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Champion of Disabled Champions

Patrick Segal coaches wheelchair racers; he also climbs mountains, writes movies, and more. PROFILE

YOUR wheelchair is reaching a tire-squealing 50 m.p.h. down a steep incline. The brakes feel like rubber squeeze toys, the acceleration like that of an 18-wheeler semi. What do you do? ``Pray!'' says French wheelchair racing coach Patrick Segal with a twitch of his brow. Pray, and hope that you don't blow a tire or two - limping to the finish line on the rims the way he did in April at the Boston Marathon.

But despite his disappointment at two flat tires two months ago, the race was still reason for jubilation. Mustapha Badid, a member of the French team Mr. Segal coaches, hit the finish line with a world record-breaking time of 1:29:53. Segal hopes for a repeat performance from his team at the World Championships and Games for the Disabled in Assen, Holland, July 14-25.

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Segal's penchant for breaking limitations for himself and others is especially apparent from his long list of feats. When this supremely confident man isn't racing his state-of-the-art three-wheeler, he's zooming around Paris championing the needs of the handicapped. In 1989, he was elected to a six-year term as one of 20 vice mayors of Paris. And as president of the French organization Handicapped International, he works with governments worldwide to improve programs and facilities, and revise laws.

Author, mountain climber

During a pre-Boston Marathon dinner of gargantuan portions of crab legs and pasta, Segal expounded on a few of his accomplishments: He has written seven books and five documentary films; traveled worldwide - alone, in a wheelchair; worked as a physical therapist in numerous war zones; climbed Mt. Ama Dablam in the Himalayas with the French national climbing team; and started programs for the disabled in Venezuela, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia.

Segal began wheelchair racing in 1982 because ``I loved [sports] when I was young.'' (He was confined to a wheelchair in 1972 after a shooting accident.) He raced in the 1984 Paralympic Games for the Disabled in England, and again in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea. Although he still enjoys racing, this 42-year-old with biceps like steel cables and a torso like a tank spends more and more time coaching.

How has he achieved so much? He taught martial arts before the accident, and during his recovery drew heavily on its philosophy of meeting challenges. ``When I had the accident, I said, `Now maybe, I am facing something big.' ... I loved the way I had to fight for my survival,'' he says.

Segal was grateful to be alive, he says, and never let remorse set in. His greatest challenge came when he graduated from college with a degree in physical therapy: The doors to jobs closed one by one. ``No one wanted me in physical therapy because of the chair. So I said, `OK, this is so ridiculous. I'm going to go traveling around the world.'''

Despite protests from his parents, in 1974 he packed his bags, bought an airline ticket to China, and set off with $1,000 in his pocket. While in China, he got a job in South Vietnam working with UNICEF and the World Health Organization. It was near the end of the Vietnam war.

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``I worked for orphans, handicapped kids, handicapped soldiers,'' he says. ``The rockets sometimes fell in the courtyards of the hospitals.''

Two months later, Saigon fell and Segal was forced to leave. He moved to Indonesia where he practiced physical therapy for a while, then ``crossed half of Australia hitchhiking to go to Sydney.'' After a series of country-hoppings, including an excursion by mail plane to the Brazilian jungle and a boatride down the Amazon River, he returned to France.

But again he couldn't get a job in physical therapy, despite his experiences abroad. After much persistence, he landed a job with the Red Cross, and in 1976 started to practice physical therapy in Beirut during a heavy stage of the civil war there. He was assigned to the Christian side, but soon grew curious about conditions on the Muslim side. He decided to ``go and see what was the situation there. I did that for two months,'' he says, ``having friends all over.''

But these cross-border excursions were viewed as suspect: The Phalange Christians issued a death threat, and the Red Cross sent him back to France. He resumed work in physical therapy with the Eritrean rebels in 1980.

Between physical therapy jobs, Segal worked as a photographer for a French news agency and wound up photographing the 1976 Olympics and Paralympics in Canada. The experience led to the making of ``Sunny Nights,'' his first documentary. The subject was the 1980 Paralympic Games for the disabled in Arnhem, Holland. In 1981, the film received a UNESCO award at the Cannes Film festival. In 1985, Segal went to a Cambodian refugee camp, film in hand.

Refugees' Olympic games

``They were very surprised to see people like themselves, amputees who could jump, who could do thousands of things, and it was something just incredible,'' he says of the camp residents.

``Six months later ... when we came back to this refugee camp, the handicapped people had prepared Olympic games with a flag, with music. They painted the white [lines] in the dust of the camp to make a track. They played volleyball, they ran with wheelchairs, they ran with crutches. It was amazing.'' He returned with a crew to film them.

Throughout his travels he kept his pen flowing, and his first and best-known work, ``The Man Who Walked in his Head,'' was published in French and English versions in 1977. Now out of print, this autobiographical account sold more than 1 million copies. In 1986, while writing a movie script for one of his books, Segal met a French movie star and married her the following year.

``I found it was fairly easy to travel,'' he says of his world excursions, but they were not trouble-free. ``Airline companies actually make great difficulty for handicapped people,'' he says. On one trip from New York to Miami the airline wouldn't allow him to fly alone. Three airlines later, he finally found a flight - but to Ft. Lauderdale. ``I thought that in the States people were different from France. This was in 1985. The rules have not changed. They ask you sometimes to be with someone, like you are kids.

``People are taking advantage of us everywhere - taxis, transportation, renting apartments,'' he adds. While in Boston, a taxi driver ``tried to charge me $5 more just to put my chair in the trunk of the taxi. I refused, but this proves that being handicapped sometimes doesn't help.''

Such discrimination is one reason he decided to run for public office in Paris. ``As vice mayor, my responsibility is not only to change mentality, but to change the rules,'' he says.

His agenda roars along: a trip to Romania last month, Cambodia and Mozambique later this year. Last weekend, he went to southern France to collaborate with a French astronaut on a space camp for children.

But he still finds time for his racing team, which trains four or five hours a day. ``I want them to be ready for Olympics in 1992,'' he says. And to help make that a reality, he is working with an auto racing company to build a lighter, even faster, wheelchair.

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