SPRINGFIELD — Legendary wheelchair athlete and University of Illinois alumna Jean Driscoll will join the elite group of Illinois residents to receive the state's highest honor.
Lincoln Academy of Illinois officials will present Driscoll and six other residents with Order of Lincoln Medallions at an April 21 ceremony at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield.
Jean Driscoll, the first person to win the Boston Marathon eight times, said she's honored by the distinction.
"I feel a very special bond with this university and this state and so the award ... is humbling and right at the top of experiences that I've had," Driscoll said.
And that's quite a list of experiences — she's won two Olympic medals, 12 Paralympic medals and holds the world record in the 10,000-meter track event. It would be hard to include a complete list of all the honors she's earned around the country and world.
She said the award doesn't just reflect on her, but also the people who've helped her succeed.
"There are so many things in my life that I could have never planned," Driscoll said. "Life has just been one exciting experience after another. There are people who invested a lot of their time and energy into me, and I certainly share this with people all across my lifespan who have seen things in me that I didn't see in myself in those early years."
After an bike accident at age 14, Driscoll spent a year in a body cast and had to start using a wheelchair at age 15. She stays in touch with the nurses who helped her through that experience.
She also credits Brad Hedrick with recruiting her to the University of Illinois' wheelchair basketball team, and her coach Marty Morse, her racing coach, who convinced her to try marathons.
"When I first started using a wheelchair, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, my life is over,'" Driscoll said. "The thing that I thought would limit me has helped me fly through open doors I didn't even know were there."
Driscoll is now assistant dean of advancement for the University of Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences. She also does public speaking, which she's cut back on since her UI promotion last November.
Driscoll, who grew up in Milwaukee, said her siblings gave her a hard time when she decided to come to Illinois. Last fall, though, she found out her great-grandparents got married in Chicago, and her great-uncles served in the Air Force and were stationed in Rantoul.
Driscoll said she's especially excited about the honor because as a college student, former Gov. James Thompson awarded her with the Lincoln Academy's student laureate award. That was in 1990, according to the academy's website.
"I think it's kind of neat ... that all years later I'm receiving the Order of Lincoln," Driscoll said.
She said the way the university contributed to her success makes it more special, as well.
"I still get teary when I think about everything that the University of Illinois has done for me," Driscoll said. "And so I think, receiving this honor is just a really special part of how what a meaningful role the UI and its people have played in my life. It continues to be that way. Here I am, an assistant dean of advancement in a college that oversees (the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services). There are services here that don't exist anywhere else."
Former UI President B. Joseph White said Driscoll is a perfect example of why accessibility is important at the University of Illinois.
"I feel the role of the (university) played in opening up higher education to people with disabilities is one of our greatest achievements in our long history," White said. "I think Jean embodies and (personally) represents that achievement."
He also believes she's a perfect example of what a Lincoln Laureate should be.
"I know a number of (laureates,) Tom Siebel, ... Tim Nugent is a Lincoln Laureate," White said. "Jean is fully qualified to join the rest of those giants because she is a champion and an inspiration to others."
Driscoll continues to be an important figure to the university, he said. Her speech kicked off the beginning of the University's Brilliant Futures campaign (she talked about the strategy of a marathon, as White compared the campaign to one) and will be integral to raising money for the university's Center for Wounded Veterans, which was announced Thursday.
"She's the chief fundraiser for that college. Can you think of anybody better positioned to represent that college to donors than Jean Driscoll?" White said. "She personally embodies what that college can do and what the university can do in people's lives."
The Lincoln Academy of Illinois was established in 1964 to honor Illinois' most distinguished citizens who have brought honor to the state by their achievements.
Prior recipients include President Ronald Reagan, Walter Payton, Gwendolyn Brooks and former UI President Stanley Ikenberry.
"The men and women receiving the Order of Lincoln have dedicated themselves to improving their communities and helping their neighbors," said Gov. Pat Quinn, in a press release. "These worthy recipients truly reflect the selflessness embodied by our nation's 16th president, and we thank them for their service."