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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.


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.

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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.

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"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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"All that I have that is Canada came to me through racing," says Ms. Petitclerc, now fluently bilingual. Racing took her around the world, and everywhere, fans waved Canadian flags to cheer her on. "Canada isn't just a country," she says. "It's my team."

In her periwinkle-blue wheelchair, Ms. Petitclerc is petite and sexy, with arched eyebrows, dark, cherry-streaked bangs and a gamine smile. Her impossibly high cheekbones lead her to wonder if she has aboriginal ancestry in her past. She would like that, but all she knows for sure is she's a "bit of Irish" on her mother's side, and her father's side came from France in 1630.

At the arena, Ms. Petitclerc positions her racing chair beside her. If her everyday chair is as cute as a Smart Car, her racing chair is like a Porsche, a low-slung, electric-blue, custom-made aluminum baby with made-in-France $2,000 graphite wheels that tilt inward and a third, tiny wheel stretching, hot-rod style, in front.

Ms. Petitclerc lifts her atrophied legs onto the racing chair, folding them onto a padded shelf. Then, like a teenager wriggling into too-tight jeans, she squeezes into the 24-centimetre-wide seat. (A Toronto subway seat is 43 centimetres wide.)

Suddenly, she peels off her sweatshirt, revealing a Lycra-sheathed torso of muscle and curves. Bending forward, thrusting her luscious chest almost to her knees, she looks powerful and erotic. At the 9 a.m. aerobics class, all heads turn as Ms. Petitclerc swoops past, arms pumping, onto the training track.

James Duhamel is the epitome of Québécois cool. A composer of electro-acoustic music for documentaries and art installations, he's slim, with pale blue eyes and straight, blond hair parted down the centre. Ms. Petitclerc spotted him 10 years ago at TVA. She had just begun working as the Loto host, while he was paying his bills with a stagehand job.

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Back then, she was living with her college sweetheart, an economist. But after that relationship amicably ended, Ms. Petitclerc made her move. First she lent Mr. Duhamel some books on French philosophy. When he quit TVA to work full-time on composing, she phoned him.

"I said, 'You want your books back,' " recalls Mr. Duhamel, 32. No, Ms. Petitclerc said, she only wanted to congratulate him on quitting a job that didn't suit him. He suggested dinner. They moved in together. That was four years ago.

"I never saw her as a person in a wheelchair," he says. "Chantal goes around herself. She pretty much does what she wants. She has friends who are quadriplegic. Having someone disabled with you teaches you a lot about the extent of disability in life."

Ms. Petitclerc does need Mr. Duhamel's help to get up the two steps to her favourite frites outlet. But she considers that a good thing. At 5-foot-5, she lost five pounds for Athens, which helped her hit track speeds of 33 kilometres an hour, a personal best. Now, three months and several celebratory glasses of red wine later, she weighs 105.

Ms. Petitclerc thinks that everyone should keep fit, but especially disabled people. Her upper-body strength means that she can go camping, because she has no trouble hoisting herself off the ground. She even parachutes, though she does that in tandem. Over Christmas, she and Mr. Duhamel are going to Costa Rica. She'll borrow a special chair with mountain-bike wheels so they can go into the jungle.

She won't discuss money, but in her household she's the dominant earner. She just renewed her sponsorship deal with Alcan, for whom she works as a global ambassador 10 days a year. In addition to her television-host work, she also is a radio sports commentator.

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Three years ago, she and Mr. Duhamel bought a light-filled downtown condo with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors. Her Olympic champion's wreath and two of her victory bouquets, all dried, decorate a corner table. Her five gold medals are stashed in a drawer while she tries to figure out a modest way to display them.

The only clue that a wheelchair-user lives here is a one-inch wedge at the threshold of the front door. No other item has been modified for handicapped use. There are no grip bars by the bathtub. The toilet isn't raised. The kitchen counters, cupboards, stove and fan aren't lowered. And she doesn't have to bend over to load the dishwasher.

He makes breakfast. She does dinner. Neither does housework. Instead, they split the cost of a weekly cleaner.

Back home from her morning workout, she reaches into her freezer for a package of Italian porcini. "Maybe I should do a risotto," she muses.

Ms. Petitclerc takes a shower while her boyfriend works on his laptop. To do so, she tells me, she lowers herself to the stall's floor, onto a small foam mat, the kind gardeners use to save their knees. Afterward, she hoists herself back onto her chair, towels dry and gets dressed.

She emerges in jeans and a wraparound pink jersey, a tiny diamond stud in her nose. Her hair is tied into two ingénue pigtails. She's wearing M.A.C lipstick, but no perfume -- post-Athens, she's shopping for a new fragrance.

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Every four years, tracking the Olympic cycle, she superstitiously changes perfumes. After 1992 (Barcelona, two bronze medals), she used Poison by Dior. In 1996 (Atlanta, three gold, two silver), she switched to Paloma Picasso. After 2000 (Sydney, two gold, two silver), she chose Jean-Paul Gaultier.

