This is the story of Craig Blanchette, a fellow Olympian and Paralympian who I had the honor of competing alongside as members of Team USA during the 1980s and ‘90s. It is a story of his tremendous courage, perseverance and overcoming adversity throughout his life. Craig was born with a birth defect called Proximal femoral focal deficiency (PFFD), but in true Olympic spirit, he states that he is just living life to the fullest. In the process he became a world-class champion, setting 21 world records and earning 8 World Champion titles. He was born with the desire to compete and to get the most out of every experience. His athletic accomplishments and winning attitude landed him a full Nike sponsorship that lasted 8 years, and today he coaches others to be their best.
Craig Blanchette and Kevin Saunders both won gold medals at the Victory Games in Long Island, New York.
Although he was born without normal legs due to PFFD, Craig has an amazing attitude about his situation. He never asks, “Why me?” Instead, he exclaims, “WHY NOT?!”
Craig Blanchette Knows Nothing About Limitations!
I know you’ll find his story inspiring as you take your life to the next level in fitness, sports, business, work or family. It will help you Take Shape for Life in all you do! I think you will agree after reading Craig Blanchette’s story there are No Limits to “Finding a Champion Within.”
Craig’s Early Years
Craig was born in Torrance, California in 1968 with PFFD. It is a rare, non-hereditary birth defect that affects the pelvis, particularly the hip bone, and the femur bones. In Craig’s case, he was born with his feet at his knees. His hip sockets and upper leg bones weren’t fully formed and are still that way to this day.
Craig went to a regular public school with other able-bodied kids in Torrance until the third grade. While in first grade, his parents divorced. Craig’s mom worked as a cook at a restaurant.
As he grew up, he decided that he didn’t want the other kids to stare at him because he was different. Instead, he wanted them to stare at him because of something extraordinary he could do. In sixth grade, Craig got involved with wrestling. In high school he ended up with a winning record of 12 wins and 6 losses as a varsity wrestler in the 106 lb. weight class. Craig enjoyed competition and knowing that he was a capable athlete.
“I never looked at myself as disabled. What does that even mean? I’m different! Everyone is different from other people. Sometimes the differences are small, sometimes they are larger. We are all unique human beings in many ways!”
Craig also enjoyed the social side of school. He was heavily involved in photography, and served on the Yearbook staff during high school.
Because of his involvement in wrestling and training, Craig said he had developed his upper body so he was stronger than most of his classmates.
“I did whatever I wanted without fear. I enjoyed impressing others with physically challenging things I could do, but they couldn’t.”
Craig Blanchette, on high school
Furthermore, Craig didn’t see his birth defect as a disadvantage. When other kids asked him what it was like to have short legs, he replied, “I’ll try to explain…but first tell me what is it like to have long legs?” He had never known anything other than the legs he was born with, so that was normal for him. Even at a young age, he wasn’t concerned about what he couldn’t change. Instead, he focused on being and doing everything he could.
“In life, many people get stuck with an obstacle. They say, ‘I can’t.’ I change those words into ‘How can I?”
Craig was involved in sports his entire life – swimming, weight lifting, and wrestling – and athletics were a strong part of his identity. He discovered wheelchair sports in August 1984 through a neighbor and soon-to-be Coach, Kevin Hansen.
Craig’s first professional wheelchair race was the 1986 Wheels of Fire in Seattle Washington. He finished an astonishing 5th place in a field of over 250 racers from around the world. Craig beat long time legend George Murray (who in 1984 had been featured on the cover of a Wheaties box) and other racers who were already competing in and winning international events.
George Murray on the box of Wheaties, 1984
This great showing in his first race allowed Craig to get a sponsor for a new, state-of-the-art racing wheelchair developed by Jim Martinson. Martinson had undergone an amputation after his squadron tripped a landmine in Vietnam. But this athlete, who had once had the ambition of becoming a ski racer, continued to pursue his athletic passions while building innovative equipment like racing wheelchairs and mono skis. Martinson’s new wheelchair would help Craig capture impressive victories.
In 1987 in Tampa, FL , Craig beat George Murray, one of the top 10K wheelchair racers in the USA and across the world in the Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K, breaking the world record in the process!
