2008 Paralympics medal presentation and congratulation - behind every one of the 78 Paralympic sailors there is an inspiring story - sadly too few got told in 2008.
Spending the last two weeks with the sailors, coaches, assistants, friends, families, care givers and International Association of Disabled Sailors (IFDS) officials during the 2008 Paralympics Sailing Regatta in Qingdao, China was the most rewarding experience of my career as a sailing journalist.
These people are amazing!
The challenges that they have overcome in getting to the Paralympics are many and varied. From physical disability, to learning how to sail, to finding funding, to staying healthy enough to compete – they have challenges. Do they ever complain? NEVER.
Is the sailing competitive? As competitive as it gets! There were plenty of sailors at the Paralympic regatta who have done and still do Olympic campaigns let alone Paralympic campaigns. There are national, hemispheric and world champions among them.
A glance at the scoreline of each class at the 2008 Paralympic Sailing Regatta will show you how close the competition was. Medal positions changed during the final day of racing just as much, if not more than it did during the Olympic Sailing Regatta. I asked Jens Kroker, the Gold medalist skipper in the Sonar class when he discovered that he won the Gold and he responded, 'About two minutes after we finished.
The Norwegians had to pass Australia for us to win and that did not happen until just before the finish line,' in a race where boats finished overlapped. The Germans’ reaction when they crossed the finish line was identical to that of the Brits when they crossed the finish line in the penultimate race of the 2008 Olympic Sailing Regatta, the Medal Race in the Star class. They raised their hands high and cheered and screamed just as any one achieving an accomplishment of a lifetime.
The US Sonar crew at the 2008 Paralympics in Qingdao
Who would have expected the French, who had dominated the Sonar regatta, but posted a few mid-fleet scores during the 11-race series, would have ripped their jib on the first run of the final race? Professional skipper, Bruno Jourdren, and his crew, Herve Larhant and Nicolas Vimont-Vicary were disappointed, but not for long.
They won a medal in a hard fought competition. The point separation among the top seven boats in the fleet was the closest of any of the 11 Olympic and three Paralympic Sailing events, and there was no short course, double-point Medal Race as there is in the recently developed, supposedly more media-friendly Olympic format.
The Medal presentations and closing reception were attended by all including spouses, children, parents, personal assistants, coaches, technical delegates, international jury members, IFDS delegates and volunteers. No one would miss it.
Canadian Sonar team, 2008 Paralympics Practice Race
These are real sportsmen and women. They know each others’ names. They congratulated one another and shared the triumph even if they didn’t have a Medal around their necks.
Israeli Sonar team. Defending Gold Medallists -Benny Vexler, top left, Arnon Efrati, top right and Dror Cohen in wheelchair
And boy do they know how to enjoy themselves! Being confined to a wheelchair didn’t stop John Ruf, the Bronze medalist in the 2.4 Meter from the USA, and his sister from stealing the dance floor for most of the night. Early in the morning, Nicolas Vimont-Vicary folded up his cane and shoved it in his back pocket as he turned his body toward the direction of the music.
'I would like to dance,' said the blind Silver Medalist from the French Sonar team. 'But no one is on the dance floor,' I said. His rhythmic stride quickened and his resolve grew. This Paralympian gave me yet another revelation – with all that he has been through, what does a blind man with a Silver and jade medal hanging from his neck care about what anyone thinks of his dancing?!
My departure from the venue was delayed by countless good-byes and by making arrangements with a friend who runs a number of schools in Qingdao. These sportspeople who are lacking muscle control, limbs, and clean bills of health, thought to ask if they could donate surplus sports bars, sailing gear, sports beverages and bicycles rather than have them go to waste or ship them back to their home countries.
My friend was up in Beijing with his family at the Paralympics. 'This is so cool,' he said. 'My kids are more interested in watching the Paralympics than the Olympics.'
If you ever have the chance to watch Paralympic Archery, Cycling, Equestrian, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Basketball, Fencing or any of the 20 Paralympic events, you will realize that it is all about ability; not disability.
Here’s the conundrum – Why isn’t there more money in these sports? Why isn’t there more media coverage? Athleticism, close competition, sportsmanship and countless other lessons pour from these heroes and events.
Greek Sonar team - Vasilios in wheelchair, Nikos on left and Theo on right.
I wish that just one of the accredited sailing journalists from the Olympics could have financially justified remaining in Qingdao to cover the Paralympics. It would have facilitated getting the reams of written material that I and the other Sports Information Specialist produced out to readers all over the world. Sadly none could, or did.
Thank you, Serge Jorgensen, President of ISDF and Luissa Smith, of ISAF, for working to change stringent Olympic and Paralympic protocol and trying to post what remained of these stories once they were censored, edited and abbreviated to comply with event protocol. Most importantly, thank you Richard Gladwell, New Zealand Editor of www.Sail-World.com for all of your Skype messages, e-mails and phone calls trying to get as much information as you could to post to your site and to include in your newsletters.
Sadly, my hard drive crashed during the second to last day of the competition, so it will take a little while to reproduce some of the daily material and write new material. Rest assured, I will do it, because every one of the individuals involved deserves it. As my friend and renowned Paralympic Gold Medal and College Sailing Coach, Mike Pinckney, said over and over in Qingdao, 'This is where it’s at! Forget the other stuff. This is where it’s at!'
Note: The series was shortened to 10 races because of weather and wind conditions early in the regatta.
John Ruf of the USA in the 2.4mR class on Day 1 of the Paralympics in Qingdao
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