 10,000 meters. She has a roomful of medals and trophies in her apartment in Champaign, Ill.

All from the wheelchair.

“I was always on the sidelines in sports until I started using a wheelchair,” she says. “That’s the irony of my life. I was the scorekeeper and manager and one of the best fans, but I was never able to get in there and get dirty. Then, all of a sudden, I went from being able to walk and ride a bike to using a chair, and that was my opportunity to get in there.”

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She found a way to deal with the teasing of children, and she found success in school.

And then she found failure.

Driscoll was 20.

“I had been a student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and wasn’t doing well with my disability,” she says softly. “My parents were going through a divorce and I flunked out of school. School was the only thing that had given me self-esteem, and all of a sudden I had lost that too. I was at a rock-bottom point in my life. I was suicidal, and I didn’t think I had anything to offer this world.”

Enter Marty Morse, who trains wheelchair athletes at the University of Illinois. He saw an athlete who needed a change of scenery.

“All of a sudden I was around all of these people, who despite all these chairs were very proactive, who were pursuing masters and doctorate degrees,” she says. “They were getting married, having children. I started to realize I could deal with my disability.”

She learned she had two paths open.

“You can approach it with a disabled frame of mind, which is a very reactive approach to life,” she says. “You wait for things to happen, and if they don’t happen you have an obvious excuse for them not happening.

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“On the other hand, you can have a non-disabled frame of mind. It’s a very proactive approach to life. You go seek out opportunity.”

That didn’t make her a marathoner. Morse did, pushing her to enter the Chicago Marathon in 1989. She finished second, in 1 hour 49 minute 2 seconds.

“I hated the marathon training, but I finished it,” she says. “Goal accomplished. Mission accomplished, and that’s enough of that.

“Then he told me, ‘You realize what you just did? You qualified for Boston.’ I didn’t want to do Boston. I didn’t want to do any more marathon training.”

She was afraid, not only of failure but of getting out on the road and getting lost, not being able to go any farther. And Boston meant hills. There are no hills to train on around Champaign.

“I got to the starting line and I still didn’t want to go,” she says. “I was scared. I didn’t belong there. ‘Why did I let Marty talk me into this?’ ”

One hour 43 minutes 17 seconds later, 26 miles 385 yards from where she started, she was in downtown Boston, the winner of the 1990 marathon, more than six minutes under the world record.

She has been there every year since, whittling the time away until she reached 1:34:22 in 1994, riding a tail wind from Hopkinton.

She holds the race record in Los Angeles, 1:46:09, set last year, and she set the 10,000-meter record in the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta: 24:21.64.

That was two weeks after she had finished second in the 800 in the regular Olympic Games, which uses the 800-meter wheelchair race for women and 1,500-meter wheelchair race for men as exhibition sports.

It was a great year. Its highlight came in April, she says, when she sang the national anthem in County Stadium on opening-day for the Milwaukee Brewers.

“That was a rush,” she says. “I am not missing out on anything in life.”

It’s the message she took to the students at Cerro Villa Middle School in Orange County on Tuesday, and one she takes to middle schools and high schools all over the country.

“I love turning lightbulbs on,” she says. “I always leave my speaking engagements on an emotional high.

“When people first see me, they see the chair. Everybody wonders, why does she need to use that thing? A lot of times when somebody sees somebody in a chair, their heart goes out to them and they pity them and feel sorry for them and they don’t know how they could ever live a life if they had to spend it in a chair. I love to go out and tell people that my chair is a characteristic, like hair color or height. It’s not a defining principle. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Except deal with it, and with life, fast and on her terms.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Jean Driscoll By the Numbers

* 2--Silver medals she has won in the Olympics. Times she has won the Los Angeles Marathon women’s wheelchair race. Age at which she learned to walk.

* 5--Gold medals she has won in the Paralympics.

* 7--Times she has won the Boston Marathon.

* 8:55--Time she has cut off the world record since setting it at 1:43:17.

* 15--Age when she took her last step without crutches.

* 23--Age when she took her last step.

* 24:21.64--Her 10,000-meter world record.

* 30--Her age.

* 110--Her weight.

* 200--Her maximum bench press.


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