By Daniel J. Vance
American Jean Driscoll is one of the world's greatest female athletes. She placed first in eight Boston Marathons and won Olympic Medals in Barcelona and Atlanta. Retired from competition, she recently has been using her reputation and talent in wheelchair racing to awaken the Olympic spirit in Ghana, a West African nation.
While teaching a Ghanaian wheelchair track camp in 2002, Driscoll singled out wheelchair racing athletes she believed had Paralympic potential.
The Paralympic Games are an international, Olympic-level competition for athletes with physical disabilities held in the Olympic Games host city and using Olympic venues. Many Americans confuse the Paralympics with the Special Olympics, but the latter is far less competitive, involving only persons with mental retardation.
"Ghana has never sent a (Paralympic) team," she said over the telephone from her Illinois home. "So I started dreaming. I wondered if people in the States would donate $5,000 to send each athlete to a wheelchair racing training camp at the Univ. of Illinois."
Her dream started becoming reality when she learned of a civic organization interested in helping. "Rotary International has a Pennies for Polio program," Driscoll said. "All but one of the athletes that I identified in Ghana as having Paralympic potential had disabilities because of polio."
Rotary International began its war on polio in 1985 and, along with other international groups, now is trying to eradicate it by 2005. Acute poliomyelitis is a viral infection of spinal cord cells that causes muscle paralysis, yet leaves sensation untouched. The U.S. has more than 250,000 polio survivors.
Four Champaign, Ill., Rotary clubs partnered through Driscoll with a Rotary club in Ghana. "(To send the Ghanaian athletes to America) we ended up receiving donations from individuals, organizations, businesses and churches," she said. "A Champaign Realtor provided the Ghanaians with apartments to live in while training in September 2003."
Quite a culture shock, though. The Ghanaians (including coaches) had never used stoves or microwaves for cooking, only open fires. "(As for technology), they are about a hundred years behind the U.S.," said Driscoll. "I taught them how to make oatmeal on a stove."
The Ghanaian squad will have to train hard. They must qualify to participate in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.
If you know of Rotary clubs in your area that might be interested in helping Jean Driscoll, have them contact her at www.jeandriscoll.com.