CEN­TER OF EF­FORT

With or with­out Par­a­lympic sta­tus, be­ing on the wa­ter is the point.

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With or with­out Par­a­lympic sta­tus, writes Kimball Liv­ingston, be­ing on the wa­ter is the point.

O Los­ing Par­a­lympic sta­tus was a shock to all of us who see sail­ing as an ideal pur­suit for any­one who is blind or oth­er­wise liv­ing with a dis­abil­ity or de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease. We know that boats can be adapted to sup­port most, if not all, dis­abled peo­ple. How­ever, it’s also a fact that, in the par­lance of Olympic and Par­a­lympic com­pe­ti­tion, boats are not this won­drous thing that we call boats. They’re “equip­ment.” Equip­ment is ex­pen­sive, and therein lies the chal­lenge of get­ting enough coun­tries and con­ti­nents in­vested or rein­vested to re­gain Par­a­lympic sail­ing sta­tus for 2024. It can hap­pen — per­haps it will hap­pen — but 2018 is crit­i­cal. De­ci­sions will be made be­gin­ning in Novem­ber and an­nounced in late Jan­uary.

Un­til then, life goes on, so at this in­flec­tion point, I made the rounds to find out what’s up with adap­tive sail­ing in Amer­ica. The log­i­cal place to start was the US Sail­ing Cen­ter on Lake Michi­gan, Sail Sheboygan, host to the 2018 Para World Sail­ing Cham­pi­onships. Sail Sheboygan be­came an adap­tive sail­ing cen­ter overnight, four years ago, when a hur­ri­cane in Texas or­phaned the Blind Match Rac­ing World Cham­pi­onship. Sheboygan had no back­ground in adap­tive sail­ing, but quickly stepped up, “and it was good for our con­fi­dence,” says pro­gram di­rec­tor Matt Wierzbach.

From ob­ser­va­tion, Wierzbach adds that many peo­ple fear adap­tive sail­ing is too much to take on, but that over­looks the re­wards. Once Sail Sheboygan was in the game, it was all in. It pur­chased a set of the acous­tic sound marks that make full-blind match rac­ing pos­si­ble and soon broad­ened its scope to em­brace peo­ple with other chal­lenges. This is life in the fast lane. Sheboygan has come a long way in four years. Re­cent suc­cesses in­clude de­vel­op­ing a tech­ni­cal bite-steer­ing sys­tem for a sailor who has lost mo­bil­ity and whose ALS is too ad­vanced for even the more com­mon sip-and-puff con­trols.

Now stop. As I look back at my own words, they sound so mat­ter-of-fact. For that ALS pa­tient and his fam­ily, as the dis­ease pro­gresses, this is any­thing but mat­ter-of­fact. For them and oth­ers, even the small­est glim­mer of sail­ing free­dom comes mixed with tears of joy. The peo­ple who share their sto­ries with me are re­port­ing from the front lines. That’s how th­ese mis­sions go. Those 2018 Para Worlds are set to be sailed in Septem­ber off the low-ly­ing shores of Wis­con­sin, and Wierzbach hopes to meet or beat the turnout for the 2017 cham­pi­onship at Kiel, Ger­many, which drew 80 sailors from 39 coun­tries. Sail Sheboygan is work­ing with World Sail­ing to field de­vel­op­ment clin­ics around the world, he says, with a fi­nal clinic ahead of the big event.

Clin­ics mat­ter. The first-ever clinic for adap­tive sailors was a crit­i­cal in­no­va­tion 16 years ago, at the in­au­gu­ral Clagett Re­gatta in New­port, Rhode Is­land. The Clagett is as close to a clas­sic as you will find in this game, and 19 alumni have gone on to win Par­a­lympic medals. Re­gatta spokesper­son Sam Crich­ton sees new faces every year. A clinic is es­sen­tial for the 2018 Clagett, and also for the sep­a­rate Clagett/oak­cliff Sail­ing part­ner­ship match- rac­ing event, run­ning this Septem­ber af­ter

the Para Worlds and com­bin­ing the coach­ing tal­ents of Dave Perry and Dave Del­len­baugh on the wa­ters of Long Is­land Sound. Past par­tic­i­pants have in­cluded Par­a­lympic medal­ists Jenn French and Rick Do­err, as well as blind skip­per Pauline Dow­ell, who went from last in the 2016 in­au­gu­ral to first in 2017. The big­gest dif­fer­ence was know­ing there was a re­gatta at­tached to the clinic. Also, Crich­ton says, the sec­ond time, “We brought our mag­netic board and boats so my sighted crew could ‘il­lus­trate’ what Dave Perry was draw­ing on his board.” Race­course Braille, any­one?

