Paralympians prove more enabled than disabled

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A highly expectant sailing audience could have considered 2012 a bit of a downer. The 14 nominees for the US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year Awards combined for five world championships and as many podium finishes, but one fact overshadowed it all: U.S. sailors failed to medal at the Olympic Games for the first time since 1936.

Jen French won a silver medal with Jean-Paul Creignou in the SKUD 18 Class at the Paralympic Games last year, then followed that up with Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year honors.

On the bright side, that motivated the panelists to look beyond the traditional context of this award by honoring kiteboarding world champion Johnny Heineken and Jen French, the Paralympic silver medalist in the SKUD 18 Class, as Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year.

Heineken and his sister Erica (a nominee for Yachtswoman of the Year) are ambassadors of a sailing discipline with X Games appeal, but French, 41, a quadriplegic, and her crew, Jean-Paul Creignou, 57, who’s legally blind, operate at the opposite end of the spectrum. (Creignou was nominated for Yachtsman of the Year.) To French and Creignou, sailing is not just a sport but also a lifeline that helps them overcome the limitations of disability. They follow in the wake of the late Nick Scandone, who received the award in 2005 and won Paralympic gold with Maureen McKinnon-Tucker in 2008, also in the SKUD 18. But this time around, with U.S. sailors collecting no other hardware in Weymouth, England, the silver of French/Creignou has a golden sparkle to it.

“The medal and this award are dedicated to the people whose shoulders we stand on,” says French, who hails from North Royalton, Ohio, and is executive director of the Neurotech Network, a non-profit that advocates access to and education about neurotechnology devices and treatments for people with impairments.

What could be mistaken for trite athlete-speak has profound meaning coming from a woman who suffered a catastrophic snowboard crash at age 26. In a split second she lost her health, her hope and the life she’d envisioned — or so it seemed. “Suddenly you wake up, and you can’t move,” she remembers. “It was a devastating experience. You have to relearn everything — brushing your teeth, taking out contact lenses, putting on clothes.”

Getting back to “normal” was a monumental task, mentally and physically. It was going to make or break her. She persevered because she refused to give in to anger and depression. “No matter the tragedy, whether it’s losing a spouse or a limb, all that counts is how you deal with it,” French says.

Turning her life around and finding her new normal involved therapeutic recreation in New England aboard a 1969 Allied Seabreeze, a 35-foot cruising boat fittingly named Destiny. “My father-in-law rigged a hoist from the main halyard, a bosun’s chair and the boom to get me from the wheelchair on the dock into the cockpit,” she says.

Sailing was more than therapy. Learning about the Sonar (the Paralympic three-person keelboat) and the adaptations that enable disabled sailors to race, she was intrigued. Moving to St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2001, she met Creignou, who had relocated from California, but it would be another eight years before they became teammates.

“I was born and raised in Paris, but my parents took me to the Med in the summer, where I sailed Sunfish dinghies,” Creignou says. He later sailed 470s and studied mechanical engineering.

At age 27, he met his first wife, Christin, an American who was on business in Paris. They moved in 1983 to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked odd jobs, including as a sailing instructor in Redwood City, Calif. He eventually found work as a design engineer and raced the J/29 and Express 27. “In my 40s, my eyesight started to deteriorate, so I had to stop skiing and playing tennis,” Creignou says.

Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease, took his peripheral vision. “I can see what’s right in front of me, like sheets and telltales, so if I know where to look, I’m OK,” he says.

Sailing was the only sport that allowed him to perform on a high level despite his impairment. In Florida he joined the Sonar team of John Russ-Dugan and Brad Johnson and helped them qualify for the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, where they won bronze. It was an uplifting experience that made Creignou a bit of a medal snob. “If I was to do this again,” he says, “I wanted a chance to bring back another piece of hardware.”

Matching skills and ambitions

For French and Creignou, racing sailboats is a triumph of perseverance.

French raced the single-handed 2.4mR (against her husband, Tim) before getting into Sonars. Creignou won gold as a skipper at the 2006 World Championships for the Blind in Newport, R.I., and crewing for Karen Mitchell at the 2007 Worlds for the Disabled in Rochester, N.Y., in the SKUD 18. A berth in the 2008 Paralympic Games remained elusive, however.