In 1988, Craig competed in the exhibition wheelchair race at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Craig raced in the open 1500 meter race and led for three laps. Coming out of the last turn toward the finish line, Mustapha Badid from France and Belgium’s Pol Van Winkel, who had been drafting Craig for just over 3 laps, came around to outsprint him by fractions of a second to the finish line. Craig would finish third, winning the Bronze medal with a time of 3:34.37. Badid’s first place finish time was 3:33.51, and Van Winkel finished in 3:33.61. Less than nine tenths of a second separated the finishers in these the top 3 spots. He was young and learning at the time, and this race provided valuable lessons that Craig attributes many of his later wins to. Of course, the biggest lesson is not to lead from the front if others are drafting.
Nike approached Craig with a full sponsorship offer that year, a reflection of his flashy character and success as a top athlete in the new sport.
The following year, 1989, with renewed determination, Craig set out to topple George Murray’s record time of 3:59.4 in the 1 mile race distance. When the day for his attempt came at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, OR, his team was dismayed to see that strong winds were going to thwart any record-setting attempts. However, Craig’s “Why not?” attitude wouldn’t let him miss an opportunity to race his best race.
Although his first 400m were slower than record pace at 1:02, he hit the 800m mark in 1:58 and Coach Hansen nodded the go-ahead. The 3rd lap was a scorcher, completed in just 52 seconds. By that moment, Craig felt the adrenaline rush and knew he had to compose himself for a strong and steady push to the end. “I just remember hitting the hand rings down the last backstretch trying to keep my form.” he says. “And moving the steering in the last turn.” He crossed the finish line in 3:51.0, decimating the previous record by 8.4 seconds.
In 1987, 1989 and 1991, Craig won over $100,000 dollars in prize money, competing in the largest races with wheelchair divisions. Among those victories were races like the Gasperalla, the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane, Washington, the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, Georgia and other major races across America and around the world.
Prior to the 1992 US Olympic Trials, Craig had agreed to be part of a research study that had him push 1 mile in his wheelchair everyday. Because the pushing motion was different from his racing chair, anytime Craig would sprint it would result in a lot of tension in his neck and shoulders. Craig had put off doing the exercise for the study until the last moment and ended up completing the mile a few days before leaving for the Olympic trials. Once he landed, Craig sought out a massage therapist to try and relax his muscles and recover so he would be ready for his races. Unfortunately, while his muscles did start to loosen, there was not enough time for his body to get rid of the lactic acid, dulling his performance in the event. He recalls, “My mind said: ‘Go 18 mph!’… but my body said, ‘All we have is 15!’”
Four years later, at the 1996 US Olympic Trials in Atlanta, Craig suffered another disappointing finish. A fellow competitor, Scot Hollonbeck, taunted him at the line about sharing in the work and not just riding the draft. Craig’s ego kicked in, and he responded by leading from the start early on. However, by the third lap, it was clear that he had “hit the wall” and would not be able to sustain the effort at that intensity. The pack soon charged past him, and this time he could not close the distance. He would finish 5th in a race where only the top 4 make the cut. Hollonbeck went on to capture the Silver medal in the 1500m finals at the Atlanta Games.
Craig at NY Nationals
Though the experience was a disappointment, Craig took it as a learning opportunity. As Doug Kennedy said, “When you’re out there racing, there’s 1st place and all the rest!” Craig’s attempt to “pull” from the front relying mostly on his ego ended up proving that he simply was not in the shape he needed to be to qualify at this level. As he had learned to do at a young age, Craig would deal with the cards he was dealt and count it as another opportunity to learn and improve.
In 2000, Craig moved beyond wheelchair racing, into an exciting new sport called hand-cycling. His first race didn’t end well. Not because of race strategy or fitness, but because of equipment failure. His chain came off on the first lap and got lodged in the frame, requiring Craig to dismount his hand-cycle to free it. By the time is was free and working properly the lead pack was ¾ lap ahead! Later, Craig learned that when he shipped his hand-cycle the way it was packed bent his derailleur. The misaligned component caused the chain to get stuck. Craig modified the packing procedure and this would never happen again. Craig would win every remaining race of the season, and the world took notice as he successfully defended each victory. He went on to win the U.S. hand-cycling title in 2000 and 2001.
Doing for Others
Craig now owns Crave Optimal Health, a healthy lifestyle company based in Vancouver, WA, which he founded in 2010. There, he coaches people on life transformation techniques using a “Healthy Habits System,” created by Dr. Wayne Scott Andersen. Most of his clients are between the ages of 30-60, and he works with them personally on goals in the following areas of their lives:
- Healthy Body – Weight loss and healthy weight sustainability, practical healthy fueling, proper hydration, sleep and movement.
