Canadian athlete of the year: Chantal Petitclerc

Chantal Petitclerc, who won 21 medals over five Paralympics, will likely excel in whatever she does. Throughout her life, she has successfully met many challenges

After dominating Paralympic competition for more than a decade, Chantal Petitclerc is turning her attention elsewhere. The celebrated wheelchair racer — selected as's Canadian athlete of the year — is considering a career in marathon racing and, beyond that, in television broadcasting.

Petitclerc, who competed in the T54 class for wheelchair athletes with spinal-cord injuries and amputation, will likely excel in whatever she does. Throughout her life, she has successfully met many challenges.

The daughter of a building contractor and a homemaker, Petiticlerc grew up in Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, a small community about 75 kilometres south of Quebec City.

An active child, Petiticlerc enjoyed playing at a friend's farm. One day, she and a younger boy tried to create a bike ramp by placing an old barn door on top of a crate. In the process, the door fell on Petiticlerc and snapped her spine.

The 12-year-old girl was paralyzed from the hips down, but continued to lead an active life. The community rallied around her. Her school installed an elevator, and her home economics teacher even located a sewing machine that could be operated with electric hand controls.

Petiticlerc 's physical education teacher played a pivotal role in her life. Gaston Jacques encouraged her to take up swimming and worked with her in the pool, four hours a week for four years.

Those lessons sparked a competitive drive in Petiticlerc.

Shock and awe

"She's a big inspiration for me. She's one of my heroines. Racing her you want to get tough and beat her, but at the same time you are in awe of her." — Petitclerc's competitor, Briton Shelly Woods.

(Canadian Press)

Discovering wheelchair racing

When a coach at Laval University in Quebec City introduced her to wheelchair racing, the 18-year-old athlete was hooked.

Competing in a homemade chair, Petiticlerc finished last in her first race. But the teenager was not deterred. She strapped on a helmet and padded racing gloves, and transformed herself into an elite athlete within four years.

Chantal competed in the Paralympic Games for the first time in Barcelona in 1992. She finished third in two races (200 m, 800 m) at the Games, which drew 3,000 athletes from 82 countries.

The bronze medals were nice enough, but were not the colour she wanted.

Petiticlerc returned to a gruelling training regimen, and reached the top of the medal podium four years later. She won five medals at the 1996 Atlanta Games, including two gold (100 m, 200 m) and three silvers (400 m, 800 m, 1,500 m).

She continued her ascent in succeeding years, winning two gold (200 m, 800 m) and two silver medals (100 m, 400 m) at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Two years later, wheelchair racing was a full-medal sport at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England. Petiticlerc won the women's 800 m.

The International Olympic Committee included wheelchair racing as a demonstration sport at the 2004 Olympics. The women's 800-m and the men's 1,500-m races took centre stage in Athens, sandwiched between big-ticket track events.

Petitclerc refuses to share award with Felicien

Petitclerc caused a stir a few months after the 2004 Athens Games. She refused to accept an award from Athletics Canada because she would have to share it with Perdita Felicien, an able-bodied athlete who tumbled to the track during the women's hurdles.

"I felt there was a limit to how far you can compromise," Petitclerc told a Canadian magazine. "By accepting, the message I'd be sending to everybody was that this was all my Paralympic medals and my world records were worth."

Petiticlerc won the women's event in record time in front of a capacity crowd. Rising to the occasion, she led the field of eight from start to finish and crossed the line in one minute 53.66 seconds.

"This is just great ... I feel like an Olympian even if I don't get the same medal," the elated athlete said. "I feel it's the same in my heart."

Petiticlerc went on to dominate the Paralympic competition. She won five gold medals (100, 200 m, 400 m, 800 m and 1,500 m).

The 2008 Paralympics in Beijing were the biggest ever — featuring 4,200 athletes from 148 countries — and the best ever for Petiticlerc.

In the twilight of her career, the 38-year-old athlete entered five events (100 m, 200 m, 400 m, 800 m and 1,500 m), and won them all, setting two world records (200 m and 800 m) in the process.

Petitclerc was most proud of her victory in the 800 m. She headed into that race with a "kamikaze strategy." She broke from the pack near the start, opening up a lead that she held until the end.

"I took on a big challenge earlier this year when I decided to enter five events," she told CBC Newsworld. "I knew it was possible to do. I knew I had the fitness level and strength, but to actually have these five gold medals is amazing. It's magical.

"I knew I was going to win," said Petitclerc, whose coach, Peter Eriksson, sprayed her with champagne after her victory. "These Games have been so good."

With that, Petitclerc ended a career that had spanned five Paralympics and included 21 medals — 14 of them gold.

Her accomplishments led Canadian sports journalists to name her winner of the Lou Marsh Trophy, presented annually to Canada's top athlete of the year. has given her the same honour.

"When I get to the village and I really absorb everything, I think it will sink in," she said a few minutes after her last race. "It's just so great. I know I have worked really hard for [my success]. Nobody gave it to me."