My challenge: Find a woman anywhere who has meant more to American athletes with disabilities than Illinois resident Jean Driscoll.
Competing in the wheelchair division from 1990-2000, Driscoll won eight Boston Marathons and still holds the 26.2-mile course record. In addition, she won two Olympic and 12 Paralympic Games medals during that period. In 2000, Sports Illustrated for Women ranked her the 25th best female athlete of the century. Rhode Island University and Massachusetts School of Law awarded her honorary doctorate degrees.
Driscoll was born with spina bifida, which affects 70,000 Americans and is the most common permanently disabling birth defect. “I was that kid who couldn’t run with the other kids,” said Driscoll in a telephone interview. “While growing up, I sat on the sidelines and was the scorekeeper, though my real desire was to play with everyone else. But I didn’t have the strength. Ironically, in high school, I began gaining independence and strength by using a wheelchair.”
In 1986, University of Illinois Coach Brad Hedrick began recruiting Driscoll to play wheelchair basketball. “Brad (Hedrick) had come to see me play and kept sending letters and calling to recruit me for basketball,” said Driscoll. “I had always been the last person picked for sports while growing up and here was someone wanting me on their team.”
While playing for the University of Illinois, she became hooked on wheelchair track and road racing. She said, “I wouldn’t have done the Boston Marathon without track coach Marty Morse working with me. Both he and Brad saw something in me I hadn’t seen in myself. Brad wouldn’t take no for an answer in terms of playing basketball and Marty wouldn’t either until I did a marathon. I won my first Boston Marathon my senior year.”
She eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in speech communication and a master’s in rehabilitation administration. After winning eight Boston Marathons, she retired from racing in 2000 and for three years was a motivational speaker.
She said she has watched God work in her life “every step of the way.” Two other examples she noted will ultimately benefit many thousands of people with disabilities: in 2001, she visited West Africa and began teaming up with faith-based nonprofit Joni and Friends; and in 2005, she received an important job offer from her alma mater, the University of Illinois.
Next week, learn more about these last two examples.