BY PAUL D. BOWKER
A four-time Paralympian who won 12 medals at the Paralympic Games, two Olympic exhibition medals and still holds the world record in the 10,000-meter wheelchair event, Jean Driscoll has many Team USA moments to cherish.
She is the only eight-time winner of the Boston Marathon, the last time coming in 2000.
She has sung “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game and been a featured speaker at the NCAA Women’s Final Four during the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Convention.
For all of her efforts, Driscoll was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame presented by Allstate. The ceremony will be broadcast by NBC Sports Network on Aug. 23.
Driscoll, Assistant Dean of Advancement at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, was inducted into the Class of 2012 along with six Olympians, the 2004 U.S. Olympic Women’s Softball Team and three others in July in Chicago.
As proud as she is of her achievements, it was a moment in Ghana in 2001 that still touches Driscoll’s heart perhaps the most. She arrived in Kumasi, a capital city in southern central Ghana, to help put on a track clinic as part of a program with the Christian organization, Joni and Friends.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Driscoll said. “I was unprepared for the people who didn’t have wheelchairs. They crawled into the stadium on their hands and knees. They had sandals on their hands, calluses on their knees. It really hit my heart.
“From that moment on, one of my life’s goals became to help people up off the ground, both literally and figuratively.”
Driscoll has returned to Ghana three other times as a part of her charitable work, and also worked with Rotary International and other sponsors to bring Ghana athletes over to the United States in 2003 and 2007.
“When I was 15 years old and I got my first wheelchair, I was so upset about it that I wouldn’t touch it,” Driscoll said. “And yet I’ve never had the indignity of having to crawl on the ground anywhere in the U.S. I’ve always had a wheelchair. So that (traveling to Ghana) was a powerful moment.”
Driscoll is also a board member at the Champaign County YMCA in Illinois, which is home to the nation’s only wheelchair-accessible water slide, she said. “The kids can take (themselves) to the top of the water slide, and like their friends, go down the water slide. It’s pretty cool.”
Yet for all her work with athletes with disabilities, Driscoll takes an even larger look at motivating all kinds of people. All of this motivation isn’t just about disabilities. Instead, she said, it is about strength and athleticism and abilities and helping others.
“Go out and dream big,” she said. “Use their talents not only for themselves, but for the betterment of other individuals.”
And that is exactly what this Milwaukee native has done herself. Driscoll was born with spina bifida (open spine) and began using a wheelchair at age 15. She was recruited to the University of Illinois in 1987 to play wheelchair basketball, but soon turned to track/road racing and became one of the best in the world.
After earning her first Olympic exhibition medal in the 800-meter women’s wheelchair exhibition event at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, she received her silver medal from the Queen of Spain. She first competed in the Paralympic Games in Seoul in 1988 and continued competing through the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, winning five gold medals, three silvers and four bronzes along the way.
Driscoll broke the world record at 10,000 meters twice, the first time at the 1994 World Championships with a time of 24 minutes, 27 seconds. At the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games, she shaved six seconds off that time to set another world record and win gold in front of her family and friends, who had driven from Wisconsin to Atlanta in red, white and blue vans.
She retired from competitive racing in 2000, but continued her strong ambassadorship for the United States in a number of areas. She was one of seven Presidential Delegates appointed by George W. Bush for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. She has shared motivational speaking platforms with tennis great Billie Jean King, three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, retired Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and evangelist Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, among others.
Her autobiography, “Determined to Win,” was published in 2000 and features a cover quotation by Joyner-Kersee.
Driscoll is a member of the Wheelchair Sports, USA Hall of Fame and is also in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Champions. She was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by the University of Rhode Island in 1997 and the Massachusetts School of Law in 2002.
“It was a great honor to represent our country at four Paralympic Games and two Olympic Games,” Driscoll said. “Wearing USA on the front and back of my uniform was a huge source of pride, and it still is.”