Top wheelchair racer nearly lost family due to sex addiction

Athlete changes his sport, then changes himself

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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photoAbove, Craig and Anita Blanchette stayed together through Craig’s unusual addiction for their sons Alexander, left, 16, and Quincy, 18. They have been married 19 years.

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photoCraig Blanchette in the prime of his athletic career.

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Let’s talk about sex.

What? That’s one of Craig Blanchette’s favorite topics.

Every Wednesday, the former world champion athlete merrily drives to Vancouver to converse with some of the most sexually-obsessed men in the Northwest.

“It gives my life meaning,” the 43-year-old Battle Ground resident said.

Let’s talk about lust.

Hey, that’s something Blanchette’s wife can’t seem to stop discussing.

Every Tuesday, Anita meets with a group of women to dissect that very subject and constantly finds herself chirping about other men.

This made Craig jealous at first. But not for the reason you might think.

“He was upset that I had more people in my group,” said Anita, whose group no longer has more people. “He said he was going to have to start recruiting.”

Good grief. Leave it to Blanchette to turn everything into a competition. Ever since he came into this world without femurs or kneecaps, Craig has been hellbent on triumph no matter who or what the opponent.

When he was told that he couldn’t turn a light off in his bedroom as a toddler, Blanchette learned to shimmy up the door jam like Spiderman until he could flick the switch.

When sports at Springfield High in Oregon appeared beyond his grasp, Craig lettered in wrestling and went 12-6 his senior year.

And when the world’s greatest wheelchair racers razzed that he would never join their elite class, Blanchette set 21 world records and got featured in Sports Illustrated.

Yes, there was a time when Craig was as feared in his sport as Tiger and Shaq were in theirs. From the late 1980’s through the mid 90’s, the rest of the field rarely saw anything but the back of his head.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason Blanchette became so consumed by the opposite sex. For once in his life, he was the one on the chase.

“He would never demean women. He was never that way. But he would look to go home with them — and he was very successful,” said Rafael Ibarra, Blanchette’s friend and former racing partner. “He was just a confident guy.”

Note to all balding, vertically-challenged males carrying featherweight wallets — there’s hope for you yet. Night in and night out, a legless Blanchette would woo runway-worthy women with nothing more than his charm.

Sure, Craig’s burgeoning celebrity intensified his allure. But Springfield High teacher Jim Fryback remembers Blanchette rolling into his classroom mid-afternoon — using his swagger as his hall pass — and chatting up the fittest females well before he was famous.

Anita has similar recollections, confessing that she was attracted to Craig the moment they met as teenagers because “he was just super cocky.”

Oh Anita, that may be the understatement of the century.

Tickled pink

Blanchette was an unknown before his first race in 1986. When he briefly led the pack wearing a T-shirt that said “SURPRISE!” on the back, the field quickly learned his name. Craig didn’t win that event, but he did the next, this time sporting a shirt reading “REMEMBER ME?”

A few months later in Tampa, home of George Murray — the sport’s dominant racer at the time — Blanchette again crossed the finish line first. His apparel didn’t disappoint, either. The slogan? “HURRY MURRAY!”

A pink hairdo, gold earrings and a diamond stud in his nose followed. He was as flamboyant as Andre Agassi, as brash as Muhammad Ali, and as dominant as both.

For years, Blanchette raced not just to win but to set world records. And if you can somehow fathom it — certain opponents couldn’t stand him.

Scot Hollonbeck vividly remembers his first conversation with Craig. Just a couple years after being paralyzed, the future Paralympian found himself hanging with the leaders in his first major race.

That’s when Blanchette turned to the rest of the pack and quipped “We must be going really slow, because Scot Hollonbeck is here.”

Scot didn’t so much see the humor.

“That sort of defined our early years,” Hollonbeck said. “Craig earned his way onto the wall in my training room. I actually kept photos, would study him, and probably had 50 to 100 hours of mental imagery on how to beat him.”

But Blanchette’s own dedication would prevent competitors from finding such satisfaction. Given the amount of testing he did, you weren’t sure if he trained in a tank top or a lab coat.

Craig would study everything from bearing grease, to cables, to chair wax, to helmet shapes — all as part of a scavenger hunt for hidden milliseconds. And it wasn’t just rivals that had to keep up, it was rule-book writers, too.

One time an opponent protested a Blanchette victory because he used an aerodynamic material. After all, the rules clearly stated that “nothing is to be used for the sole purpose of reducing air resistance.”

