How Canadian wheelchair racing pioneer André Viger inspired an entire generation of athletes
By Wendy-Ann Clarke
Canadian Paralympic Media Consortium
Sept. 16, 2016 — Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – While reluctant to accept the title of wheelchair racing legend after earning his sixth Paralympic medal last night, a bronze in the 800m, Brent Lakatos has joined the ranks of Canadian greats such Chantal Petitlerc, Rick Hansen and Jeff Adams.
Filled with emotions on what could be the 36-year old Lakatos’ last Paralympic Games, his achievement befittingly falls at the 10-year mark of the passing of the man who broke down barriers for them all — André Viger.
Regarded at times as more of a myth than a man, stories of the character, the personality and the trailblazer that was Viger are still on the minds of those in the wheelchair racing world who knew him well.
“I think that André was already a legend when I started wheelchair racing.” Chef de Mission, Chantal Petitclerc reminisced. “In fact he was the only para-athlete known at the time when I had my accident in the beginning of 1983. He was already a champion. Already winning races and a role model especially in the province of Quebec.”
Peter Eriksson, aong time friend of Viger and head coach for Athletics CAnada, calls the three-time Boston marathon wheelchair winner the “toughest competitor I ever saw, a man who showed the next generation of racers what it meant to leave it all out on the track.
“At the Boston Marathon one year he crashed twice and was bleeding from his head,” said Eriksson who was his coach at a wheelchair exhibition race at the 1988 Olympics. “He had two back wheels with no tires and a flat front wheel and he still finished fourth.
“When I asked him why he didn’t stop, he looked at me and said, ‘why would I stop? I’m not finished until I pass the finish line.’ That was the kind of mentality this guy had, it was all about performing all the time, and he inspired youngsters showing them they could do the same.”
A trailblazer in her own right, Petitclerc says Viger had a relentless determination to bring wheelchair racing to the forefront of society, at a time in the 1980s when it was something many people had never seen before.
“I remember once when I was a 20-year-old rookie, we were at a 10k race in Quebec,” Petitclerc said. “When we got there the race organizer took one look at us, got scared and said, ‘Oh no, we can’t have you in the road race.’ Andre told him, ‘It’s okay we do it all the time.’
“I was scared we would get kicked-out and wanted to go home, but Andre told me to stay and went to the start line and refused to be physically pulled out. I think I was more scared of him than the organizer, so I did the 10k.
“That’s how he made it happen. He fought for us in every step until he was on the cover of newspapers and people would invite him to their races. He had to really push those doors open.”
Viger competed at the Paralympic Games five-times and earned numerous awards and accolades including the order of Canada in 1989. He owned a wheelchair retail store in Montreal that became a hub for wheelchair racers like Petitclerc, Diane Roy and a then, young-up-and coming 16-year old racer named Brent Lakatos.
“Viger was contacted by a foundation that wanted to get some kids involved in wheelchair racing” Lakatos said. “He had gotten one of Chatal Petitclerc’s chairs second hand and he gave it to me. I went on the street in front of my house, I took the first push and I thought, ‘I’m the fastest guy in the world. It turned out that I wasn’t because I got beaten by everyone in my first race.
“Andre took me under his wing, taught me to do corners on the track and give me advice. He was always like a father figure.”
Now two decades after he got that first chair from Viger, with a 100m victory on Saturday night, Lakatos has proven he is now in fact the fastest T53 racer in the world — a moment he is still glowing about five days later.
“I guess that day was 20 years in the making,” Lakatos said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. I was very emotional.
“My wife said, and I bet it’s true, ‘You didn’t even cry at our wedding,’ It was a really special night.”
Lakatos who is competing in his fourth Paralympics will go for his seventh Paralympic medal on Saturday evening in the 4x400m relay.