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Driscoll, Sauvage gear up for another electrifying wheelchair finish

By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff, 4/16/2000

alk about painful losses.

Two years ago in the women's wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon, Jean Driscoll was just raising her hands in victory at the tape when, much to her astonishment, another wheelchair whizzed past her to claim the victory by .2 seconds.

Driscoll, the 33-year-old seven-time champion of this race from Champaign, Ill., was beaten by Louise Sauvage, a 26-year-old rising star from Sydney. It was the second of three straight victories for Sauvage, who won in 1997 when one of Driscoll's tires got caught on an MBTA train track and ended her bid for an eighth consecutive title.

As defending champion, Sauvage said Thursday, she was glad to see Driscoll was back to keep ''a great rivalry'' going.

But for her part, Driscoll said the race is about much more than another crack at her Australian rival.

''I'm the last one alive with a chance of breaking seven wins at Boston and getting eight,'' she said.

Driscoll's eighth victory would break the record held by legend Clarence DeMar of Melrose, who won seven Boston Marathon titles from 1911 to 1930.

''I have a calm confidence right now,'' said Driscoll. ''I see myself winning No. 8. I hunger for it.''

The last three years were not run-of-the mill losses for Driscoll.

In last year's photo finish, Driscoll trailed Sauvage by about 50 yards when she tried to close the gap beginning around Brookline. She came as close as she could, but needed just a few more yards to get by Sauvage.

But the most painful loss - literally - came in 1997 when Driscoll spotted Sauvage a slight lead, then stayed close behind in Sauvage's slipstream as the two rolled into Cleveland Circle.

It was there that one of Driscoll's wheels got caught in a streetcar track, overturning the chair, and sending her sprawling in the street. After making repairs, she finished the race, though she lost about 20 minutes.

After last year's disappointment, Driscoll said she considered not racing in Boston again. But after three months off from racing and six weeks off from training, she had time to reassess her feelings and ponder the possibility of an eighth victory.

Soon she was training again, and the routine got her focused. She also studied videotape of her past performances and noted ''dozens of places'' she could have pressed the pedal harder to make up precious fractions of seconds. ''I've made them up easily,'' she said.

''I know I still have the passion in my gut,'' said Driscoll, who has proven she can go more than the distance.

Last year, she wheeled into a stiff headwind for 377 miles in a monster Alaskan race from Fairbanks to Anchorage. ''I learned a lot about myself,'' she said. ''But I don't know if I'll go back or not. I don't even know why I did it.''

Following that ordeal, Driscoll ran into hellacious weather when she competed in Falmouth last August and again in a Los Angeles race in the fall.

Sauvage is a good wheeler downhill and Driscoll's strength is uphill; so both women say this race will be about minute advantages in specific spots along the course.

''We've had a great rivalry,'' said Sauvage, who has competed in Boston seven times, beginning at age 19. She has also won the Honolulu Marathon, the Carlsbad 5000, and the National 10K Championships, and has earned her the title of International Female Wheelchair Athlete of the Year.

If Sauvage wins tomorrow, giving her a string of four victories at age 26, she could be in the position Driscoll now holds before she reaches 30. So far, Sauvage has not seen herself in terms of winning a string of Boston Marathons.

''I'm just very happy to compete, and give the others a good race,'' she says.

''I look forward to racing Jean wherever, but especially in Boston because Jean is the queen there, and it's sort of her race. So it's fun for me to come up there and try to win.''

Driscoll's take on her rival is somewhat curt.

''Louise,'' she said, ''is a very worthy opponent.''

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