“I was not even interested in sport, but to see someone in a wheelchair winning medals, being on TV, was really inspiring for me as a young kid, just after my accident.”
Chantal Petitclerc, one of the greatest wheelchair athletes of all time, has predicted that the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games will inspire a new generation of athletes in Brazil.
The Canadian, who won 21 medals – 14 of them gold – at five editions of the Games and recently was awarded the International Paralympic Committee’s International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) International Women’s Day Recognition Award, is now preparing to lead her nation’s team in Rio, as Chef de Mission. And she took time out to tell rio2016.com how she was inspired to take up sport as a youngster – and how the same thing will happen next year.
Petitclerc became a wheelchair user aged 13 after a farm accident in which a barn door fell on her. Living in a small town in Quebec, she looked further afield for inspiration – to the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, where legendary Canadian wheelchair athlete André Viger was competing.
“I was not even interested in sport, but to see someone in a wheelchair winning medals, being on TV, was really inspiring for me as a young kid, just after my accident,” she said. “The message was ‘you have options – you can be active and respected and even a star on TV!’ The same thing will happen with little kids here during Rio 2016.”
Petitclerc stunned the world at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games by repeating the incredible feat she had achieved four years earlier in Athens – winning five gold medals at one Games. She also set three world records and four Paralympic records in China and her successes were achieved in races covering distances from 100m to 1500m.
She said the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games will change the city for people with an impairment. “I always think about the long-term effects of hosting the Paralympic Games,” she said. “Brazil has done so much for Paralympic sports, but there is still a lot to do in terms of accessibility for people with a disability. The Paralympic Games always leave a social legacy that goes beyond the sport and that’s something we’re going to see in Rio. Accessibility will be improved in the city.”
Petitclerc also stressed the important role the Paralympic Games play in changing perceptions. “Brazil is very open minded in terms of its attitude to people with a disability, but there are still a lot of doors to push – here and in Canada also – in terms of education, the workplace, in terms of having full active citizenship for people with a disability.
“These things are not just about elevators and ramps, but about opening the mind, and when you host the Games it gives everyone the opportunity to watch people with a disability be at their best. It sends a message to people with a disability that, whether you want to be an athlete or not, you can do whatever you want. And one day there will be someone interviewing a person in a wheelchair for a job, and they will remember the Paralympic Games, and then they will not have a problem hiring that person.”
Since her Paralympic debut at Barcelona 1992, Petitclerc has seen a “switch of perception” towards Paralympic sports. “In Barcelona, people always wanted to know first about the ‘human side’ and the ‘courage’ of the athlete. Now, people think about high-performance. Maybe in ‘92 people were seeing the person with a disability first, and then the athlete. Now people see the athlete, and then the person.”
Petitclerc is sure the Rio Games will be special and inspirational, and plans to bring her son Elliott, born in 2013, and her husband James with her. She made her first visit to the city last December and said: “It was great to see the enthusiasm here. Since we arrived at the airport, everybody was talking about the Games – you can feel the energy is building.”