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Friday, September 10, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Knaub Races To End Injustice

JIM KNAUB is a world-class competitor, a five-time Boston Marathon champion waging a battle against stereotypes. Knaub is fighting for acceptance of his sport, fighting to open eyes and doors and wallets for the wheelchair athletes who will succeed him.

Jim Knaub didn't grow up dreaming of wheelchair racing. Almost nobody does.

Wheelchair racing is thrust by misfortune upon athletes. It is a most difficult sport for athletes who have survived the most difficult circumstances.

Knaub was a pole vaulter at Long Beach State with a personal best of 17 feet, 7 inches. But 15 years ago, he was sitting on his motorcycle, waiting for a traffic light to change when he was hit from behind by a car.

The accident, broke his back and took away the use of his legs, but in the ironic way life twists, it also introduced him to the sport that would become his life's passion.

`It's a very bizarre deal'

Knaub, 37, who will continue his rivalry with Craig Blanchette in tomorrow's Wheels and Heels of Fire road race, knew something wasn't right on that day, 15 years ago. Some inexplicable vibrations told him something traumatic was about to happen.

"It's a very bizarre deal for me, because I knew," he said. "There was this thing inside of me that I knew this was going to happen. Even when I woke up that day, things just felt funny.

"And a couple of years later, when I was looking back on my life, it was like a puzzle had come together. I knew there were some real good things I could do from where I was sitting that I wouldn't have been able to do if I were able-bodied. And I knew there was a reason for what happened."

A year after the accident, he purchased his first racing chair. Like Ken Griffey Jr. wrapping his hands around his first bat, or Pete Sampras gripping his first racket, the chair and Knaub were a perfect fit.

Winning is only part of fight

Knaub started racing and started winning. He is a world-class athlete, the equal of Mike Powell and Noureddine Morceli, and a five-time Boston Marathon winner. Knaub's credentials are the stuff of Sports Illustrated covers and SportsCenter interviews.

But he isn't profiled in SI. You don't see him on SportsCenter. He is just a quick blip in the Boston Marathon coverage.

So, while he continues winning races, Knaub also fights a larger fight to help his sport gain a grip in the crowded and often close-minded world of sports.

"There is an irony to being a disabled athlete," he said. "You can do things like win the Boston Marathon, but then you're faced with an extremely humiliating side of disability. You can be the best in the world at something, but then you realize that, man, you do have this physical disability.

"In this sport, we seem to take such short steps, whether it's changing people's attitudes or being accepted as athletes.

"Let me put our struggle for acceptance in a nutshell. I won the Boston Marathon, broke the world record by four minutes. Sports Illustrated called me. It started out they wanted to do an article, then it was a profile.

"A photographer shows up at the house and I ask him where the writer is. He tells me he's the writer too. Says that's how they do the Faces in the Crowd. I told him, `I'm not a face in the crowd. I'm the first guy across the finish line at the Boston Marathon.' How many times do you have to win Boston before you get an article in Sports Illustrated?"

Problem of gaining acceptance

If you think Knaub sounds arrogant, he isn't. He is a traveling salesman for his sport who gets angry when the doors slam shut.

His is a battle against stereotypes. He fights to open eyes and doors and wallets for the wheelchair athletes who will succeed him.

"An article in Sports Illustrated would legitimize the sport," he said. "It draws attention to the other athletes, to your local guys who can go to the bank with the article and say, `This is the kind of recognition we can get as a sport. Now help me out financially.'

"Part of the problem with gaining acceptance is that, visually, physically we look different. As a society, we tend to put the word disabled or handicapped in front of whatever that person is."

Railing against injustice

Knaub's message is direct. Forget the prefixes, drop the labels, pay attention to the sport. Wheelchair racing has shown athletes that misfortune may change their lives, but it doesn't end them.

"Most able-bodied kids want to grow up to be Michael Jordan, not wheelchair racers," said Knaub, who is sponsored by the Washington State Potato Commission and nicknamed The Spud Stud. "But I've lived in this world and seen what the athletes can do, and it's mind-boggling."

Knaub didn't grow up dreaming of wheelchair racing. But he continues to rail against the injustices and race against the best so that future athletes who lose the use of their legs don't lose their ability to dream. ------------------------------------------------------------------- Wheels & Heels at fire race

Tomorrow - At 8 a.m., about 130 wheelchair athletes and 7,000 runners will participate in a race across the new Mercer Island floating bridge, which opens to eastbound traffic Sunday afternoon. Entry fee is $15 for walkers and runners, $25 for wheelchair racers. Call 368-3337 for entry form or information.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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