- Healthy Mind – Relationships, stress management, goal setting and attaining, spiritual health.
- Healthy Finances – Vocational health, abundance creation, financial stability.
As a lifestyle coach working with a diverse range of people, Craig is keenly aware of the issues facing anyone who is trying to become healthier. He’s seen it all – whether it’s negative self talk about one’s capabilities, detrimental habits, or not putting the necessary effort into health and wellness, or life goals. He starts by taking an honest assessment of a Client’s present situation. He calls that “Current Reality.” Craig comments that current reality is “an acquired taste!” Then Craig talks about what “reality” would look like to them if it was closer to their ideal. Finally, he helps them understand the steps necessary to achieve their goals. But it takes more than that, and that’s where his own life experience comes in.
“From as far back as I can remember I have had times where there was something I wanted to do (or needed to do) that was going to be a big challenge…maybe even a challenge I didn’t think I could do. Sometimes even one that others said I couldn’t do. I came up with a motto: Change your words from, ‘I can’t’ to, ‘How can I?’ This simple shift in words can change your life. By doing this you’re exposed to a whole new world out there that was inaccessible before.”
Craig’s racing life also taught him the need to enter into a tough, determined mental state. He shares, “You look at yourself in the mirror and honestly say. ‘I’m going to get there and I’m going to dominate!’”
Craig’s belief is that once you determine if there’s something you truly want, you need to know that there will be obstacles. No matter how big the obstacle is…if what you desire is on the other side, then you will need to learn how to get over, around, under or THROUGH it! He adds, “If the obstacle is Giant, learn how to tunnel! Never settle when it comes to your dreams!”
“Think about the hard things in your life that you worked for. Diamonds, for example, are hard to find. It comes down to a simple reality. You cannot get to the “Good” without the “Hard.” Another example, think about a pair of photos showing an amazing view from a mountaintop. One was downloaded from Google Images, and the other you took personally by hiking or climbing your way to the top of the mountain. It’s showing the exact same view, but which one has more value? The one you worked for, of course. If you think about it, the actual value of an object or some experience is in how rare or hard it is to achieve or acquire it!”
Craig asks every one of his clients if what they want is worth all the hard work it will take to achieve. He follows that with, “If it is, then what’s stopping you from pursuing it with all you’ve got? Embrace the hard…We’re talking about your dreams, after all!”
Craig also points out that one of the key factors in being successful is skill development. We’re all going to have a choice as we face the obstacles on the path to our goals – either we increase our work to overcome the obstacle, or we decrease our dreams. Wouldn’t you rather work harder than settle? He reflects, “There is tremendous value in effort and work when you put in the effort and achieve it! You simply can’t get that ‘I DID IT!’ feeing without earning it.”
Craig is also a co-director at the National Wheelchair Sports Camp, a week long summer camp that gives physically challenged children and adults an opportunity to participate in sports such as horseback riding, water skiing, basketball, softball, tennis, zip lining, and many others in a supportive environment. Alongside Camp Director, Bob Bardwell, their mission is to provide a “can-do” atmosphere for participants that opens up new possibilities in their lives.
“National Wheelchair Sports Camp is a unique place on the planet! It levels the playing field for all. The old excuses of ‘I can’t because I’m in a wheelchair’ simply don’t apply there. We really get to connect and achieve amazing things together. It’s something you can’t quite understand until you’ve attended.”
This year’s 2017 Wheelchair Sports Camp takes place June 9-15, at Ironwood Springs Christian Ranch in Stewartville, MN. Other notable wheelchair athletes who are actively involved with the camp include Jim Martinson, Rafael Ibarra, Brad Parks, Scot Hollenbeck, Jeff Murralt and Dave Kiley.
Though Craig’s philosophy of personal accountability means he accepts when he wins or loses, (make no mistake that he doesn’t like losing) without regret for the decisions that took him there, he believes that fairness should always be a part of the game. In his view, the whole point of sports is trying to limit the unfair advantages and keeping the playing field even. A competitor’s size, speed, ability or work ethic or tactical strategy is where he or she can gain a fair advantage. He believes the focus should be on what a person CAN DO not what they CAN’T DO.
