Illinois alumna and former Illini Paralympian athlete Jean Driscoll has won the Boston Marathon eight times. She’s been inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. She earned 14 Olympic and Paralympic medals, and held the women’s world record wheelchair time in the marathon for 21 years.
Driscoll was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with spina bifida. After learning about wheelchair athletics in high school, Driscoll was later recruited by coaches at Illinois and quickly became one of its most decorated competitors.
In the following excerpts from an interview with the University of Illinois Archives in 2010, Driscoll discusses navigating school, teaching herself to ride a bike and discovering her passion for wheelchair athletics.
On early memories of living with spina bifida
“I would always lose my balance and fall down, and that was another thing about walking in general, I was always falling down. But I tried, I tried everything. I tried to be engaged, be involved, do everything like the other kids because at home I was just one of the kids.”
On teaching herself to ride a bike
“I taught myself how to ride a two-wheel bike. That was poignant. Well, I had this bike with training wheels. When you’re in fourth grade and you have a bike with training wheels, it is not cool … Immediately after learning how to balance on two wheels, I remember steering into the bushes, going around one turn, and my bike was tall enough that I couldn’t, I couldn’t reach the ground with my feet and I couldn’t catch myself. Because of the spina bifida, I’ve never been able to stand on my tippy toes, with the braces my feet couldn’t stretch toward the ground, so it wasn’t as easy for me to catch myself as others.
It was a girl’s bike, it had a banana seat, curly handlebars, it was bought at a police auction, and so I learned how to ride a two-wheel bike. And talk about fitting in, I was not as fast as the other kids on the bike, but during nice weather days, I could get myself to school instead of relying on my family members like before. I could ride my bike to school, lock it up, go in the school, leave when I wanted to; it was a new found freedom and independence that I have never forgotten. But then that very thing would alter my life dramatically years later.”
On being picked on to being “picked out”
“Oftentimes when I speak, I talk about how when I was younger, I was always ‘picked on’ and I have gone from being ‘picked on’ to being ‘picked out,’ to doing things that were beyond my imagination. Breaking world records, winning the Boston marathon more times in history than anybody (at the time), you know, being a part of a presidential delegation, the President and the U.S. choosing you as a handful of people to go represent him. I mean, you can’t plan that stuff.”
On running for student council in the seventh grade
“I ran for student council and in our school, you just, you ran for President and then they counted votes and whoever got the most votes was President, second most Vice-President, third most Secretary, and fourth was Treasurer. So I remember my campaign slogan was ‘Jean, Jean, the dancing machine, will get the job done nice and clean,’ but I did not win any office.”
On when she first started using a wheelchair
“It was during November of my freshman year that I had a bike accident, leading to a dislocated hip and a series of five surgeries, but what I remember is my bike accident happened on a Wednesday. Saturday we went to see the doctor… Monday they took me up to OR, the operating room, and put this pin in my femur. They never put me to sleep, so, my heart’s going again, it was traumatic. Tuesday was my 14th birthday.
“I went back to school second semester sophomore year in January 1982. [Fellow students] knew me up and walking around, but the fact that I was now using a wheelchair, they just, they weren’t comfortable with it and a lot of people looked down at their shoes while talking to me. I wasn’t comfortable with it at first either.”
On trying wheelchair soccer for the first time
“It was nothing like I thought it was going to be. Chairs are crashing and banging, bodies are flying, chairs are flying, I thought, “This is sport,” and for the first time in my life, I could engage in sport competitively.
“On the softball team in grade school, I mostly kept stats. In seventh grade, I kept stats for the volleyball team and in eighth grade I kept stats. I kept stats for the basketball team. I never got to get in there and get dirty because I wasn’t strong enough, fast enough, didn’t have the balance, and now with wheelchair sports, I am in the middle of everything, I’m one of the fastest people out there, I’m one of the most able people and this is where sport for me began essentially.”
On coming to Illinois in 1987
“I found my way here because of Brad Hedrick recruiting me. He saw me playing an exhibition game of wheelchair soccer in Milwaukee and I’d never heard of the University of Illinois … He came up and gave me his spiel and I listened politely, but I was like, Illinois, you know, Wisconsin, Illinois, we have this huge rivalry.
“He sent several letters, made several phone calls, you know, ‘Just checking how you’re doing,’ and I was really flattered because I never, I was never chosen for anything, like I said last time, , I was always the last kid picked for teams and he wanted me on his team.
“I can remember coming home from the regional track meet in Milwaukee in May and showing off my blue ribbons or maybe they were green, I don’t remember, no they were blue and I said, ‘Look at all these ribbons I won,’ I It was on a Saturday and Saturday is cleaning day, work day at the house and my Mom said, ‘Well, that’s nice, but you still have to clean the living room.’”
On the history of Illinois wheelchair athletics at Illinois
“Nobody was training athletes the way Marty [mentor and Illinois racing coach Marty Morse] was. He just was cutting edge and enlisted some of the engineering students to come over and build these roller systems. Rollers are like wind trainers that cyclists peddle on in place when weather is inclement, The rollers are like a, it’s a cylindrical drum that you can wheel in place on, and so he had some graduate students design rollers for their projects that had brake systems and that would assimilate hills or wind.”
On winning in her first Boston marathon
“I was sitting on the starting line of my first Boston marathon, yelling at [mentor and Illinois racing coach] Marty Morse under my breath, ‘I can’t believe I let you talk me into this. I don’t belong in this race. We haven’t done the hill work like we should … 26.2 miles later, I won my first Boston Marathon and broke the world record by almost seven minutes, and 26.2 miles earlier, I didn’t think I belonged in the race.”
For more about Jean Driscoll, you can visit her website at http://www.jeandriscoll.com/ or read a profile by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences here.
Excerpts courtesy of Jean Driscoll and the University of Illinois Archives.