by Dana Paxton
The 2012 Paralympic Games are set to get underway on September 1st and run through September 6th. The U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team is all set to commence competition with the six-athlete strong team now having completed boat measurement and registration in addition to today's practice race.
Mark LeBlanc (New Orleans, La.) will represent the USA at the 2012 Paralympic Games in the 2.4 Metre
Jen French and JP Creignou (both St. Petersburg, Fla.) will sail in the Two Person Keelboat, the SKUD-18. This is the first Games for French, while Creignou is a 2004 Paralympic bronze medalist (Sonar).
One practice race was scheduled today at 11:00, but with unstable wind conditions racing was delayed for an hour. Once racing was underway, the conditions saw 90-degree shifts, but Creignou said that it was valuable time spent.
'The practice race was to check our systems, because we just put the boat back together after measurement,' he explained. 'We also used it to do some tuning to make sure we’re good on speed. Nothing fancy, just making sure we’re fast enough.'
The two have spent a good amount of time training in St. Petersburg, Fla. and here at the Paralympic venue, with coach Ian Clingan. 'Everything is working well and we’re looking forward to starting,' said Creignou. 'We were very lucky to hook up with Ian last year. We really mesh well with him and he is very calm. He knows the boat very well and he’s a good fit for us. We are very confident with him on our side and how we have prepared for the regatta.'
The team’s past performance highlights in the SKUD-18 include a bronze medal at US Sailing’s 2012 Rolex Miami OCR and a silver at the International Association for Disabled Sailing (IFDS) World Championships. French and Creignou are both members of St. Petersburg Yacht Club.
In the One Person Keelboat, the 2.4 Metre, Mark LeBlanc (New Orleans, La.) will represent USA for the first time.
Today’s practice race gave everyone a chance to warm-up and to check the boat’s speed. 'We’ve been sailing against each other for years now, so you know who is doing what and who is the better sailor,' said LeBlanc. 'My goals for this event is to do as well as I can. This is my first time at the Games. I’m trying to take it all in and do as well as I can.'
US Paralympic Sailing Team - Back row LtoR: Mark LeBlanc, JP Creignou, Brad Johnson, Tom Brown. Front row: Paul Callahan, Jen French
LeBlanc is coached by Marko Dahlberg. 'He’s got a tremendous amount of knowledge,' said LeBlanc. 'He helped coach Johnny (Ruf) to a bronze medal in China and he has the know-how and talent. He’s a two-time world champion in the 2.4. We’ve been working together for six years and have a great relationship.'
He went on to note that his hometown of New Orleans was on his mind, but that his own home was OK following Hurricane Isaac.
LeBlanc realized his dream of qualifying for the 2012 Games after a disappointing finish at the 2008 Paralympic Trials in the 2.4mR. He tied on points with, and finished second to, John Ruf (Pewaukee, Wis.), who went on to win the 2008 Paralympic bronze medal. LeBlanc, the 2011 2.4mR National Champion, represents Southern Yacht Club.
Paul Callahan (Cape Coral, Fla./Newport R.I.), Tom Brown (Castine, Me.) and Bradley Johnson (Pompano Beach, Fla.) are all Paralympians, with a combined three Paralympic medals. Callahan is a 2000 Paralympian (Sonar), Johnson is a 2004 Paralympic Bronze Medalist (Sonar), and Brown is a two-time Paralympian, winning bronze in 2000 (2.4mR) and silver in 2004 (2.4mR).
'The boat is as good as it’s ever been,' said Brown. The first couple of days we broke everything we could and then Donnie put it back together stronger than ever. We practiced yesterday and it was faster than ever. Today, we finished fifth, but we were probably the fastest boat downwind. We’re ready to go; we just want to hear that starting gun go.'
On the 11-race series: 'What I like about this format is that there’s not a lay day,' said Brown. 'The Games in Athens, I was leading going into the lay day and it threw off my momentum.'
The team is coached by Betsy Alison. 'She has done everything she could possibly do,' he continued. 'She has done everything we have asked of her and more. We are prepared. There isn’t anything more we need to do except start the boat.'
The team finished 6th at US Sailing’s 2012 Rolex Miami OCR. Callahan represents New York Yacht Club YC) and Charlotte Harbor YC and Johnson is a member of St. Petersburg YC and Shake-A-Leg Miami.
Eleven races are scheduled on Portland Harbour, with two races per day September 1-5 and one race on September 6. A total of 80 sailors will compete in three events: 2.4mR (16), SKUD-18 (22) and Sonar (42).
US Olympic website