Chantal Petitclerc, CC, CQ, MSM is a Canadian wheelchair racer and a Senator from Quebec.
At the age of 13, Petitclerc lost the use of both legs in an accident when at a friend’s farm, a heavy barn door fell on her, fracturing her spine. Gaston Jacques, a high school physical education teacher, was to have a decisive influence on her life when he taught her to swim for four lunch hours a week throughout high school as she was unable to participate in the gym course. In a 2011 interview, she stated that, “[swimming] really helped me get more fit and stronger, and helped me live a more independent life in a wheelchair.” Swimming also allowed her to discover her competitive drive. While she had previously been first in her class academically, it was her introduction to the world of competitive racing.
When she was eighteen, Pierre Pomerleau, a trainer at Université Laval in Quebec City, introduced her to wheelchairsports. Using a homemade wheelchair, she took part in her first race and came last, well behind the other competitors. However, she had fallen in love with wheelchair racing and a long and fruitful career had begun.
While Petitclerc was developing her skills as a wheelchair athlete, she pursued her studies, first in social sciences at the CEGEP de Sainte-Foy and then in history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she registered in order to be able to train with Peter Eriksson, who remains her coach to this day.
Petitclerc competed in the Paralympic Games for the first time in Barcelona in 1992, returning with two bronze medals, the start of collection that now includes twenty one Paralympic medals, fourteen of them gold. Four years later, at the Atlanta games, she took gold medals in the 100 and 200 m events and three silvers in the 400, 800, and 1500 m races. At the 2000 Summer Paralympics, she won two golds, in the 200 m and 800 m, and two silvers, in the 100 m and 400 m races. She won three gold medals (in 100 m, 200 m, and 400 m) and a bronze (800 m) at the 2002 World Championships and a gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in the 800 m. At the 2004 Summer Olympics (where wheelchair racing was an exhibition sport) she won the 800 m, and went on to an impressive showing with 5 gold medals at the 2004 Summer Paralympics. When she returned from Athens in 2004, Petitclerc told reporters the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijingwould be her last big international meeting but that she will continue training and road racing for a while. For her performance in 2008, she was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canadian athlete of the year and the Canadian Press’s Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year.
With her 5 golds in the 2004 Paralympics, she tied the existing Canadian gold medal record at a single Games, Winter or Summer, set by Stephanie Dixon at the 2000 Summer Paralympics. Her 5 golds in the 2008 Paralympics tied that record. As of 2010, the record still stood. As of 2012 she holds five world records for wheelchair racing.
She was chosen as the flagbearer of the Canadian team at the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Commonwealth Games.
Petitclerc was appointed as a coach and mentor to the British athletics team ahead of the 2012 Summer Paralympics, working alongside her former coach and UK Athletics’ Paralympic head coach Peter Eriksson.
Leading Canada’s Paralympic team in Rio will be a little like coming home for Chantal Petitclerc.
The wheelchair racing star was named Canada’s chef de mission for the 2016 Paralympics on Monday, two months after she led the Canadian team at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
“This is as special [as Glasgow], but very different because this is my family, this is home. I know the athletes, I’ve competed with them,” Petitclerc said. “It’s completely different, it’s giving back to my family kind of.”
The 44-year-old from Montreal is one of Canada’s most decorated athletes of all time, holding world records over three different wheelchair distances. She raced to 21 Paralympic medals, including 14 gold.
Her posting as chef of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games team was the first by a Paralympic athlete for a multi-sport Games. Her hiring, she said, spoke volumes about Canada’s support for Paralympic sports.
“[Glasgow] was such a privilege and a great experience and adventure, so it will always have a very, very special place in my heart, my first experience as chef. And just the message that it sent, that a Paralympic athlete can represent any athlete in this country, I think that’s pretty amazing,” Petitclerc said.
The chef de mission is the team leader and spokesman for Canadian athletes at the Games.
Canadian Paralympic athletes applauded Petitclerc’s appointment Monday, exactly two years out from opening of the Games in Rio.
“She’s one if the greatest athletes in Canadian history. Knowledge, leadership, confidence, she will bring all those skills to our team,” said Benoit Huot, who’s won 19 Paralympic medals in swimming, including nine gold. “As a former athlete maybe she has a better understanding of what we live every day, especially on the day that counts. And the fact that she was still competing in 2008, only eight years [from Rio] before, she’s still close to being an athlete.”