Top Illini of Title IX: No. 3 — Jean Driscoll

Editor’s note: June 23 marks the 40-year anniversary of the passing of Title IX, a resolution that sought to stop gender discrimination in educational activities; athletics was one of those programs most affected. In honor of the 40-year anniversary, The Daily Illini is recognizing the athletes that have forwarded female athletics in the wake of Title IX’s passing. The Daily Illini summer staff sat down and sifted through a list of more than 30 nominees to name and order the top 9 female athletes of the past 40 years in terms of cultivating excellence for women’s sports at Illinois.

“You’re not going to believe this girl,” said Marty Morse, her coach at Illinois.

None of those around her can quite grasp everything this woman has done, not her past coaches, neither the athletes she’s trained nor friends she had while growing up. Simply listing all of her achievements in minimal detail would fill volumes of books. She has won so many races around the world that she cannot even remember which races she’s done or even if she won them. She’s dined with presidents of the U.S. and even met those of other countries.

What’s more is that after all of it, she remains a figure as humbled as any.

Jean Driscoll, born and raised in Milwaukee, Wis., with spinal bifida and a cleft pallet, was told from as early as she could remember what she couldn’t do: walk, play, run, participate or any other slew of action verbs. She was never going to be normal, or go to a normal school or walk normally, or live on her own like a normal person.

“One of the things that has been a fire in my belly is that as a youngster, there were limitations constantly being placed on me,” Driscoll said.

Fortunately, she wasn’t normal. She was extraordinary.

At home, her parents treated her no differently than her four other siblings. She was expected to do household chores and do her homework just like the others. If she wanted something, she had to work and compete for it, even though she had feet turned out to the side and below-the-knee braces that creaked with each small step.

“Being one of five, being competitive, starts when you come out of the womb,” Driscoll joked. “You’re fighting for attention, you’re fighting for ice cream.”

Throughout her teen years, Driscoll was a good student and wasn’t very popular, she said, but her longtime friend from high school saw something a little more than the rest.

“She was just like she is today — outgoing and warm and fun to be with,” said Kathleen Rinka, Driscoll’s friend and mother of two in Orlando, Fla. “I’ve always thought so highly of her.”

Seeing her then and seeing her now, Rinka reminisces about how she saw others view Driscoll with a look of pity because others believed that she was incapable of doing simple tasks like opening doors.

“I was always a little surprised because only if you knew who this was and all the great things that she can do,” Rinka said, wishing she could have told those students what Driscoll would go on to become.

Despite Driscoll’s affinity for distance, Rinka and Driscoll have kept their friendship alive for over 20 years. When Rinka returns home to Milwaukee for the Christmas holiday, she and Driscoll go to brunch every year on Dec. 27.

While she was in high school, Driscoll dislocated her hip after taking too sharp of a turn on her new 10-speed bicycle. Even after multiple surgeries caused her to spend a year living at home, doctors couldn’t figure out how to heal her. She was going to have to start using a wheelchair.

“You know, here was this doctor, for an NBA team, and he could fix them and other people, yet he couldn’t fix me,” Driscoll said.

Following her year off of school living at home, she was forced to transfer to the public school from her college prep school because she was too far behind in credits. During her junior year at the public school was the first time she was asked to play wheelchair soccer, and she turned that down as fast as she won her hundreds of races.

“It’s hokey and not a real sport. I didn’t want to hang out with all those wheelchair people. I’m not weird,” Driscoll thought of the offer to play.

All she had known of participating in sports before was being the scorekeeper. Eventually, after she’d been asked enough, she gave in to playing the soccer game, and what she found was completely unexpected. People were into the game like nothing she had ever seen before. They were banging their chairs, and people were flying, Driscoll said.

After that, she had been introduced to a different world, and there was no turning back.

After graduating high school, she began her nursing studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where she was discovered playing basketball by Brad Hedrick, the current director of Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) at Illinois and former athletic director of wheelchair sports. From there, Driscoll transferred to the University of Illinois. Morse said he hadn’t heard of her before, yet he felt like he knew everybody. Up to this point Driscoll was still an undiscovered diamond in the rough. Soon after watching her race in 1987, he knew the University was getting a stellar athlete.

