The hardest part was getting Jean Driscoll onto the track or into the race. Once she there, Driscoll was nearly unbeatable.
Born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spine does not fully develop, Driscoll had difficulty walking from an early age. But she did not begin using a wheelchair until high school. Even then, she was concerned about being limited by the wheelchair. A friend wanted her to come check out a wheelchair soccer practice, but Driscoll wanted no part of it.
“I didn’t want to hang out with those wheelchair people,” Driscoll said in an interview. “I didn’t want people to think the only friends I could get were people in wheelchairs and the only boyfriends I could get were people in wheelchairs and I certainly didn’t want to go to this hokey wheelchair soccer practice.
“But after a whole year of bugging me, finally I decided to go with this guy and I knew I wasn’t going to like it and I wasn’t gonna return, but at least I was going to go and get this guy off my back. And when I went I was completely surprised how competitive it was and I was hooked instantaneously.”
Driscoll matriculated to the University of Illinois, where she played wheelchair basketball and began to get into wheelchair racing. She participated in her first Paralympics in 1988, winning a gold and a silver in relays and two bronze medals in individual races. The next year, Driscoll won a 12k race in Spokane, Washington – prompting her coach to suggest Driscoll try racing a marathon. It was a key moment in her career.
“He had been telling me that for the last two years and I had no interest in doing a marathon,” Driscoll said. “That was something nutty people did. Twenty-six miles was too long and I didn’t want any part of it. It was going to be too hard. And I had this fear that I wouldn’t finish it and so he got me while I was on a high and I said, ‘Okay, all right, I’ll try the Chicago Marathon.”
Driscoll was happy to finish the race in just under two hours – unaware that her time qualified for entry into the Boston Marathon. Again, she had to be convinced her to participate – and the decision was life-changing. Driscoll won the 1990 Boston Marathon – starting a seven-year winning streak in the event.
Driscoll continued her strong performances in the Paralympics, winning one gold at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games; two gold, a silver and a bronze in the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games; and one gold, one silver and one bronze at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. She won the marathon in both Atlanta and Sydney.