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Trailblazing Gold - 20 years on from Australia's first Paralympic sailing gold medal

by Australian Sailing Team 22 Oct 02:14 PDT
Australian Paralympic sailing team of Noel Robins OAM, Jamie Dunross OAM and Graeme Martin OAM © Australian Sailing Team

After Australia's Olympic sailors turned Sydney Harbour into a golden pond at the 2000 Games, the Australian Paralympic sailing team of Noel Robins OAM, Jamie Dunross OAM and Graeme Martin OAM were under pressure to perform.

"It had been a long hard road to get to Sydney," Martin said. "We had to fight our way for that position. We won the world championship in 2000 which set us up to the regatta and we had a great team and great coach."

The racing was held against one of the most spectacular backdrops in the world, within sight of the Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. The Australian team, headed by former America's Cup skipper Robins, battled hard and held their nerve in a variety of conditions to win the regatta and claim gold in the three-man Sonar class.

"To sail on Sydney Harbour was a great honour. We had won the selection on that track and had all the info from the Olympic team. Noel had a lot of experience sailing on Sydney Harbour so it was just fantastic. The buzz was there and we were treated like gods. The volunteers made it all worthwhile, it felt like everywhere you went there were people to help. To sail there with thousands of people chanting Oi! Oi! Oi! It was just great."

It was an historic medal for the Australians and their coach Paul Eldrid because it was the first time sailing was included on the Paralympic program as a medal sport. Racing was only held in the Sonar keelboat and the one-person 2.4mR keelboat classes.

"I wasn't really sure what to expect going into the Paralympic Games," Dunross said. "I was just focussed on winning a gold medal. That had been our focus for the last year and a half. We were a team that weren't going to let the foreign devils take the gold off our home soil!"

After the gold medal wins of the women's and men's 470 crews at the Olympic Games a couple of weeks before, Australians were delighted to see more success from our Paralympic sailing team.

"The biggest advantage we had racing in Sydney was meeting the Olympic sailors who had won gold before us. We got to have dinner with them and talk about their experience. They really put it down to basics; keep it real, it was just another race. I remember reminding Noel of those principles on the way out on the final day of racing and he turned to me and said, 'If one more person says that I'm going to rip their bloody head off!'"

Robins, a world renowned and respected sailor in his own right, and his team strung together an impressive scorecard of a 3-1-3-3-2-11-4-1-1. They were able to drop their worst result which meant that the Aussies finished top four in all their counting races. The Australians beat the German team of Jens Kroger, Peter Muenster and Peter Reich for the gold medal with the Canadian team of Paul Tingley, David Williams and Brian MacDonald taking bronze.

The Sydney 2000 Paralympics brought together 4,000 of the world's finest athletes from 122 countries, and were the first ever held in the southern hemisphere.

"I was expecting the games to be a very close competition," Eldrid said. "Coming away from previous regattas, a lot of teams were going away and working really hard before Sydney. Racing on home waters at the games was really amazing and even though the team was from Perth we still really enjoyed sailing lots in Sydney before the games."

"I think one of the biggest advantages sailing in Sydney was we didn't have a lot of down time in our training and preparation. We had equipment in Perth and Sydney and that meant we were able to stay active in our preparation for the games."

Robins, who sailed from his early childhood, became partially quadriplegic from a spinal fracture sustained in a car crash when he was just 21. His long list of sailing achievements included skippering Australia in the 1977 America's Cup against Ted Turner's Courageous and helming Hitchhiker in the two tonne world championship in 1981. At 60 he was the oldest sailor to win a gold medal at the Paralympics. It was with great sadness that he passed away in 2003 after being hit by a car. Noel was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2001 and posthumously inducted into the America's Cup Hall of Fame in 2013.

Dunross became a quadriplegic after an explosion at a gold mine in Meekatharra. After the Paralympics he became the first person with quadriplegia to circumnavigate Australia unassisted in 2010. Martin, who had his left leg amputated after an accident while fighting fires, went on to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Paralympics in the Sonar class. Dunross and Martin were awarded their Order of Australia Medals in 2001 with Robins for their achievements in sport.

"It was very hard to describe the 2000 Paralympic Games," Dunross said. "It was such a surreal experience. We were so focussed on the job we had to do but everything that was going on. Watching the way the volunteers conducted themselves, the officials and the crowd in just made me really happy to be an Australian."

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