"I have a totally normal sex life," Ms. Petitclerc says over steamed mussels at Le Pèlerin, her favourite bistro. She blushes. "At least, I think so. I don't know what's normal. Every guy I met knew I was in a chair."

She grew up in Saint-Marc-des-Carrières, between Trois-Rivières and Quebec City, the daughter of a building contractor and a homemaker. At a friend's farm, she and a younger boy decided that a barn door rusted off its hinges would make a fine bike ramp if they propped it on top of a crate. Together, they hoisted up the barn door, then realized they couldn't reach the crate. The boy let go to fetch the box, and the door fell on Ms. Petitclerc, snapping her spine.

Ask how old she was at the time and, amazingly, she has to stop and think. It was the summer between Grades 6 and 7. Her birthday is Dec. 15. She concludes she must have been 12. "That's how much I think about it," she says.

Others consider adolescence a time of angst. Ms. Petitclerc thinks that it helped that she would have been going through big changes anyway. By the time she got out of the hospital, paralyzed from the hips down, the entire town -- population 3,000 -- had heard about her accident. Her friends embraced her as before. Boys didn't run the other way. The school had installed an elevator. And the home-economics teacher had found a sewing machine with electric hand controls.

She couldn't take part in gym, so the phys-ed teacher, Gaston Jacques, taught her to swim -- four lunch hours a week for the next four years. She had been first in her class academically, but never much interested in sports. Now, she discovered she loved racing.

When she was 18, a trainer at Laval University introduced her to wheelchair racing. She entered her first race in a homemade chair and came last, but found out the sport suited her. She had full use of her abdominal muscles, could move her hips and had good balance.

Racing aside, she is not lacking in other physical feeling. "It's a common misconception," Ms. Petitclerc says. "People think if you're in a wheelchair, you're limited with regard to sex," She says she has never had a bad experience where a lover hesitated because she was in a chair. "It goes the same as with every couple. You become more intimate step by step."

She brought Mr. Duhamel with her to Athens, the first time she took a boyfriend to the Paralympics. So where does she stand on that debate about whether sex the night before a race enhances or dampens performance? She laughs. She stayed in the athlete's village. He stayed in a hotel. "So the question is not even there. That fixed the problem," she says, grinning.

Although her spinal injury hasn't affected her fertility, for years she dismissed the idea of babies. Now, in her mid-30s, she's not so sure. Yet life is so unfair: Like any other woman, she would feel the contractions.

Still, Ms. Petitclerc does her bit to make life fairer. After Atlanta, she instructed her agent to seek a corporate sponsor. She didn't just want money. She wanted to send a message. Specifically, she wanted a company that saw her as a high-performance athlete, not a cripple. In 1997, Alcan stepped forward.

"They understood they were not sponsoring a disabled person, but an elite athlete using aluminum. It's performance, aluminum, excellence."

When Athletics Canada phoned to say she was a "co-winner," Ms. Petitclerc mulled it over for 48 hours. Then she decided that her self-respect wouldn't let her accept. She sent back an e-mail message: "I prefer not to have these awards. I want to be removed from the recipient list."

Athletics Canada tried to persuade her to accept. Someone there even told her she wouldn't be eligible for a bigger award next spring. Ms. Petitclerc backed down -- until she learned she would be eligible no matter what. Last week, despite her protests, Athletics Canada gave her the award in absentia. This week, the track-and-field organization blamed a "miscommunication."

Ms. Petitclerc says she believes Athletics Canada "meant no harm. They thought, 'Let's choose someone from the Paralympics and an able-bodied athlete and everyone's going to be happy.'

"To me, it's really a symptom that they can't evaluate the value of a Paralympic medal - that it's easier to win a Paralympic medal than an Olympic medal. That may have been true 15 years ago. That's not the case any more."

Suddenly, Ms. Petitclerc glances at her watch. She's late for the cleaners coming to steam her sofa. (Her two Abyssinian cats shed lots of hair.) She bursts out of the bistro door, and whips along the ice-bumpy sidewalk. After three blocks, she hits a red light -- and runs it.

Turning onto her side street, she spots the cleaning van out front. But a Canada Post truck, parked half on the sidewalk, blocks her way. Instantly, she humps off the sidewalk and crosses to the other side.

For reasons known only to her, Ms. Petitclerc has bought a condo on a hill. The incline is 45 degrees. The sidewalk is ice, dusted with snow. No one has sprinkled salt or sand. Head down, arms pumping, Ms. Petitclerc gets halfway up. Her chair slips backward. She forces it up another two centimetres, slides back one. The cleaners, both men, wait at the top of the handicapped ramp, too mesmerized to help.

Ms. Petitclerc shifts her weight, twists her chair, focusing on the treacherous ground beneath her. Suddenly, she makes it to the railing, stretches out her fingers and hauls herself up to the door. "We were waiting for you," one of the men says.

Ms. Petitclerc smiles. After all, she's the champ.

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