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Canadian Paralympic athlete Chantal Petitclerc poses with the five gold medals she won at the Beijing Paralympic Games after arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, September 18, 2008. (MIKE CASSESE/Mike Cassese/Reuters)
Canadian Paralympic athlete Chantal Petitclerc poses with the five gold medals she won at the Beijing Paralympic Games after arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, September 18, 2008. (MIKE CASSESE/Mike Cassese/Reuters)

Chantal Petitclerc, 2004 Add to ...

Chantal Petitclerc flings open the heavy door to her condo garage, whips over to her Suburu Forester and, somehow, hops into the driver's seat. Leaning out, she dismantles her wheelchair with one hand, and tosses it piece by piece into the back seat.

On St. Denis Street in morning rush hour, she steers with one hand, pulling a control bar with the other to accelerate. Suddenly, she brakes, pushing the bar down. A car in front is hogging two lanes.

"What's going on?" murmurs the world's fastest woman on three wheels. She doesn't get upset. She doesn't honk. She just waits for an opening. When it comes, she zips past.

Don't get in Ms. Petitclerc's way. Her competitors in wheelchair racing learned that this summer when she came home from Athens with five Paralympic gold medals and three world records. Athletics Canada relearned that lesson last week when she declined its athlete-of-the-year award -- because it named her the "co-winner" along with an able-bodied sprinter who fell flat on her face in an Olympic race.

This year, Ms. Petitclerc has earned the admiration of all of Canada. From her perspective, her many victories are a way of thanking her town, her province and her country for standing behind her when she couldn't stand on her own two feet.

Ms. Petitclerc, who turns 35 on Wednesday, may use a wheelchair, but she's no victim. About the only thing she can't do is reach the top shelf of her kitchen cupboard. But that, of course, is what live-in boyfriends are for.

At 8:15 a.m. on a blustery December morning, Ms. Petitclerc pulls into a disabled spot at Complexe Sportif Claude Robillard. She pulls the handicapped card from her sun visor and hangs it on the rearview mirror.

Many disabled people keep theirs permanently displayed, but the flapping wheelchair logo annoys Ms. Petitclerc (pronounced "p'tee-claire"). If she forgets to hang it up and she gets a big ticket, well, paying a fine is better than branding yourself a paraplegic.

Besides, she doesn't think of herself that way. At the entrance to the athletic complex, she ignores the handicapped button, yanking open the heavy glass door herself. "Bonjour, le champion!" a man in the weightlifting room says when she swings by to retrieve her racing chair. "Congratulations! You had a good trip there this summer!" another exclaims in French.

The woman at the counter beckons Ms. Petitclerc over. "Why did they have to give it to two persons? You had a great year. She didn't have a good year. Tiens tête," she adds, meaning stick to your guns.

"I didn't want to brassé," Ms. Petitclerc says, meaning stir things up. She declined the award, but they gave it to her anyway.

At the sports complex, everyone knows Ms. Petitclerc, and not just because of her triumph in Athens. She trains here 10 times a week. She also appears twice weekly on television station TVA, announcing the winning Loto-Québec numbers. When the station asked viewers this year to select their favourite Quebecker, she ranked third, after René Lévesque, but ahead of Celine Dion.

But can the third-most-admired person in Quebec be a nation builder for Canada? And if so, exactly what nation is she building? Ms. Petitclerc hesitates. "I don't think about Quebec versus Canada. I think about health care, the environment, about athletes not getting enough money."

Last month, she considered buying a monster SUV. "I had such a great year. Maybe I could buy a little luxury," she recalls. Then she checked David Suzuki's website. "I couldn't do it. It was too polluting."

But Ms. Petitclerc is no extremist. She knows she can't get stuck in a snowdrift, so she bought the least offensive four-wheel-drive she could find.

As a unilingual francophone teenager, she embraced her French heritage and passionately believed that Quebec should be its own country. But then she became a racer, enrolled at the University of Alberta to be near her coach and discovered another world.

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