Fur­ther along on my rounds, I find Rich White at Florida’s Clear­wa­ter Com­mu­nity Sail­ing Cen­ter. This is a guy who’s lived both sides of the equa­tion. White taught dis­abled sailors for years. Then, two years ago, while he was work­ing race com­mit­tee on a power­boat, he shat­tered his neck. “My first thought was that life was over and high-end sail­ing was gone for me,” he says today. “But no. Now I’m a para sailor.”

White is cam­paign­ing to add para sail­ing to Ju­nior Olympic events in his re­gion, but he re­ally lights up when he talks about his work with kids on the autism spec­trum. Let’s start with some harsh facts, as White lays them out: “Th­ese are ex­pen­sive dis­eases, what with ther­a­pies and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies’ re­fusal to cover the needs. Of­ten there’s a sin­gle par­ent deal­ing with more than one child and not enough band­width to have a full­time ca­reer. The other kids in the fam­ily know where the money goes, and why they don’t get to do some of what they want to do. And so, we teach ev­ery­body to sail. It’s a thing for the whole fam­ily.”

White’s jour­ney teach­ing autis­tic chil­dren be­gan five years ago when a mother called, and around him there was a cho­rus of “No way; too much li­a­bil­ity.”

“But I know I can teach any­body how to sail,” says White. “What we’ve seen since is that autis­tic kids are an­a­lyt­i­cal. They grasp the physics of sail­ing. And we’ve had par­ents bring us a hope­less in­tro­vert who turns into a chat­ter­box on the wa­ter.”

Lack of so­cial skills be­ing the great­est hur­dle, White is proud to say that six of his autis­tic kids are now teacher helpers. He de­scribes the pro­gram’s le­gendary “voy­ages” out to One Tree Is­land and tells me about the kid who rode silently for three years, re­fus­ing the helm, un­til that one day — yes, af­ter three years — when the boy said OK, “and he drove just fine; he had ab­sorbed ev­ery­thing.”

There is a catch in White’s voice at that. The man lives for those small but im­por­tant mo­ments, and that is a story to be told and re­told in dif­fer­ent ver­sions through adap­tive pro­grams all across the coun­try. The peo­ple who do this work live it with a pas­sion.

On the Par­a­lympic beat, there is a sunny/cloudy/ sunny op­ti­mism that sim­pler, cheaper “equip­ment” will bring in enough sailors, coun­tries and con­ti­nents to make sail­ing el­i­gi­ble for re­in­state­ment, and re­in­state­ment will fol­low. Only the sin­gle­handed 2.4 Nor­lin is pro­posed to carry over from pre­vi­ous Games. The RS Ven­ture is added as a dou­ble­handed boat, and then there is an ad­di­tional sin­gle­han­der, the dead-sim­ple Hansa 303, which ex­cites no one.

Amer­i­can sail­ing’s most re­cent Par­a­lympic gold medal­ist, Mau­reen Mckinnon, who won in 2008 with Nick Scan­done, pines for a more chal­leng­ing plat­form, but she’s philo­soph­i­cal. In her view, “Even a Sun­fish is high-tech com­pared to a Hansa. But there is no other way we’re go­ing to get enough boats and coun­tries to move the ball to con­vince the In­ter­na­tional Par­a­lympic com­mit­tee that we be­long.”

As to the Par­a­lympic hia­tus, the para­plegic mother of two says, “We just didn’t see this com­ing. We as­sumed the ad­min­is­tra­tors were do­ing their part so we’d meet the num­bers. Lately, I haven’t been par­tic­i­pat­ing be­cause I had to re­sume a role in the pay­check so­ci­ety, and it’s very hard to raise money to com­pete. Par­a­lympic sailors are still sec­ond-class ath­letes, but Betsy Ali­son at US Sail­ing has had suc­cess re­cruit­ing with th­ese more at­tain­able boats. I had wor­ried how much adap­tive sail­ing would suf­fer with­out its pin­na­cle event, but the game is not go­ing away.”

There also re­mains the un­flat­ter­ing com­par­i­son to other Par­a­lympic sports in Amer­ica, where com­peti­tors now re­ceive sup­port com­pa­ra­ble to Olympic ath­letes, and sail­ing still is not un­der­stood as in­clu­sive. Par­a­lympic sail­ing will need work if and when it comes back. But yes, Mckinnon is think­ing 2024. Q

With sail­ing ousted from the 2020 Sum­mer Par­a­lympics, ath­letes and sup­port­ers con­tinue to nur­ture and grow adap­tive sail­ing while the bat­tle for re­in­state­ment wages on.

PHOTO: COURTESY BETSY A L I S O N

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