Chantal Petitclerc (Profile)

IN WHEELCHAIR RACING, as in many sports, strategy will only get you so far. You can "draft" for a while in a competitor's wake, preserving energy until you're ready to make your move.

Petitclerc, Chantal (Profile)

IN WHEELCHAIR RACING, as in many sports, strategy will only get you so far. You can "draft" for a while in a competitor's wake, preserving energy until you're ready to make your move. Or you can use your position against the racers trailing you, forcing them to the outer lanes where they have to cover more ground. But at some point, every race comes down to willpower, and in 15 years of competition, Chantal Petitclerc has exerted plenty of it. When the finish line looms and her opponents' arms are burning, she draws from some unknown reserve of strength and determination, routinely dashing the hopes of athletes who thought they could keep up.

The same qualities that bring victory on the track make the 35-year-old Montrealer Maclean's Canadian of the Year in 2004. But her athletic exploits are only part of the story. Last month, the country saw a different dimension of Petitclerc, when Athletics Canada told her she'd be sharing an award for the year's top track and field athlete with able-bodied hurdler Perdita Felicien. The decision was patently unfair: at the PARALYMPICS in Athens, Petitclerc won an astonishing five gold medals and smashed three world records. Felicien had an excellent season, but crashed in her Olympic final. The decision should have been a no-brainer.

So Petitclerc quietly refused, and thus began a kind of minuet. Athletics Canada pleaded, she reconsidered; they pressured, she declined. "I felt there was a limit to how far you can compromise," she now says. "By accepting, the message I'd be sending to everybody was that this was all my Paralympic medals and my world records were worth."

Why sport bureaucrats would risk slighting one of their most approachable and successful athletes remains a mystery. What is clear is that Petitclerc had a lot more to lose by engaging in a public bunfight than they did. Perched by a window in her Montreal condominium, she oozes the type of charisma publicists die for - snapping eyes, a megawatt smile and a sharp sense of humour (she whoops when told she won't have to share her Canadian of the Year honours in Maclean's). Those qualities - along with her reputation for class - have made Petitclerc a bona fide celebrity in Quebec, landing her an enviable sponsorship with Alcan Inc. and a weekly television gig drawing provincial lottery numbers. On reflection, she says, that image might have been at risk had she come across as merely self-serving. One newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, did publish an editorial accusing her of poor sportsmanship. "But I think most people know I was making a valid point," she says.

To put it mildly. In the days immediately after the story went public, more than 400 messages of congratulations poured into Petitclerc's email box (she received only one negative missive), while several newspapers issued editorials in her favour. Not surprisingly, Petitclerc has struck a deep chord with many of Canada's 3.4 million disabled people. "We need people like her to speak up," says Chantal Benoit, a veteran of the national women's wheelchair basketball team. "What she says reflects what a lot of the other athletes are thinking." Adds Marie White, chair of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities: "When you see someone of this character and this stature say she's unwilling to accept second best, that speaks to all people with disabilities."

Trailblazer is one label Petitclerc can live with, because she's been cutting her own path since she lost the use of her legs at 13. She and a friend were using an old, heavy barn door to build a bicycle ramp, and it fell on her while they were trying to prop it up, breaking her spine. But a high school phys. ed. teacher soon introduced her to swimming, and by 1988, she was competing in wheelchair athletics. She was often the only woman in her events, but Petiticlerc didn't mind. While she can't recall the first town she raced in, she clearly remembers the first man she ever passed in a race. "He was," she admits with a smile, "a bit heavy."

By 1992, she was competing internationally, attending the Paralympics in Barcelona. At the Sydney Games in 2000, she learned to fight for her due, winning an appeal before the Court of Arbitration for Sport over her gold-medal performance in the 800-m event - a result declared void because of a collision near the back of the pack. Canadian officials successfully argued that the crash had no material impact on the race.

A hint of things to come? Perhaps. But Petitclerc is anxious to dispel notions that she's on some public crusade. She would have been just as happy, she says, if last month's controversy never made the press - if Athletics Canada had accepted her refusal and let the matter drop. She has nothing but regret for the dispute's impact on Felicien, who, after a spectacular crash in her 100-m final in Athens, probably didn't need the headache. "People tell me I should be honoured to be named with Perdita, and I am," says Petitclerc. "She had nothing to do with it, and she had a good year. She's very worthy of the prize, and she'll receive it many times ahead."

But the die is clearly cast, and Petitclerc has been pleased by an apparent awareness of failure at Athletics Canada's end. The weekend following the award ceremony, she attended the agency's annual planning meetings, where the dilemma of how to compare Paralympic and Olympic results was a key topic. There'll be no easy fix, as even disabled athletes acknowledge their less popular sports can't be viewed on a par with hotly contested Olympic events (though with more than 100 countries participating, wheelchair racing definitely can). Some officials advocate a grid system, in which results are graded based on the number of competitors, the number of countries competing and whether records are broken.

In the meantime, Paralympic officials are not-too-subtly touting Petitclerc for the Canadian Sport Award for top female athlete, an honour open to competitors in all fields. No Paralympian has won one, and the odds look steep: she'll be up against such luminaries as cyclist Lori-Ann Muenzer, a gold medallist in Athens, and curling legend Colleen Jones. Last week, a panel of sports journalists reaffirmed the bias toward able-bodied competitors by passing over Petitclerc for the Lou Marsh Award, meant to recognize Canada's outstanding athlete, in favour of kayaker Adam Van Koeverden.

But you can't win without trying, and Petitclerc has shown that there's honour in fighting for what's rightfully yours. Boldness, it's been said, has genius, magic and power in it. Of this, our 2004 Canadian of the Year is living proof.

Maclean's December 27, 2004