Australia's leading Paralympic sailors are ready for the challenge that awaits them when racing starts at the Para World Sailing Championships in Williamstown, Melbourne this Saturday (28 January).
More than 140 sailors from 31 nations are in Melbourne, Australia's sporting capital, competing across three Paralympic classes out of the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria.
Every athlete sailing in Williamstown has overcome personal challenges and battles. London 2012 Paralympic Games gold medallists Dan Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch in the SKUD18 and 2.4mR sailor Matt Bugg have all faced tough obstacles through life changing injuries. Not one of them has let that get in their way as they seek out greatness.
Fitzgibbon suffered serious spinal injuries in 1997 which left him a quadriplegic. With Olympic aspirations in advance of his injury, Fitzgibbon swiftly moved into the Paralympic pathway as he explained, “I was a sailor before my accident and I was sailing the 420 and 470s, Sabot and all the way through. I was living the Olympic dream and I wanted to go to the Olympics.
“I was competing in Sail Sydney in 1997 and I had an accident at one of the yacht clubs there during the regatta and I had to change my focus from the Olympic dream to the Paralympic dream.
“It took a bit of time but we found a way in and developed the boat with seating and steering so I could sail the Paralympic boats. I continued my dream in a little bit of a different direction.”
Fitzgibbon ventured into his Paralympic campaigning with a clear vision and started in the right way by winning gold in the Hansa Liberty class at the 2004 IFDS Single-Person Dinghy World Championship (Class A).
“Setting a goal is what I have always done,” explained Fitzgibbon. “I think if someone with a disability has a goal just go out and do it. Just start and get experience and enjoy it. It's important to enjoy sailing and surround yourself with good fun people and go out and do it. It can take a long time but be patient. I've been sailing all my life and it's taken me a long time to get any good.”
Fitzgibbon was certainly good four years on from the 2004 IFDS Worlds as he achieved his dream at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games where he won silver in the SKUD18 with Rachael Cox. Four years later he realised the ultimate, by taking a convincing victory at London 2012 with Tesch.
Much like Fitzgibbon, Tesch changed course to be involved with Paralympic sailing but it wasn't the first time she had flown the Australian flag, “I first represented Australia in wheelchair basketball when I was 20-years-old in France,” commented Tesch. “Five Paralympics in basketball later I got a gold medal in sailing from London 2012.”
Tesch competed at Barcelona 1992, Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 in wheelchair basketball, winning silver in 2000 and 2004 and bronze in 2008. A golden shine was missing from her cabinet but a chance spot by Fitzgibbon gave Tesch a fantastic opportunity to go for gold.
“I broke my back in a push bike accident when I was 19 and I played wheelchair basketball for five Paralympics,” said Tesch. “I was then invited to do the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race where Dan Fitzgibbon, Paralympic silver medallist in Beijing, spotted this wheelchair basketballer heading to Sydney and gave me a call.
“And now, here I am,” smiled Tesch.
Fitzgibbon and Tesch have formed a strong bond and have remained unbeaten since London 2012 and will be aiming to continue that run on their home waters in Melbourne. Tesch concluded by saying, “We're looking forward to lining up with the best teams in the world in front of our home crowd and the event will be another great positive step in our Paralympic preparation. And no pressure on us as the defending World Champions…. well, the big target will be on our back after our Paralympic Gold medal first, then 2014 World Champion and our season so far, so watch this space.”
Australian 2.4mR sailor Matt Bugg was involved in a snowboarding accident when he was 24 which left him a paraplegic. A keen sailor before the accident, progression into Paralympic sailing was a natural step for Bugg who was exposed to the sport before he could even crawl.
“Funnily enough my first sailing experience was as a baby on my father's 30 foot yacht,” said Bugg. “He had a boat called Humbug that he used to sail the Sydney Hobart and Melbourne Hobart races. I've been sailing since I was four weeks old.
“As I grew up sailing as a kid, in dinghies, I was already well and truly a sailor. I broke my back when I was 24 in a snowboarding accident and after that it was just a natural fit to go into Paralympic yachting.”
Bugg has made steady progression in the one-person keelboat event since a 16th at his first world championship in 2010. A fourth in 2013 and a fifth in 2014 has shown Bugg that he is on the right path, “My goal is to win a Paralympic medal in Rio, obviously but sailing, for me, is purely about being out on the water. I love being on the water and around it. Also yacht racing is the best kind of racing I have ever done. I love the tactical side of it and the smart side of it.”
Bugg remains a focused character, aiming to become one of the best Paralympic sailors in the world and finished with some strong tips for aspirant Paralympic sailors, “My advice to anyone with a disability that likes to look at Paralympic sailing and wants to get into it is to get on the internet, have a look on the Para World Sailing website and have a look around for local Paralympic sailing regattas that are near to where they live.
“And just come and talk to the sailors, talk to me, talk to the coaches and they will be more than happy to put you in a boat.”
Followers can head down to the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria to meet Bugg, Fitzgibbon and Tesch first hand with Williamstown racing scheduled to commence at 13:00 on Saturday 28 November.
– ISAF Media