With a bit of prodding from sailing coach Betsy Allison and others who saw the potential of the pairing, French and Creignou contemplated a run for 2012. It wasn’t an easy sell. “We are both analytical, so we did not want to jump off a cliff to find out if this works in midair,” says French.

After psychological evaluations and a buy-in from their spouses, they decided to go for it (www.j2racingusa.org). Without much training prior to the Miami Olympic Class Regatta in 2010, they notched a second, which made them feel good, Creignou says. “But it also showed how far we had to go,” he says.

They practiced at Team Paradise Sailing in Miami, a training center for people with disabilities run by Magnus Liljedahl, who won Olympic gold in the Star Class with Mark Reynolds in 2000. “It was a perfect match at the perfect time,” Liljedahl says. “She was lucky to find J.P. He’s really good on the boat, and he’s been to the Games before.”

On the SKUD 18, the helmsperson by rule has to be a paraplegic or quadriplegic strapped to an adaptive seat and using a modified tiller system to steer. That was French’s job. Everything else was Creignou’s domain, who as crew also must remain in his seat.

Their skills are so different yet so complementary. Creignou, a tinkerer by nature, had developed a supernatural ability to feel the boat and trim the sails. That was impossible for French, who is paralyzed from the breast line down and has limited hand function. But she saw the course and the moves of their competitors and relayed this information to him. There was a constant back and forth. “Much time was spent on communication, making sure we both knew what’s going on,” she says. The old adage of being on the same page, executed to perfection.

Technology for mobility

They also got lucky. On the water, the strong team of Julia Dorsett and Scott Whitman forced them to develop their game quickly, resulting in two silver medals at the World Championships for the disabled in 2011 and 2012. Also, the SKUDs had problems and were redesigned ad hoc with smooth gunwales and a carbon mast, which negated the advantages that more experienced teams might have had.

On the physical level, French participated in a successful clinical trial for implanted neuroprosthetic systems in the hope of building strength and regaining some movement in her limbs, not just for the function but also to ward off secondary life-threatening conditions that can befall patients with spinal cord injuries. Electrodes in her muscle tissue are activated by radio signals via a receiver in her abdomen that relays the commands from a programmable external control.

What sounds like a cyborg experiment that merges technology and the human body helped her conditioning. “I use different programs, like endurance exercise or chest and trunk control,” she says.

Muscle stimulation also helps her get out of the wheelchair on her own, and she used it to wheel a mile from her accommodation to the boat park at the Games. That meant more flexibility and less logistics, which are a huge part — and burden — of a Paralympic campaign.

She didn’t use the system during the competition, though, because it would have required a lengthy reclassification of her impairment by an international medical committee that reviews and evaluates the conditions of all athletes with disabilities.

French and her French co-pilot traveled to Weymouth, confident that they had a legitimate shot at the podium. “We started the regatta with a steering and mainsheet problem,” Creignou says. In the second race, their boat speed was subpar because a clump of seaweed hitched a ride on the keel. “At least we got the bad stuff out of the way in the beginning,” he says. In the end, they had to dip their flag to the Aussies, who sailed a magic series, but they edged the Brits.

Creignou accomplished what he set out to do: add another piece of Paralympic hardware to his trophy shrine. But will he try to complete his collection? “I don’t think I have another campaign in me,” he says, “but for all the support we received, it was very rewarding.”

French is noncommittal. “I’m not ready to go there,” she says. “I put aside a lot of my life, and it takes time to get that back.” She’ll sail, for sure, and mix it up with able-bodied competitors because she can.

The remarkable story of these two sailors scuttles the notion of 2012 being a down year. If their silver has a hint of a golden halo, it’s not just for the absence of other medals but also because it highlights the indomitable spirit and positive attitude that enables these athletes — and others like them — to sail out of the suffocating lee of disability. (Visit www.onmyfeetagain.org for more on French’s life.)

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

March 2013 issue