Wheelchair Racers Jim Knaub and Candace Cable Are on a Roll as They Push Toward Their Olympic Debut

updated 06/25/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/25/1984 01:00AM

Like many Olympic hopefuls, Jim Knaub and Candace Cable suffer, sweat and struggle. They struggle to find corporate sponsors who will help them defray training expenses. They suffer and sweat through days that often begin with miles of roadwork and conclude with weight lifting and conditioning for Knaub and swimming and yoga for Cable. Neither has time for a serious romance. But, however they fare in the upcoming Olympic test, both should win awards for their rare kind of raw courage. Cable and Knaub are paraplegics who race in their wheelchairs.

This summer both Knaub and Cable hope to compete in the first wheelchair races ever held at an Olympics. On Aug. 11, before 92,000 spectators at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, eight men will race 1,500 meters in lightweight chairs made of aluminum, stainless steel and, in Knaub's case, titanium. The women's event is 800 meters. Since these are "exhibition" events, winners will not receive official Olympic medals.

The 16 finalists will be chosen out of more than 70 competitors from around the world at next week's trials in New York. The man responsible for the races is the president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, Peter Ueberroth, who pushed for their inclusion because, he says, "there is no better example of the Olympic spirit than these athletes."

One way or another Jim Knaub, 28, was going to the Olympics. A top college pole-vaulter in the U.S. for Long Beach State nine years ago, he was a semifinalist at the '76 Olympic Trials and had confidently set his sights on making the '80 team. A traffic accident involving a drunk driver smashed that dream in 1978 and left the 6'2" Californian paralyzed from the waist down. Because of his superb condition, however, Knaub completed his six-month rehabilitation in six weeks and boldly checked himself out of L.A.'s Ranchos Los Amigos Hospital. "I think it's pretty easy to understand why I was in such a rush," he says. "When you get your ass run over and survive, you've been given good motivation for trying to be the best."

At the rehab hospital Knaub had watched the 1978 New York Marathon, in which wheelchair racer Bob Hall went the distance in the rain. "I was mesmerized," he remembers, "and instantly made the decision to get into racing myself." Since then Knaub has won the Boston Marathon twice; indeed, his 1983 time of 1:47:10 is 21 minutes faster than Alberto Salazar's world record for a runner.

His wheels have taken Knaub, who lives alone in a Long Beach studio apartment, to Hollywood as well as Boston. In addition to designing and promoting racing wheelchairs for Invacare, a medical-equipment firm, Knaub boasts several acting credits. He made TV sitcom history when he appeared as the first disabled actor to play a disabled character, on a '79 Happy Days show. Since then he's appeared in M*A*S*H, The Fall Guy, The A-Team and The Love Boat. He takes, he admits, the same attitude toward acting that he takes toward racing, the Olympics and life. "When someone says to me, 'You can't do that,' I say, 'What the hell are you talking about? I just did!' "

Four years ago life in a wheelchair had Candace Cable, now 29, addicted to heroin. She lived, she says, "in a black hole," watching TV and using her insurance money to buy drugs. Today, she declares, "A person in a wheelchair is not supposed to have fun or be happy. I'm both. Besides, I get the best parking spaces at shopping centers, and I don't have to wait in line at the movies."

At 18, Cable lied about her age and landed a job as a blackjack dealer in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Two years later, a car accident, also involving a drunk driver, left her paralyzed from the waist down. Cable lived in a pharmaceutical haze until she checked herself into a drug rehabilitation program in 1978. Encouraged to exercise, Cable first swam and then began wheelchair racing because it allowed her to work out with jogging friends. A coach, noting her talent, trained Cable for four months, whereupon she earned a berth on the U.S. team that competed at the 1980 World Games for the disabled. Since then, she has won several marathons.

Although she has taken a year's leave from school to train for the Olympics, Cable intends to complete her degree in social work and physical education at Long Beach State, near her Huntington Beach apartment. She wants to share her positive approach with disabled children. "We're all only able-bodied temporarily," she points out. "Sooner or later everyone's body breaks down. That puts me ahead of the game because I already know how to live with part of me being out of order."

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