But Craig isolated the word sole and showed how the material also held his number in place. Begrudgingly, officials let him keep the win.

These antics didn’t do much to improve Blanchette’s reputation among his peers, but they sure had the sports media salivating. That’s why racers like Ibarra loved having Craig around, because for the first time in their careers, they weren’t DISABLED athletes — they were disabled ATHLETES.

“Before, it was always the standard ‘look how wonderful and inspirational these guys are.’ But then Craig came and it was like ‘don’t give me that inspirational stuff — this is true athleticism,’” said Ibarra, adding that Blanchette was actually affable and compassionate behind the scenes. “I was glad that the press noticed him, because we already knew who Craig was and what he was about.”

Actually, Rafael, you didn’t. Nobody did.

A silent torture

You ever hear those Netflix ads on the radio? Where a game show host asks something like “what is the square root of orange?,” gets an answer like “turquoise,” and then exclaims “Corrrrrrrect!”?

Well, Blanchette may be the one guy who doesn’t find those questions ridiculous, because 20 years ago, if someone were to ask “what does a conceited, promiscuous, rule-bending world champion with pink hair want more than anything?,” Craig would have answered, “A loving marriage centered around Christ.”

Turns out Blanchette spent time analyzing more than just aerodynamics and wind resistance. After extensive research, he concluded that Christianity was the key ingredient in long-lasting wedded bliss.

And at that point, matrimony outranked any mile or marathon on Craig’s priority list. For the 21-time world record holder, Husband of the Year would be the grandest of achievements.

“If I was going to win a gold medal at something, it would be a successful marriage,” Blanchette said. “I wasn’t going to be part of a divorced family. I wasn’t going to have kids where the parents could only visit them part of the time. But I just felt that God had to be a part of it, or our chances of success were very low.”

Safe to say that Anita was ticked about this condition. To her, this was like Santa requiring that Mrs. Claus get lipo. How could someone whose life was so peppered with sin suddenly ask her to convert and expect her to go through with it?

Easy. Anita was in love.

She and Craig briefly dated in high school and remained close friends for several years after. But in 1991 — after Anita’s engagement with another man fell through — Blanchette decided he wanted to upgrade the friendship to a romance.

Despite concerns that she would lose Craig altogether if the relationship failed, Anita couldn’t deny her affection for Blanchette’s sensitivity and “dorky humor.” So she gave him a shot, eventually embraced his religion, and married him.

Within three years, the couple had two sons and had bought their first home. Craig won three more wheelchair racing world championships, found similar success in handcycling, and morphed into a top-notch computer salesman.

Life, it seemed, was on Blanchette’s payroll, so it’s easy to see why he described his emotional state as...

“A silent torture,” Blanchette said.

Wait...what?

“There was a lot of pain in my life, and I wasn’t processing it properly. So I’d use my own kind of medication to temporary kill it.”

You mean like drugs or alcohol?

“No, I never got into that because of my athletic career.”

Then what was it?

“Quite frankly, it was pornography.”

The double life

Let’s talk about porn.

What’s the matter? Not comfortable with the topic? That’s probably because you’re a human being.

In an age where alcoholism garners almost as much sympathy as cancer, and where talk-show guests get ovations for going three weeks without heroin, pornography addicts are typically dismissed as perverts or “sickos.”

In the words of Dr. James Hancey, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health and Science University, “It’s funny. Nobody watches porn, but there sure is a lot of it out there.”

This is partly why Blanchette took so long to confront his compulsion. It is also why he drives to Vancouver every Wednesday — so that he can lead a work group focused on helping men overcome similar problems, stressing that they find the root of their pain instead of simply treating the symptom.

Craig’s pain began at the age of 7, when a procedure forced him to live in the hospital for nearly two months. His mother, Stephanie Tyler, visited him daily, but Blanchette would wail every time she left his room.

As Tyler repeatedly rushed back in to console her screaming child, feelings of separation anxiety blossomed within Craig. They stayed with him for more than 25 years.

But Blanchette’s suffering went beyond childhood trauma. Given his physical condition, he felt performing at a world-class level was the only path to true acceptance.

He added that this longing for approval fueled his promiscuity. And according to his mother, the pink hair and piercings were not designed to breed a rebellious image — but to simply divert attention from his lower body.

“I believe that if every elite athlete was honest, they would say that their motivation for being good was for their own personal sense of worth, and that they actually feel very low about themselves,” Blanchette said. “I became a professional athlete because I found my value in what I did, not in who I was.”

