Chantal Petitclerc is one of the most dominant athletes in the history of both the Paralympic movement and all wheelchair sports. Petitclerc is one of the few athletes in any sport to hold multiple world track and field records at one time.
Petitclerc was raised in a rural area near Quebec City, Canada. At age 13, she sustained an accident where a barn door fell on her, damaging her spinal cord and rendering Petitclerc a paraplegic. Soon after she had recovered sufficiently to resume such activities as she could, Petitclerc discovered wheelchair racing. Petitclerc has been actively engaged in wheelchair sports since that time.
After completing her university studies, Petitclerc qualified for the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. At those Games, Petitclerc demonstrated some of the talent that would later propel her to the peak of wheelchair sports, winning bronze medals in both the 100m and the 800m events. In 1996 at Atlanta, Petitclerc established herself as the most dominant female wheelchair racer in the world, as she won two gold and three silver medals in the various wheelchair track events. Petitclerc followed this powerful result with a two gold, two silver performance at the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney.
At age 34, Petitclerc entered the 2004 Athens Paralympics as a favorite to win multiple medals. She captured an unprecedented five gold medals, winning every wheelchair event in the event distances from 100m to 1,500m, establishing three world records in the process.
Wheelchair racing is a demanding sport at any distance. In the shorter events of 400m or under, the racer seeks to combine an explosive start by driving their arms powerfully to rotate the wheels on the chair, combined with a sustained, high tempo rhythm to generate as many revolutions of the wheels as possible. As with all sprinters, sprint distance wheel chair racers employ interval training techniques as an essential component of their preparation, incorporating high intensity intervals and recoveries.
Fifteen hundred meter events generally involve different training approaches for the wheelchair racer. The interval work carried out for sprinting is secondary in preparation for these events to training at longer distances that build aerobic fitness in the athlete. An explosive start is of lesser importance in the 1,500-m event than is the ability to maintain a steady pace and then utilize a finishing kick.
Petitclerc's ability to win at every distance between 100m and 1,500m in wheelchair events is a testament to her ability to incorporate these disparate training requirements into one overall athletic program.
With her considerable success, Petitclerc has enjoyed the benefits of various sponsorships in receet years. The most prominent of these benefits is the wheelchair used by Petitclerc in her races. Petitclerc uses state-of-the-art three-wheeled machine. The wheels are sloped inwards towards the athlete at an angle of 13°, with the frame specially configured to suit the build of Petitclerc. The wheelchair frame is constructed of tubular aluminum, and the entire machine weighs less then 14 lb (6 kg).
The wheels on the Petitclerc wheelchair are constructed from carbon rims. Each wheel is very thin to create a highly aerodynamic profile. The wheels are inflated to an air pressure of 180 psi (pounds per square inch), to ensure that the rolling resistance of the wheel against the track surface is minimized. The steering mechanism is adjustable to permit the angle of the machine to correspond with the lane in which Petitclerc will be competing.
In Canada, controversy arose after Petitclerc had achieved her successes at the Athens Paralympics. Athletics Canada, the government sponsored agency involved in the supervision of Canadian sport, determined that Petitclerc would be named the disabled female athlete of the year for 2004, with 2003 world 110-m hurdler Perdita Felicien, the female athlete of the year. This decision touched off a significant public debate about the importance of disabled sport in society as a whole, and how an athlete such as Petitclerc should be regarded in comparison to other athletes. Petitclerc indicated that she believed that she was being treated as a second class athletic citizen by Athletics Canada, and that her accomplishments at Athens must be weighed on their own terms; she refused the Athletics Canada award.
The Canadian sports media voted Petitclerc the female athlete of the year in 2004. Petitclerc is active as a spokesperson for a number of charitable organizations.