The same goes for living the life you want to live. Craig married in 1992, and became a father soon after. He found that in making the decision to start a family, he was confronted with another choice: focus on his family, or continue to put every ounce of energy and effort into being an Olympic champion at the 1500m wheelchair race.
When he had been racing, race preparation was everything to him. His whole life revolved around training to perfection, eating right, getting the proper amount of rest and massages – the life of an elite athlete. It also required a single-minded mental focus that was simply not compatible with being married. Craig did not know how to race any other way. He decided to give up professional wheelchair racing, because it was all-or-nothing to him, and he wanted his family life to flourish.
“I take it less seriously now. I enjoy racing for fitness and training. I call it hobby racing.”
Nowadays, Craig enjoys coaching others on health and helping them reach their goals. While pro racing is in his rearview mirror, he adds, “I’m training other people, growing as a husband and father, and still going pretty fast in my racing chair or hand-cycle. With hand-cycling I’m getting back in really fit shape! I love going fast!”
Craig believes that this balance allows him to maintain a healthy lifestyle and coach other people to reach and surpass their fitness goals. He’s also helping others become certified as Health coaches and trainers, making it so that they, too, can extend the positivity to the people around them.
At Crave Optimal Health, Craig has found successes that are both personally and financially rewarding. Most of the people he works with are between 30 and 60 years old, and they are interested in becoming fit or staying that way. He’s not just focused on weight management, though – his approach is built around the complete individual.
Craig’s Lifestyle Coaching Approach
Physical health resulting from adopting sustainable healthy habits.
Includes: Improving one’s physical health by achieving a healthy weight and broadening one’s activities to include a healthy range of movement; empowering others to create health rather than react to disease; shifting mindset and habits to live a healthy lifestyle.
Emotional health resulting from the opportunity to live a life with less physical and financial stress.
Includes: Bringing meaning, purpose, and confidence into your life by being part of a worthy cause and community; opening doors to engagement in your career; effectively managing stress; addressing the underlying behaviors of poor health; and moving towards Optimal Health™.
Financial health resulting from a compensation plan that lets you earn based on your efforts and build your financial future.
Includes: Sharing the opportunity for additional income; financial stability and abundance; mentoring others along the business path; developing a stable business; leaving a legacy; and building an annuity by planning your long-term future.
In this manner, Craig and the individual can see where they are at present time. Then they can build a program towards where they want to be. He feels that while anyone can desire the goal, few people understand the series of steps it takes to get there, or how to achieve it with the appropriate amount of effort. That’s the core basis of the trilogy of Optimal Health.
Simply put, Craig looks for other people like himself to partner with. People who are not as healthy as they want to be and are willing to do something about it.
“You go through life and you’re faced with lots of challenges and when you look at a challenge, you can assess it in 2 ways.
- You can look at it and say ‘That’s too BIG of an obstacle, I can’t do it!’ Or you can change those words around just a little and say:
- ‘How can I [do that]?’ Because if the thing you want is getting in great shape for the Lean Body Challenge is on the other side of the obstacle and you say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Then you’ll never see around that!
“I think you open a whole new world of possibilities when you change the questions from ‘I can’t achieve this weight loss or these fitness goals’ and ask: ‘How can I achieve my weight loss and fitness goals?’ It’s amazing to me when people are saying: ‘I can’t do this…I can’t do that.’”
How do you get started? Remember that each goal can be broken down into smaller steps. First you achieve one of those small tasks on your list. You achieve one thing, then the next thing. Then before you know it, you’re pretty much there, with the momentum of action carrying you forward. Many of us try to accomplish great things “on our own.” I sincerely believe you simply cannot be the person you desire without others.
How do you win? When you’re competing to win you must focus on winning! There’s a big difference between competing to win, and competing “not to lose”. You get very different outcomes when you compete to win – whether your goal is body transformation, career advancement, making deals or racing. You’re willing to make sacrifices you normally would’nt make otherwise. Change your mindset and start training to win in your fitness, nutrition, school and business goals!
This was a great example of what we can do and achieve in life when we apply some of Craig’s life philosophy of developing a Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, and Healthy Finances. There’s really NO LIMIT to what we can achieve! So get out there and when you keep saying to yourself: “How can I do that?” Or “How can I develop lean body muscle mass?” Make it a habit to ask these questions in every area of your life and you’ll find yourself achieving things you might have thought were not possible. Soon you’ll be looking in the mirror at a brand new YOU!