As time passed, Blanchette steadily increased his medication dosage. Evidence first surfaced when Anita discovered an issue of Playboy in the mailbox. Craig went with the classic defense — that he was just reading the articles. But his wife’s suspicion meter was officially activated.

A couple years later, after conferring with his pastor, a guilt-ridden Blanchette spilled every detail of his addiction to Anita — that he was viewing porn regularly and “living a secret life.”

Anita showed support and told Craig that they would work through it, a statement she’d repeat upon a second confession two years later.

In 1997, however, the emotional levees collapsed.

Having put the same energy into selling computers as he did racing wheelchairs, Blanchette’s post-athletic career was on its way to reaching Himalayan heights. Then one day his boss walked to his house, announced that she had discovered a profuse amount of pornography on his computer, and that he was fired.

And it all happened right in front of Anita.

“I was so humiliated. I felt like I was going crazy,” Anita said. “I was so done with the deceit and the lies. I felt like he was pretending to work on his issues, but he wasn’t...I just wanted to die.”

A comeback victory

Anita didn’t die, but every morsel of passion in her marriage did.

She and Craig stayed together for the children, and remained cordial around the house. But barring an accidental bump in the hallway, all physical contact ceased.

Trapped in a sparkless, sexless, trustless relationship, Anita eventually wore down and broached the subject of divorce in 2001. That’s when Blanchette, perhaps for the first time in his life, realized he was handicapped.

“When I was faced with the potential of losing my family, with having to visit my kids, it was just...it was bad,” Blanchette said. “I had a pain that I was a medicating, but the side effect of that medication was greater than the pain itself. That’s when I knew I had to figure things out.”

So Craig immersed himself in a Christian-based ministry called For Men Only, where he would attend weekly meetings at Summit View Church and work through a curriculum focused on processing pain and overcoming sexual addiction.

This is where he first confronted his abandonment and self-worth issues. This is where he began to fully understand the triggers for his behavior. This is where he would spend years improving himself with the same zeal he showed when trying to break away from the pack on the final quarter-mile.

And by the middle of the decade, his marriage was stronger than ever.

Anita compared the transformation in the relationship to “holding your breath underwater for years and finally coming up for air.” Craig, meanwhile, said that his marriage has surpassed the “10 out of 10” rating he used to long for.

And considering Blanchette spent most of his career leading, it’s only natural that he now heads up the Wednesday ministry — where he emphasizes the need for honest communication, teaches how to rejoice in God’s trials, and asserts that, while the Lord intended for sex to be a powerful force, it is only fulfilling when channeled toward one’s significant other.

Vancouver’s Leonard Locatis said Craig saved his marriage and taught him what a real friendship should be like. Fellow Vancouver resident Joe Barry added that before he met Blanchette, he never thought he’d kick his pornography habit because “it was such a shameful addiction that I could never talk about it with anyone.”

Anita, meanwhile, leads her own group at Summit View — Betrayal and Beyond — where women who have felt jilted by their husbands’ desires work through their demons. Oh, and if you’re wondering whether the Blanchettes’ kids know about all this, they do — every last detail.

Mom and Dad have had elaborate discussions with 18-year-old Quincy and 16-year-old Alexander. Should sexual content ever appear while the four are watching a movie, Craig and the boys will turn their heads until Anita gives them the OK to look back.

If for some reason “Showgirls” ever came on the family TV, the Blanchettes would look like they were watching a tennis match. But despite typical teenage curiosity, neither son has protested.

“We just really believe sex is a sacred act saved for marriage,” Alexander said. “If I see one of my friends watching something like that I’m thinking ‘what could be redeeming about this?’”

These days, Blanchette makes his living as a certified health coach at Take Shape for Life. He still races in world-class events, but doesn’t feel obligated to win. He also gives motivational speeches alongside former nemesis Scot Hollonbeck, who is now his close friend.

As to why Craig would reveal his life story to a newspaper?

“Hey, there are no secrets in my life,” he said.

And that might have some ramifications. Perhaps old friends will assign Craig the “pervert” tag. Or maybe Quincy and Alexander will endure some barbs at school.

Still, how many people would have the courage to discuss a problem like Blanchette’s?

A small number, most likely. But Craig — always so powerful down the home stretch — has never felt the need to look back.

“If you can’t talk about your brokenness, how can you ever be whole?” Blanchette said. “I want to be whole.”

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com