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Wheel opportunity

Boston simply new challenge for Blauwet

After a farm accident left Cheri Blauwet a paraplegic at age 1, her parents decided the best way to raise their younger daughter was to offer her plenty of opportunities and no pity. Rather than set her up for a life of "Why me?" again and again, Judy and Dale Blauwet inspired Cheri to ask the opposite: "Why not?"

As in, why not aim for one of the most prestigious medical schools? Why not travel the world, as challenging as that can be for someone who must use a wheelchair? Why not step away from a successful sprint racing career, one that all but guaranteed her more world championship medals, and give wheelchair marathons a shot?

There always seems to be better things within her grasp, and Blauwet, 23, can usually be found racing toward them at top speed.

Her latest target: the Boston Marathon.

It has been only 18 months since Blauwet entered her first marathon, and in that time she has won in New York and Los Angeles -- twice. Runner-up in Boston last year, Blauwet circled Patriots Day on her mental calendar a long time ago as one of the two biggest days of 2004. The other will be in September in Athens' Olympic Stadium, site of the Paralympic Games wheelchair marathon.

"Those two events combined -- it's going to be a really big year," Blauwet said. "[Winning] would just be such a cool experience in general and a solidification of myself as an athlete."

She may still have a few things to prove to herself, but Blauwet no longer needs to convince anyone else. An inspirational figure and activist within the disabled community, Blauwet also has been honored alongside some of the world's top able-bodied athletes. She was one of 10 nominees for the Women's Sports Foundation's 2003 Sportswoman of the Year award, and in 2002 USA Today named her to its academic All-America team for her accomplishments in class and on the track at the University of Arizona.

Along the way, she has taken on more demands. In addition to her first-year studies at the Stanford University School of Medicine, she is founder and public relations director of the Arizona-based International Institute for Disability Advocacy and a spokeswoman for the US Paralympic team. Yet Blauwet handles it all, usually with a smile.

"She's Wonder Woman, but also -- that woman is fun," said Wayne Decker, director of international studies and scholarships at Arizona. "She just energizes everybody around her. Life is about attitude. She's got about the best attitude of anybody I know. No joke. She doesn't tolerate people who want people to pity them."

Self-pity was not permitted in the Blauwet household while she was growing up in Larchwood, Iowa. Even the circumstances of her injury -- Cheri's father accidentally struck her with a tractor when she wandered into the driveway -- were not dwelled upon. The most important thing was fostering independence and a sense of adventure in both Cheri and her two older siblings.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world to have the parents that I have," she said. "From the beginning, they were very proactive and encouraging. They pushed me in a positive manner."

There were no other disabled children her age nearby, so Blauwet ended up integrating with the able-bodied kids, and she did it without thinking. "I just considered that to be the norm," she said. "I still do."

She focused on her studies and excelled in the band. Then when she started at West Lyon High, the track coach invited her to try wheelchair racing, with the idea that she could enter the sanctioned events at the Iowa state high school track and field meet.

"It never, ever crossed my mind to be in sports," Blauwet said. "At first I just blew it off. I was thinking, `Why would I do that, it's really dumb.' But people kept pushing and pushing. Mom was pushy. She got me out to practice."

Blauwet raced, using the only chair she had, and met the coach of a junior wheelchair team based in Des Moines, five hours away. Soon she was going there every three weeks to train with other young wheelchair athletes, the first true peer group she had ever known.

As a sophomore she set state records and was rewarded with her first racing chair. In 1997, she set national records in her events at the Junior National Wheelchair Championships. Then in 1998 she headed to Arizona, a campus that not only had a highly regarded wheelchair track and road racing team, but also offered a culture of acceptance toward disabled students.

While in Tucson, Blauwet maintained a 4.0 grade-point average in molecular and cellular biology. In 2000 she won a silver and three bronze medals at the Paralympic Games, competing in the 100, 200, 400, and 800 meters.

But she also became restless, and started to look beyond the confines of a 400-meter oval. A series of unexplained fevers that kept her from competing for nearly a year after the Paralympics gave her time to travel and consider her future. Marathons -- with the training, the pain, and the force of will required for her to excel -- were her answer.

"I started to travel a lot more and develop more of an adventurousness inside," Blauwet said. "I just wanted to get out there and see the world and really challenge myself personally. That's what marathon is all about."

Her travels, in particular a semester she spent in Argentina in 2001, also forced Blauwet to see what life is like for disabled people in Third World countries, where just using a public restroom or public transportation can be nearly impossible.

"There are things that every human should have a right to," Blauwet said. "I never understood the impact of how not having those things could change your personality, and really lead to a sense of defeat."

Determined to affect some change, however small, Blauwet founded the International Institute for Disability Advocacy. She said the goal of the IIDA is to find ways to bring young, bright disabled people to the United States to study for undergraduate degrees, then help them find jobs or leadership roles in their home countries, where they can then push for reform. The IIDA is working closely with the University of Arizona to launch such a program on a limited scale.

She remains involved with the IIDA and said she hopes some day to make her mark by helping change the quality of life of those with disabilities, ideally through work in developmental pediatrics. But for now, Blauwet is focused on her studies -- and solidifying her status as one of the world's best wheelchair marathon racers.

Eager for the next challenge, Blauwet left California for Boston Wednesday. Decker, her former professor, said he wasn't surprised that she would be arriving early.

"She's memorizing the [course], being quiet and taking care of herself," Decker said. "She's fiercely competitive, there's no doubt about it. She wants to win -- this isn't for show."

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