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Familiar course

Craig Blanchette races toward a course record in 1989.  (Photo archive)
Craig Blanchette races toward a course record in 1989. (Photo archive)

Wheelchair racer returns to sport at Bloomsday

After an eight-year hiatus, Craig Blanchette is back in town this weekend for Bloomsday and the attendant headlines and airtime, which means only one thing.

I can look forward to another five years of being hailed as “Craig” by my dry cleaner, my stockbroker and other strangers.

It’s a textbook case of Familiarity Displacement Syndrome. When a shared surname is otherwise uncommon, the first name of the more renowned person encroaches steadily on the other’s, much in the way chickweed takes over my backyard. And since there were eight straight Bloomsdays back in the 1980s and ’90s when newspaper pictures and TV video showed Blanchette blazing across the finish line in his racing wheelchair in first place, well, “Craig” I was going to be.

Hey, it could be worse. Could be “Tiger.”

Of course, identity is a small thing to sacrifice if it means welcoming back Bloomsday’s most irrepressible character, whether he finishes first or 51st.

“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Blanchette said this week from his home in Battle Ground, Wash. “Maybe I’ll have a good couple of miles and then fall apart. But I’m going to have a ball either way, and when I cross the finish line there’s not going to be anything left.”

Not that this is the same Craig Blanchette who ruled the Bloomsday road 20 years ago.

Do not expect a cinnamon-red dye job or double-digit earrings. The shirt may or may not be hot pink. Family has long ago replaced flamboyance as a priority, and if not exactly measured Blanchette has at least mellowed. He’s 40.

He’s even in the – gulp – masters division.

“Well, ideally, my goal is not to spend a lot of time there,” he said with a laugh. “If I’m racing, I still want to race with the fastest guys.”

Even if his being back at Bloomsday is mostly an accident.

He raced here for four more years after his last victory in 1994, and then made a cameo in 2002. But after setting 21 world records and winning a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, wheelchair racing began to lose some of its appeal and he turned his devotion to handcycling – and, soon enough, began winning national championships in that discipline.

“Basically, I liked going fast and handcycling is a lot faster,” he explained. “It seemed like a natural progression. It’s a lot more accessible sport than wheelchairs, more accommodating. And there was the ability to make some money there, too.”

But as often happens in too many sports, keeping up isn’t always just a matter of keeping fit.

Technology changes and equipment advances began to happen overnight, and one year Blanchette showed up “barely able to stay with the leaders.” The sponsor he was racing for wasn’t able to respond to the changes quickly enough. With a growing family and a career in computer and tech sales to build, he drifted away from the racing racket.

And his old racing chair? Well, he’d haul it out once a year for a race with kids at Columbia River High School in Vancouver. He’d do the Portland Marathon. But it wasn’t until 10 weeks ago when he found himself between jobs that his original coach, Kevin Hansen, invited him down to Eugene, Ore., to help with an all-state track meet. He hadn’t been in his chair on a track in five years, but he did a mile time trial in 4 minutes, 46 seconds – which Hansen found intriguing.

“You want to train and see what you can do?” Hansen asked.

“Well, I’ve got some time on my hands,” Blanchette replied.

Fifteen dropped pounds later, he’s back at Bloomsday with a love revived.

“It’s sparked something new at this stage in my life,” he said. “It’s great to work with my old coach again. We talk about some of the things we did, the pursuit of mastering a sport – not just being good at it, but mastering. And I love to race. I love everything about it. I love playing with the equipment, I love waxing my chair, I love squeezing seconds here and there – and strangely enough, I love to train now and I never used to.”

And that he’s chosen Bloomsday as the place to try it again should be no surprise.

“If you were to stack up all the races I did, Bloomsday is at the top, clearly,” Blanchette insisted. “I love the downhills. I lived in Cheney for a while, so it’s my home. And if I was ever kind of a famous guy, Spokane is the place where that happened.”

Don’t take his word for it. Just ask my dry cleaner.

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