“The first thing that struck me was her attention to detail,” Morse said.

Driscoll was coming into a school of athletes, like Ann Cody and Sharon Hedrick, both of whom were Paralympic Gold medalists, so the bar was set high.

In the basketball offseason, the athletes would do track to stay in shape, and that’s when, during her senior year, Morse told Driscoll she didn’t have a choice, and she was going to do a marathon. Like she did in high school when offered to play a game of soccer, she outright refused.

“I did not want to do a marathon,” Driscoll said. “After two years to get my coach off my back, and just like that kid back in high school, I said I would do one marathon. I did the Chicago Marathon in ’89, and I ended up going fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

She qualified, but she still didn’t want to go. Not after the searing blisters that her second-place finish in the Chicago Marathon left her hands. But she did it, and she won, breaking the world record for that race. She would go on to win the Boston Marathon six consecutive times after that race, breaking her record four times. She won it again a few years later.

Over the next decade, Driscoll would go on to win more races than she had ever imagined. She was touring the world constantly, being opened to so many perspectives in the world she never knew existed, she said. Not only that, but she is a member of several halls of fame, with her most recent induction into the Olympic Hall of Fame in May.

Through it all, Driscoll said that she is just as proud to have been an Illini athlete as she was to wearing USA while she represented her country at the Paralympics in South Korea, Spain, Atlanta and Sidney.

“I will always be proud of this place,” Jean said of her alma mater.

One of her best memories as an athlete, though, was winning the silver medal in Atlanta in 1996.

“There’s nothing like competing in the Olympics and the Paralympics in your own country — that was a golden moment. Pardon the pun,” Driscoll said. She said she missed the Gold by 0.23 seconds.

“When they announced my name, 80,000 people stood up and cheered, and that was one of my proudest moments.”

She described medaling as “the highest honor for what you’ve devoted your life to for many, many years.”

In 2000 when she received the last medal awarded before the closing ceremonies began, Driscoll decided it was time to retire because she had lost the fire she’d had to train four or five hours a day.

Later that year, Joni Eareckson Tada, founder of Wheels for the World, an organization founded in 1994 that collects used wheelchairs and has them restored so they can be given to people in developing nations, called Driscoll, asking her if she would go to Ghana.

Characteristically, Driscoll declined, until Tada had prodded her enough for four months. Ask Driscoll enough times, and she will probably say yes.

She packed her bags and flew into the African country in 2001 and was met by a sight for which she was not ready.

“When I got to the stadium, I expected people to be on crutches, and I thought a lucky few would have wheelchairs, but I was completely unprepared for the folks who crawled two to three blocks to the stadium on their hands and knees,” Driscoll said. “They had sandals on their hands and calluses on their knees.”

Driscoll spent a week in the country, and returned again in 2002 and 2003. When she arrived in 2003, she brought the promise of bringing back eight promising athletes to train for the Paralympics in Champaign, backed by $62,000 from Rotary National and the Champaign area Rotary Clubs. One of those selected was Rafael Botsyo Nkegbe, a man who would later be the first male to represent his country in the Paralympics in 2004, and he is forever grateful for the opportunity.

Her advice to him has been endless: “Rafael, I am helping you as an individual, but you are more than an individual. You are representing Ghana.”

He said she was like a mother to him, and more than ever, he wants to give back the way Driscoll gave to him.

“God has given everybody talent, and that talent is meant for others. You have been given something, and you have to give it back,” Nkegbe said of what he believes his life mission to be.

Driscoll continues to be an inspiration to people around the world, and she now serves as the chief advancement officer in College of AHS.

“You get to a point where you forget you have a disability,” Driscoll said looking at her wheelchair.

Albeit she is now retired from racing, she doesn’t show any signs of leaving the athletic world altogether. She may not be able to, either.

“Sports rescued me,” Driscoll said.

_This is a longer version than appeared in the July 2 print edition of The Daily Illini._