UI legend heading to N.C. State

UI legend heading to N.C. State

Hear from former UI President Stan Ikenberry at 10 a.m. Wednesday on WDWS.

URBANA — Legendary Illinois wheelchair-racing champion Jean Driscoll is leaving the university where she studied, raced and worked over the past three decades to take a new development position at North Carolina State University.

Driscoll will be executive director of development for the College of Design at North Carolina State in Raleigh, beginning Nov. 27.

Driscoll, who dominated wheelchair racing in the 1990s, has been senior director of development for the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for three years. Before that, she was in a fundraising position with the College of Applied Health Sciences for more than eight years.

She said the North Carolina State job represents a promotion to a leadership position, which she needs to advance in her career. She will lead fundraising opportunities for the college and manage its development staff.

"I've spent my entire development career at the University of Illinois. So I think in terms of personal growth, it's good to see how it's done in another place," she said Monday.

"And once I gain experience outside of the University of Illinois, I am definitely open to coming back in a different role," she said. "I love this place. It has changed my life."

Driscoll said she is alternately excited and nervous, thinking both "I did it!" and "What have I done?"

Top UI officials said Monday they were sorry to see her go.

"She's just been a tremendous asset for advancement, just a person who has helped define the university in so many ways. We're so proud to be associated with her and so sad to see her go," said interim Provost John Wilkin.

Driscoll won the Boston Marathon an unprecedented eight times, earned 14 Olympic and Paralympic medals, and held the women's world record wheelchair time in the marathon for 17 years. She was also inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

"She's had such a profound impact on this university. I know she will always hold this place near and dear to her heart," said Chancellor Robert Jones.

A Milwaukee native, Driscoll was born with spina bifida but didn't start using a wheelchair until she was 15, after falling from her bike and breaking her hip.

She was inspired to race after watching Illinois' Sharon Hedrick win the first Olympic demonstration event for wheelchair racers, the 800 meters, in Los Angeles in 1984. After taking up racing in high school, she was recruited to Illinois in 1987 by Hedrick's husband, Brad, then coach of the Illinois wheelchair basketball team and later director of the UI's Division of Disability Resources and Education Services.

She was reluctant at first, given Wisconsin's rivalry with Illinois, but Hedrick persisted.

"It felt really good that somebody wanted me on their team. Brad convinced me that I could come to Illinois and make a difference and have a great academic career as well as an athletic career," she said.

Once on campus, Driscoll competed in both basketball and track/road racing, and track coach Marty Morse started pushing her to compete in a marathon. She said no.

After two years, she agreed to train for one: the 1989 Chicago Marathon. She hated the longer, more painful 20-mile workouts out on country roads.

"There's a lot more time for the farm dogs to find you," she said. "Being so low in the racing chair, you're right at teeth level."

She finished the marathon in under 2 hours, qualifying her for the Boston Marathon the following spring.

She remembers being on the starting line, "yelling at Marty under my breath" and thinking she was never going to make it through the Boston hills.

But 26.2 miles later, she had won her first Boston Marathon and broke the world record by almost seven minutes. The rest was history.

"When I talk about Brad Hedrick, and I talk about Marty Morse, I get emotional," she said. "These are people who have had a tremendous lifelong impact on me. I will forever be grateful for the relationship I had with them, both as a coach and as mentors. They helped me see things I didn't see in myself."

Athletic director Josh Whitman said Driscoll was a pioneer and remains one of the university's most recognizable athletes, right up there with football great Dick Butkus and basketball favorite Dee Brown.

"I've been so impressed with what she represents," he said. "She as much as anybody really embodies the University of Illinois in so many of the values that we have as an institution. She's a tremendous source of pride for the university."

Driscoll earned two UI degrees — a bachelor's in speech communication in 1991 and a master's in rehabilitation administration in 1993.

In 2001, less than a year after her retirement from racing, Driscoll agreed to go to Ghana to conduct a wheelchair-sports clinic through the organization Joni and Friends, which distributes wheelchairs around the world. The visit had a profound impact on her life and career.

Driscoll knew that polio was still endemic in Ghana, where wheelchairs were hard to come by and disabilities were often seen as God's punishment. Driscoll herself had to be carried down the steps of the airplane, as there were no Jetways where she could use her wheelchair.

At the clinic, some people limped into the stadium, some had crutches, but "what I was completely unprepared for were the people who crawled into the stadium on their hands and knees," she said. They had crawled several blocks from a nearby hospital, twice a day, for the morning and evening sessions of the clinic, she said.

The organization brought along six racing wheelchairs from Driscoll's equipment sponsor for the 32 clinic participants to use, for about 10 minutes each.

"That was the only time they were up off the ground," she said. "It hit me: My life's mission is to help get people up off the ground, literally and figuratively," she said.

Driscoll remained involved with the organization for 10 years. In 2003, she worked with local Rotary Clubs to bring eight Ghanaian wheelchair athletes and two coaches to the U.S., where they were able to train at the UI and receive their first custom-made racing chairs. She's still in touch with some of the athletes.

She sees her development work as an extension of that mission — raising money to provide education to better people's lives, just as the UI's commitment to disability education changed her life.

"I believe an education is the key to putting people on a path of success," she said.