Competitive and Paralympic sailing
The Competitive Edge
Everhart Skeels enjoys not only the freedom sailing involves, but the strategy in competition.
“I have always been a competitive athlete and I enjoy that aspect of sailing. It’s not about who is the strongest, but who can think the best. It’s a three dimensional game of chess that is going on and the chess board is always changing. Water is never the same because of currents and the wind is sometimes up and sometimes down. Sailing is being attuned to what is going on around you to make your boat fastest.
“My favorite saying and its very similar to life: you can’t change the wind but you can always adjust your sails,” she said. “Life is like that and I especially think that life can be like that if you are someone like me who has acquired a disability. I have had to learn how to change myself many times, but still keep going forward. I like that aspect. You can always make it work. You just have to figure out a way.”
Recruiting Sailors for the Paralympics
To identify sailors that have the potential to be elite National Team players and possibly Paralympians, Alison keeps in contact with various adaptive sailing programs nationwide, and consults with local and regional coaches. She also networks with college coaches who may know of athletes within their schools who are disabled.
“We look for athletic and competitive-minded people,” Alison said. “There is no established pathway directly into competitive disabled sailing like the Olympic program has with the junior sailing programs that are direct feeds, so we look at open sailing arenas to identify sailors who may have disabilities. One of my Paralympians, who lost his leg to cancer at age 8, never considered himself disabled. I recruited him when he was doing an Olympic program.”
“The other avenue we are looking at to open up a direct pathway is through the military. This year, we are partnering through a grant made available from the VA and the USOC, allowing us to do a series of learn to race boot camps to expose our injured warriors to the sport of sailing. It’s in its infancy stage, but it’s been very well received so far and I think it holds a lot of potential.”
Paralympic Level Sailing
There are three medal events at the Games. These are the 2.4mR, SKUD 18 and Sonar classes, featuring one, two and three sailors per boat respectively. Each event consists of a series of up to 11 races – weather permitting. Sailors accumulate points according to their positions after each race, with one point for first, two for second and so on. At the end of racing, all the points except the worst score from each team are added together. The winner is the sailor or team with the lowest points total at the end of the races.
“With those three classes, we start doing more specific training through nationally-organized training camps,” Alison said. “Training sessions consist of land-based education followed by practice in the water, then a critiquing session. Some camps are boat handling-oriented where we will be working on the functional sailing of the boat, coordinated crew work, and moves within the boat and around the race course. Other camps we work on speed testing – equipment-related, sail-related, or rig tuning. In some training camps, we are working strictly on tactics and strategy. Depending on what point we are in the year or what competitions are leading into an event, we plan our training around what we are trying to accomplish.
“For example, the week before a world championship, we would do training on site at the World Championship site and focus on fine-tuning starting strategies and set up. Whereas six months prior, we would do a camp working on speed, speed set up through sail trim, sail shape and sail trim,” she said. “Depending on where the groups of athletes we are working with are in their development, each athlete or team might have specific aspects of their own sailing that they are working on within the bigger scope of the camp.”
To be eligible for the Paralympic Games, there are qualifying events open to any aspiring athlete who is classified. For the 2012 Paralympic teams, there were two qualifying events: the World Championship in Port Charlotte, Fla., and the Miami World Cup. The results from those two events combined determined who went to the Paralympics.
The 2016 Rio Paralympic Games qualifiers haven’t been decided yet. When it is, it will be posted on the US Sailing Olympic page, most likely before the end of the year.
The Paralympic sailing classification system is based on three factors – stability, hand function, and mobility. Vision impairments have a separate classification procedure. After the evaluation by the Classification Committee, sailors are awarded points, based on their functional abilities, ranging from one to seven, starting from 1 for the lowest and 7 for the highest level of functionality.
Each boat (single, two person, and three person) uses its own classification point system to make up a team. In the single-person boat, each sailor has to meet a minimum criteria, which is having any classification rating from 1-7. The two-person boat requires one sailor to be rated a 1 or 2 with the crew having any classification rating (1-7), but at least one of the two sailors must be female. In the three-person boat, to make sure that no crew has an advantage or disadvantage in the competition due to impairment, each team of sailors is allowed a maximum of 14 points. For example, a sailor with complete quadriplegia (1 rating) is likely to compete with a teammate who may have a single, above-knee amputation (7) and another teammate who is missing a hand (6 rating) for a total of 14 points.
Athletes with vision impairment are placed into one of three competition rating classes, based on their visual acuity and field of vision. Depending on their visual ability, they compete in sport class 3, 5 or 7, with 7 indicating the highest eligible visual ability.
In a single-person keelboat (2.4mR) all sailors are required to have a minimal disability or a higher level of disability.
In a two-person keelboat (SKUD 18), the crew includes one female and one severely disabled sailor with a one point classification.
In a three-person keelboat (sonar), the total crew points do not exceed 14.
“We have a lot of quads driving boats, so there is quite a range of disabilities,” Alison said. “In contrast to many of the sports, the amputees don’t just play with the amputees, the blind don’t just play with the blind, the quads don’t play with the quads. Everybody is combined in the sport of sailing.”
For 2014, events offering classification are the Miami World Cup; Robie Pierce Regatta, New York; North American Challenge Cup, Chicago; C. Thomas Claggett Clinic and Regatta, R.I.; and the 2014 U.S. Disabled Challenge Championship, Galveston. When a sailor is classified it’s for a four-year Olympic cycle (quadrennium). The current cycle is from Jan. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2016.
“There is also a list of all the sailors who have been classified for this quad on the US Sailing website, including their classification rating,” Alison explained. “For example, if I was a sonar sailor and I classified as a three and I was looking for teammates to sail with, I could go to the classification list and see who I might be compatible with. Sometimes we as coaches suggest to people who they should sail with. Other times, the sailor will read the system and try to pair up with a geographically compatible teammate to practice with.
Equipment and Expenses
“As you get better and better and you want to pursue that Paralympic dream, then the urgency for owning your own equipment becomes greater,” Alison said. “If you are an elite athlete you want to invest in your own equipment. It’s like with wheelchair racing, sled hockey, or sit-skiing, you want your own chair/sled/ski because it fits you best and it has adaptations that make it better for you. The same thing is true at the elite level of Paralympic sailing.
“Sailing is not the most inexpensive sport once you own equipment and take into consideration travel and training. However, on a national team, although we don’t have monthly stipends, sailors do get some grant funding and we provide a lot in terms of resources and support for logistics, coaching, shipping and transportation. We do what we can within our funding and our budget to be able to help our athletes. We also advise them on creating personal websites and how to go about fundraising on their own – and they are pretty successful at it.
Looking Ahead to Rio 2016
“I feel good about what we are doing with the team,” Alison said. “We’ve got two boats/teams in each of our three classes that are part of the national team. We’ve got some young athletes that are coming up and I hold out high hopes for them. I think we are really fortunate and have some good veteran sailors on the team. But we are always looking for talent. I can’t say that enough. We are happy to work with people to get them up to speed. What we really look for are hard workers, quick thinkers, those dedicated to be great in the sport. “Most of my athletes are professionals who have real jobs and families. The average age is 40. I have some as young as 21 and the oldest is 57. That’s the beauty of sailing. You can be 9 or 90 and still be competitive. You don’t age out in our sport.”