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By Daniel J. Vance


  Sports Illustrated for Women ranked Jean Driscoll No. 25 on its list of the 100 greatest female athletes of the twentieth century. For many, this columnist included, the question wasn't her making the list, but whether she'd crack the top ten. Driscoll finished first in eight Boston Marathons and earned Olympic medals in Barcelona and Atlanta. She is a world-class athlete, one of the best ever in any sport.

  And she has a heart of gold.

  Driscoll, 37, was born with spina bifida, the nation's most frequently occurring permanently disabling birth defect, involving incomplete spinal development. For the record: She won her Boston marathons and Olympic medals in wheelchair racing.

  The last three years, Driscoll has developed a special love for Ghana, an African nation with a culture that profoundly discriminates against persons with disabilities.

  "But I found eager wheelchair athletes there wanting to learn track," Driscoll said of her first visit in 2001 alongside Wheels for the World, a wheelchair distribution program of California-based Joni and Friends. "I taught a wheelchair track camp in Kumasi, a city that had one of only two running tracks in Ghana. Its bumpy surface hadn't been refinished since the '70s."

  Forty athletes shared seven functional track wheelchairs. "When the men finished their 400 meters they had to hand their sweaty helmets and gloves over to the women," she said of the shortage of racing equipment.

  Mainly due to expense, not one of these 40 athletes owned their own wheelchair. She heard that some were crawling around their homes on callused hands and knees. "It hit me in 2001 what these people sometimes had to do to get through muddy streets after a rain," she said.

  Ghanaians with disabilities often are treated as second-class citizens. "Some restaurants won't even allow them in," said Driscoll. "One of the female athletes (I taught) isn't even invited to family meetings because of her disability. When a child gets polio, they usually are pulled out of school because teachers believe their life is over."

  In 2002, Driscoll returned through Joni and Friends to teach potential Paralympic Games athletes. "However, this time I brought extra tires, gloves, and helmets," she said. Then, she identified the nation's top ten athletes for Paralympic Games competition.

  Next week read how Rotary International has stepped up to assist these Ghanaian athletes.

  For more, see www.jeandriscoll.com, www.wftwohio.org, and www.danieljvance.com