Craig Blanchette wrestled at 106 pounds for the varsity in his senior year at Springfield (Ore.) High in 1986. He won 12 matches and lost six. "People had trouble with me getting to their legs," he says.
He had no such trouble. He has no legs. Blanchette was born, 21 years ago, with no femurs, and vestigial lower legs and feet. He was compensated with a boundless capacity to adapt and astound. He enjoys your imagining a wrestling opponent trying to contain a wildly scuttling torso. "It was really bad for some guys, but once we were both down on the mat, it evened out well," says Blanchette. That was not the last time he would make legs seem a liability.
Blanchette, like many other so-called impaired humans, seems emancipated from convention. Gold earrings and a diamond stud in his right nostril underscore that impression. Cat quick, he plays a fierce game of racquetball. He skis. He often uses a skateboard to get around. Now, with superb performances in his true calling, he is certifying wheelchair racing above the realm of disabled games, as compelling sport.
In 1985 Blanchette was in front of his house, tending his mother's garage sale, when a man named Kevin Hansen cruised by in a racing wheelchair. "My grandfather had bought me one, but I'd never used it." says Blanchette. Hansen, a racer and coach, got Blanchette going. "He told me to push three to five miles every other day."
Blanchette proved to be a prodigy. Already strong, and getting stronger, he developed a powerfully smooth technique. Soon he was a contender on the national wheelchair-racing circuit. Equipped with a new chair, he went to the Phoenix 10K in November 1986.
"I took a wrong turn and went off course at a mile and a half," says Blanchette. "Jim Martinson. Marty Ball and George Murray [then the sport's dominant racer and holder at the time of the world record for the mile, at 3:59.4] went by and got a 50-meter gap. I was stuck back in a big drafting line [wheelchair racing tactics are similar to cycling's]. I popped out and caught the leaders with a mile left. When I did, George turned and said. 'I don't want you slowing us down, kid. I want us side by side.'
"I said, 'No way. I'm tired. If I'm too slow, go around me.' So they did, and I drafted on them. Near the finish there was a corner with a little cement ramp built to get us over a curb. I'd practiced that corner." Blanchette launched a wild finishing sprint, and he beat Murray by .3 of a second to win in 25:01.5.
Blanchette had arrived—whereupon he kept going. Eleven straight victories in 1987, including Tampa's Gasparilla Distance Classic, where he set a 15K world best of 37:19 (he improved it this year to 37:05), brought him competitive supremacy, a little prize money and eventually a sponsorship from Nike.
Blanchette's tactics may be cycling-inspired, but his training is grounded in running. Hansen applies the principles of former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, keeping Blanchette at about 30 miles per week and employing a sophisticated system of intervals on the track to build his speed and recovery ability. There will be no marathons, they have agreed, until Blanchette is older and has properly explored the middle distances.
Blanchette trains uphill for power, downhill for his tuck. "Once you're over about 23 miles per hour, you can't push," he says. "So if you're aerodynamically better on a downhill, you can get a lead. and there is absolutely nothing anyone else can do." In May he won the Lilac Bloomsday Race in Spokane by breaking away in this fashion.