The starting gun was fired on Monday, September 8 for the US Paralympic Sailing team in Qingdao, China as racing begins for up to 25 nations in three fleets at the satellite Olympic sailing venue through Sept. 13.
For the team of six disabled U.S. athletes, the struggle to get to that starting line cannot be underestimated. Primarily handicapped through events encountered in their adult lives, these lifelong sailors don't just talk about overcoming adversity, they live it every day.
Disabled sailing has evolved as a worldwide sport and was included in the Paralympics at Sydney in 2000. For many of these athletes, the transition from able-bodied to disabled sailors brings their prior sailing knowledge and more recent physical limitations to the highly competitive playing field.
"These other sailors here are more than just sailors in the Paralympics, more than just great competitors, they are accomplished individuals that did not 'get over' their disabilities by accident," said Maureen McKinnon Tucker, 43, of Marblehead, Mass. who is competing with skipper Nick Scandone, 43, of Newport Beach, Calif. in a Skud-18. "They are champions in life too, and we are fortunate to know and compete with these other sailors and to have their camaraderie and respect."
For McKinnon Tucker and Scandone, getting to the Paralympic games has been especially challenging as Scandone suffers from the progressive disease of ALS - commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease and McKinnon- Tucker, who became paralyzed from the waste down in 1992 after a fall; learned her young son has a brain tumor this year.
"First, we overcame the doubters that time wasn't on Nick's side with his ALS. Then, folks thought we would drop out due to the challenges of my son's illness," continued McKinnon Tucker. "Luckily, his treatments have gone smoothly with his type of brain cancer. Nick and I both realize that we have defied the odds just be here, so when I hoisted our American flag emblazoned spinnaker, it was a moment I will never forget."
As the beauty of Paralympic sailing lies in its speed and relative ease of motion on the race course, sailing is also a mental sport that has quickly gained wide appeal in countries like Brazil, England, China, and the Philippines.
"The challenges of disabled sailing are primarily boatwork," McKinnon Tucker said. "There is arguably more boatwork to be done and in addition to tweaking all our sailing systems, we need to be constantly adjusting to compensate for our physical limits," said McKinnon Tucker. "Each team needs a boatswain to assist us, especially when our boats are up on their trailers and we are down here in our wheelchairs."
One colorful way the team copes with their physical limitations is through their mascot and secret weapon, Morrow, a Lab/Golden Retriever service dog that travels with the team to pick up and carry lifejackets, tools, crutches, and other small items. He is also able to pull wheelchairs up dock rams and assist in water rescues.
"I believe that our medals prospects are quite good. Each day we have to go out and sail our very best to the potential we have," said Betsy Alison, a world -champion sailor and the U.S. Paralympic coach. "The USA has always fielded contenders in international fields."
With a record number of 80 athletes sailing in 41 boats from 25 nations in Qingdao all this week, the U.S. team will certainly be in the medal hunt in all three classes.
"We have a strong and unified team here in Qingdao, here at the start of the Games. It has been a long, hard road to get here for each of these sailors and we're now on to the final act. ," Alison said. "They will all do their best on the water and on land to make their country and each other proud."