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LOS ANGELES MARATHON : A Team, to the End : Wheelchair Marathoners Couprie and Wiggins Work, Then Decide to Win Together

March 07, 1994|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Both are in wheelchairs.

Both are 31.

Both were disabled in motorcycle accidents.

Both compete in marathons.

Both are members of the same racing team.

And so, it should come as no surprise that Philippe Couprie and Paul Wiggins decided to add one more bond to the many ties that unite them by crossing the finish line together as co-winners of the men's wheelchair competition in Sunday's Los Angeles Marathon, timed in 1:34:52, the only dead heat in the nine-year history of the event.

Couprie, who comes from Pontoise, France, has been in a wheelchair since 1980. He finished 18th in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics Marathon and was third in last year's L.A. Marathon. His best previous finish was a second in last year's Oita Marathon in Japan.

Wiggins, who comes from Tasmania, was disabled in 1985. He started racing in 1988 and had competed in 10 marathons before Sunday. Wiggins had two previous first-place finishes--the Oz Day 10K and the Gasparilla 15K--both earlier this year.

Asked about his accident, Wiggins said: "I used to ride too fast."

But even in a wheelchair, he can't get enough of racing. Wiggins works out six days a week, covering 80-100 miles in that span. He is supposed to take one month a year off, but acknowledges sneaking off even during his rest period to log a few miles.

Couprie and Wiggins spent most of Sunday working together, trying to shake John Briggs, Scot Hollonbeck and Jan Mattern, last year's wheelchair winner.

"We swap positions," Wiggins said, explaining how he and Couprie alternated in the lead spot, the front man taking the full brunt of the elements.

"The other guy is behind where he can sit in the draft and get a rest.

"It's pretty tough for a guy (racing) alone. He doesn't have a chance."

Briggs' chances for victory ended when he got a flat tire at the 12-mile mark. Briggs continued, he and Hollonbeck leading for the first 20 miles, but, in the end, they were unable to hold off Couprie and Wiggins.

Jim Knaub, 37, of Long Beach, a three-time winner of this race and a winner in five of 10 Boston Marathons in which he has competed, also struggled Sunday after switching to a bigger hand rim.

"While everybody else was wheeling around in fourth gear," Knaub said, "I'm in third gear. It was kind of a rookie mistake, but I'll be back."

It wasn't until the last downhill stretch that Couprie and Wiggins were finally alone with the finish line ahead.

They looked at each other.

"Do you want to finish this together?" Wiggins asked.

"Fine, let's do it," Couprie said.

And that's what they did, clasping hands to the cheers of the crowd as they wheeled in front of the Coliseum and across the finish line.

"We decided to walk together. We decided to finish together," Couprie said.

"Either one of us could have won it," Wiggins said, "but so what? It's no big deal. This isn't only about winning."

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