Chantal Petitclerc brings passion to Commonwealth Games
Wheelchair racing icon leads Team Canada in Glasgow
Somewhere in Peter Eriksson's house is the letter Chantal Petitclerc wrote him 25 years ago.
Petitclerc was a teenager then, and looking for an outlet for her athletic interests, but as the only person in a wheelchair in the Quebec town of Saint-Marc-des-Carrieres — population about 2,000 — it wasn't easy.
"Her English was really poor. She wrote me a letter, and asked me if I was interested in coaching her," said Eriksson, who was living in Edmonton at the time. "I had seen her in one competition the previous year and I asked someone who she was, and they said 'She's brand new, this is one of her first competitions.'
"And I said 'That one will be really good.' So I remembered her name when she wrote me. I have the letter somewhere. One day I'm going to try to find it, it was very special."
The competitive fire that propelled Petitclerc to move to Edmonton to train — the beginning of what would be one of the finest sports careers by any Canadian — still burns strong in the 44-year-old, Eriksson said. That's why her former coach feels she was the perfect choice as Canada's chef de mission at the upcoming Commonwealth Games.
"It always been the same, this desire to get better, to be focused, to look at it as 'This is what I'm going to do and this is what I need to sacrifice in order to get there,"' said Eriksson.
"I take great pride that she is [chef de mission] because I know she will do a good job, she's very good at what she does, she understands elite sports and she's a great representative of Canada, so that makes me proud."
Petitclerc believes she's the first Paralympic athlete to be named chef for any multisport Games. The chef de mission is the team leader and spokesman for Canadian athletes at the Games.
Petitclerc took up sports — first swimming, and then wheelchair racing — within a few months of losing the use of her legs at the age of 13 when a heavy barn door fell on her. She credits her high school phys ed teacher Gaston Jacques with getting her excited about sports.
Petitclerc went on to become one of Canada's most decorated athletes. She holds world records over three different wheelchair distances, and has raced to 21 Paralympic medals, including 14 gold.
She captured five golds at both the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and 2008 Games in Beijing.
Petitclerc has a special connection to the Commonwealth Games. She carried Canada's flag into the stadium for the opening ceremonies in 2006 in Melbourne, Australia. She competed at the 1990 Games in Auckland, N.Z., where wheelchair racing was a demonstration sport, then went on to win gold over 800 metres at the 2002 Games — when Paralympic sports were given official status — and then again in 2006.
The Commonwealth Games remain the only fully integrated major multi-sport event, making her role as chef of this team all the more meaningful.
"It does, because I have great memories from my Commonwealth Games experience, I think it's a great movement," Petitclerc said. "I won that [gold] in 2002, the very first fully-inclusive Para-sport medal. . . to me that is still one of the moments I remember the best. It meant so much to me that I could actually have the same medal, it was not a demo event, and that it counted for the country.
"As a Paralympic athlete you fight so hard to show and prove that being an athlete is the same, and the training is the same, and the level of dedication and work it takes to get there are the same. To actually have an international event that recognizes that fully, it was historical."
Eriksson doesn't see Petitclerc as being the first Paralympian to be named chef, he sees her as the latest in a list of great Canadian athletes who held the same title — cyclist Curt Harnett was Canada's chef at the 2011 Pan American Games, swimmer Mark Tewksbury had the job at the 2012 London Olympics, then skier Steve Podborski at the Winter Olympics this past February.
"You look at it and say 'She was a great Paralympian.' No no no. She was a very good athlete," Eriksson said. "No matter what, in history, she's one of the best female athletes in Canada."
A new phase
The exhilaration of moving at top speed, and the high-performance feel of her streamlined racing chair were what drew her to track and field, Petitclerc said.
"As a younger person, it was hard to fuel that competitive edge that I had . . . so when I started wheelchair racing, and I could actually face and compete against and challenge other athletes who were doing the same sport, and the sport was growing so fast, it was just very, very thrilling," she said.
"I realized I was very competitive and had a great time trying to push my limits. So that's what really talked to me at the time."
Peticlerc worked alongside Eriksson coaching Great Britain's track team in the lead-up to the London Olympics and Paralympics. They continue to work together — Eriksson is head coach of Athletics Canada, while Petitclerc coaches some of Canada's top wheelchair races. They still talk nearly every day, although these days it's about kids and work.
Petitclerc recently became a mom — she and husband James Duhamel welcomed son Elliot in December.
Petitclerc still works out regularly, but prefers a hand cycle to her racing chair, and does laps of the Gilles Villeneuve racing circuit a couple of times a week.
"As a retired athlete, I realized that doing the same sport was just setting myself up for frustration because I would always compare, and going from 15 sessions to three, it was just frustrating and I couldn't handle it," she said. "So I'm just enjoying doing some different stuff."
For her role as chef, she's drawn inspiration from the athletes who have gone before her, and said she'd like to model her approach on Tewksbury's.
"He truly had an impact on the athletes' performances and experiences," Petitclerc said. "He called himself 'Fan No. 1' of that [London] team. That really is the model I'm going for, to be inspirational, to be a leader."
The Games open July 23 with the opening ceremony (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 3:30 p.m. ET) and include 17 sports over 11 days of competition, and 22 Paralympic events in five sports.