Long before she became a Paralympian and multiple wheelchair marathon champion herself, Cheri Blauwet remembers admiring Jean Driscoll, who won the Boston Marathon seven consecutive times and eight overall.
“When I was just getting involved in the sport, I would read results and see her name over and over again,” says Blauwet, who serves on the board of directors of the United States Olympic Committee. “I aspired to be that successful, and when I first had the chance to compete alongside her, it was very surreal. I was competing with the person I had looked up to for so long!”
But Blauwet and Driscoll weren’t competing in just any race, they were competing for Team USA in Para track and field.
Now 37, Blauwet is a three-time Paralympian, having represented the United States in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Paralympic Games and won seven medals at a variety of distances from 100 meters to the marathon, including a gold medal at the Paralympic Games Athens 2004.
Blauwet is a physiatrist, specializing in sport medicine, as well as an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
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Because of her accomplishments in athletics, medicine and in helping athletes see the long-term picture of life after competition, Blauwet is one of many being acknowledged this month during National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Clinically, Blauwet focuses on sports medicine and works with athletes and active adults to keep them moving and competing. She also engages in research aimed at Paralympic athletes and sports injury prevention, and focuses on a healthy, active lifestyle for all people with disabilities.
Blauwet experienced a spinal cord injury at the T10 vertebra during a farming accident when she was just 18 months old that paralyzed her from the waist down. The accident has not confined her, but instead helped her redefine success and raise ambitions and hopes for the next generation.
She went on to graduate from the Stanford University School of Medicine and completed her residency as chief resident in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital/Harvard Medical School, began wheelchair racing in middle school, and embraced the opportunity to excel.
“It wasn’t an overnight turnaround,” she said. “It was a lot of work over the years. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona, I broke through to compete internationally and made my first Paralympics, which was in Sydney in 2000. From there, having that first taste of success, I wanted to pursue it more vigorously. I really turned it up from there in terms of training and coaching and had the honor of competing in three Paralympic Games for Team USA.”
She said that that first taste of success changed her mindset regarding her potential. She went from thinking of herself as an athlete to embracing the concept of success as a Paralympic medalist dedicated to the long run and grander goals.
Just as Blauwet has looked up to Driscoll in athletics, inspiring her to victories in the New York City Marathon (2003, 2004), the Boston Marathon (2004, 2005) and the Los Angeles Marathon (2003, 2004, 2005 and 2008), she finds inspiration in people from the medical field.
“People within my current field of work are tremendously inspiring to me, especially Lisa Iezzoni, who is a full professor at Harvard, which is difficult status to achieve,” she said.
Iezzoni was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while in medical school at Harvard, and has worked tirelessly to change public policy and perception on health issues regarding both disability and women.
“She rose up at a time when there were few opportunities for people with disabilities to have careers in medicine,” Blauwet said. “She fought a lot of the battles along the way for others to have the opportunity to be successful.”
Blauwet herself hopes to be an example to the next generation of athletes.
“Competing for Team USA is a huge honor,” Blauwet said. “It gives us a platform to continue to achieve even when our elite competitive careers are over.
“At the USOC, we are doing more to empower athletes to think about career transitions and facilitate their success, which is tremendously important. Life is long and there is so much that can be done both on and off the field of play.”
Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.