Thursday, August 30, 2007

NEW STARS RISE (some red)

One of the brighter developments in my favorite game is more awareness of disabled sailing, the people who do it and where they fit into the big picture of "us."

I have it on good authority that, when ALS victim Nick Scandone was nominated as 2005 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, the former college All American and 470 national champion had a dread of winning such an honor on a sympathy vote.

I have it on equally good authority that, when the decision went his way, it wasn't about that. It was about respect.

I've followed the disabled sailors at the Clagett Memorial Regatta through all three days of racing at Newport, Rhode Island, and it's been a roller coaster ride for some of them.

On day one, there was (to no great surprise) Scandone and his crew, Maureen McKinnon-Tucker, in front in the SKUD 18, a class that Scandone switched to just this year because of progressive limits on his abilities to singlehand a 2.4mR. Add a day, and we had a new leader in the pairing of Independence Cup winners Karen Mitchell and J.P. Creignou who (like Scandone/McKinnon-Tucker) have a crack at fielding the USA's first-ever female competitor on a Paralympic team.

We're talking China, 2008 of course.

Add another day of racing on Thursday to wrap things up, and both these teams have slipped, and the SKUD 18 winners are Scott Whitman and Julia Dorsett, who won a tiebreaker with Mitchell/Creignou. Scandone/McKinnon-Tucker finished one point back, and so, sports fans, we've just had a competition in which the first three boats all finished within one point. That lump in the throat is somebody's heart.

I've got more results below, but first (yes, repeat reader, this is an update of an earlier post), let's talk a bit about this disabled sailing thing.

The 2008 Games will mark only the 10th year of recognized Paralympic sailing in the USA. That was slow coming, eh? Not to point fingers. It took me a long time (and in my job, I'm supposed to be a tuning fork) to get the picture. F-minus to me, but that's reality.

I came a long way on this subject in 2005, when I sailed the Centennial Transpac, and on the docks in Hawaii I got to meet the disabled crew from San Diego that also sailed that 2,225-mile jog to Honolulu. They turned out to be the funniest, most fun people who ever limped down a dock.

More recently, based upon a conversation with SKUD 18 sailor Karen Mitchell, I'm thinking that, the next time some ordinary-body starts telling me his ordinary-problems, the best thing is to walk away without a word. Hallelujah (knock on wood) I get to walk.

Would You Like to Dance ?

About Karen: An athlete in her youth—a biker and figure skater before an injury at age 19 made her a quadriplegic—and now a cancer survivor with ongoing complications following massive surgeries, what Mitchell has to say about sailing is worth a listen. She has more post-cancer surgeries to come, but she's "trying to put them off until after the Trials." In her own words:

"After I became a quadriplegic, I tried wheelchair sports, but nothing replaced skating and dancing. Then I started sailing—not until I was 35 or so—and now I find that sailing is like a dance. I leave my wheelchair at the dock, and the boat is an extension of my body.

"It's . . .

"It's . . .

"I'm able to dance.

"And I love to compete. I'd like to win every race and just kill everybody. Racing is like blue-water chess, different every time out. You have to think, and it's emotional. Often I compete against the able-bodied, and I've done well in that. Sailing is a sport where anyone can compete on skill, if you have the right equipment. It gives me a reason to keep fighting for life. When the cancer was under way and the doctors would give me the news, I'd get into a boat and sail and I'd say, 'No, I'm not ready to go.' "

Mitchell and legally-blind crew J.P. Creignou ("We both have a passion.") hail from Florida, but from different parts of the state. They take turns traveling to train together in the boat, but SKUD 18s are a relatively-new class, so there are limited opportunities to sail against a fleet. With varying crew, Mitchell is a five-time winner at the Independence Cup and North American Challenge Cup at Chicago Yacht Club—the only five time winner—but coming from south of the Mason-Dixon line, she has sometimes found Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay a bit on the cool side for late-season sailing.

"I'm a wimp," she says.

Yeah, right.

"Last year a cold front came through Newport, and it never got above 58 degrees. I couldn't leave my hotel without my drytop."

Okay, Karen, but the 2007 Clagett served up t-shirt weather, and it was all about light air; Scandone reported more than his fair share of weeds collecting on the foils.

The Clagett is am annual development event aimed at tuning up U.S. competitors in all three Paralympic classes: SKUD 18, 2.4mR, and Sonar. The 2007 edition opened with a two-day clinic (for U.S. sailors only) under disabled team coach Betsy Alison. The competition stage of the Clagett, August 28-30, was open to international sailors, and the racing fleet included sailors and coaches from next year's host country, out to raise their own game. The participation of China was considered important enough, by the organizers, to merit its own pre-event press release, and more on that below. Next on the disabled-sailing calendar is the IFDS Worlds in Rochester, New York, and then the U.S. Paralympic Trials October 3-14, again in Newport. No surprise, Narragansett Bay is everybody's new temporary home.
The 2007 Clagett was planned to replicate, as closely as possible, the format of the upcoming Paralympic Trials. The same race management team from Rhode Island's public sailing institution, Sail Newport, is running both events.

Here, via the wonders of our press release, we have a few Fun Facts regarding China and Paralympic sports. Pictured are Skud 18 competitors Hailiang Jia and Aiping Cao:

Chinese athletes first competed in the Paralympic Games at Barcelona in 1992, in sports such as Athletics, Swimming and Table Tennis, and finished as the 12th nation overall in the number of medals won. Over the following five Paralympic Games they steamrolled the competition. At the 2004 Athens Paralympics, China won a staggering 141 medals to place first overall in the medal wars out of the 75 participating nations; Great Britain’s haul of 94 medals and the U.S.A.’s collection of 88 placed those countries second and third, respectively.

And at the end of racing on Thursday, we had Minq Xue Qi on top, barely, as the winner of a three-way tie with Americans Mark LeBlanc and John Ruf.

A three-way tie? You guys are too much.

The only fleet where there was a dominant team was the Sonar, and even there the winners, Rick Doerr, Tim Angle, and Bill Donohue, had their worst day on the last day, slipped on points, and finished only one point up on the Israeli team of Dror Cohen, Benny Vexter, and Arnon Efrati.

And so

If Qindao is going to be light air in 2008, and there is every reason to expect no less and no more, Newport served up some good conditions for prep. Typical forecasts for Narragansett Bay for the final races promised five knots. A cold front was approaching and expected to pass through on Thursday night and Friday, to replace the high pressure of the last few days. But, apparently, there is not a lot of energy in the front. Think, a lot like New England late in the summer, and winds to 10 knots, which might have been a welcome feature for the racing had they arrived in time.

Farr, Farr Away

The usual suspects continue racing in Copenhagen, Denmark in the Farr 40 worlds, where the top four are all former champions, in this order: Mascalzone Latino, Alinghi, Nerone, and Barking Mad. There's more info at the end of our Farr link, but not a lot of race detail. The big breeze that blew through and kicked the fleet around on Wednesday left almost nothing behind but streaks and a pretty picture.

I never get tired of looking at boats—Kimball