Jean Driscoll celebrates winning Gold at the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 on Oct. 29, 2000 in Sydney, Australia.
By the time the Paralympic Games Sydney 2000 came around, Jean Driscoll’s status as a legend in wheelchair racing was already well established.
She made her Paralympic debut in 1988, winning four medals on the track, and from there took up distance racing. She qualified for the 1990 Boston Marathon after winning her first marathon ever, and not only did she win but she also went on to win the nation’s most prestigious road race seven years in a row from 1990 to 1996.
Heading into Sydney, she’d accumulated a total of four gold, two silver and three bronze medals in her Paralympic career, including the gold medal in the marathon at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996.
Sydney was to be her last Paralympic Games, but Driscoll was going to go out on top in her signature event.
It also wasn’t going to be easy.
For much of the race, Driscoll was in a two-woman competition. Japan’s Kazu Hatanaka, who won silver in the event in 1996, was right on Driscoll’s tail when they made the final left turn of the 26.2-mile course as it led off the roads of Sydney Olympic Park and back toward the stadium. Going into the tunnel that would bring them into the stadium, Hatanaka took the lead.
Once they emerged into the sunshine and onto the track, Driscoll made her move. She charged up the inside lane, pushing furiously for a big sprint in the final 70 meters and passed Hatanaka.
Driscoll broke the finish line tape, winning the Paralympic marathon for the second time in a row.
Driscoll was born with spina bifida and the disability made childhood difficult. The one-time Easter Seals child had to spend almost an entire year in a full body cast after breaking her hip at the age of 13 and at 15 started using a wheelchair.
Her introduction to wheelchair sports came after a friend invited her to a wheelchair soccer practice. She wasn’t truly interested — Driscoll didn’t want people to think the only friends she could get were those in wheelchairs — but her friend’s persistence paid off and she finally agreed.
Driscoll was hooked immediately after seeing the rough-and-tumble nature of the sport. She went on to the University of Illinois, where she played on the women’s wheelchair basketball team and got involved in racing. It was her coach’s suggestion to try the marathon and, again, a reluctant Driscoll was eventually convinced.
“He had been telling me that for the last two years and I had no interest in doing a marathon,” Driscoll said in an interview for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum. “That was something nutty people did. Twenty-six miles was too long and I didn’t want any part of it. It was going to be too hard. And I had this fear that I wouldn’t finish it and so he got me while I was on a high and I said, ‘OK, all right, I’ll try the Chicago Marathon.”
Driscoll became the first eight-time winner of the Boston Marathon, winning for the eighth and final time in 2000 not long after defending her gold medal in Sydney. She also set five course records and five world best times and finished second three times.
Driscoll retired from competitive racing in 2000.
Her Paralympic medal count stands at five gold, three silver and four bronze medals, and she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2012. She also won the silver medal in wheelchair racing in the 800-meter exhibition event at the Olympic Games Barcelona 1992.
Driscoll has also made her mark outside of the racing world. In 2001 she traveled to Ghana to put on a track clinic and over the following years returned several times to help individuals with disabilities and joined with other organizations to help bring athletes from Ghana to the United States.
She’s also a motivational speaker, a member of the Adaptive Sports USA Hall of Fame and was named to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Hall of Champions as well as awarded honorary doctorate degrees by the University of Rhode Island in 1997 and the Massachusetts School of Law in 2002.
Earlier this year, she returned to the University of Illinois as the assistant dean for advancement in the College of Applied Health Sciences, a position she held at the school several years earlier.