Imagine you are away from home at a regatta when the worst-case scenario happens, you have an accident that leaves you a quadriplegic. This is the scenario Daniel Fitzgibbon faced in 1997.
But it never stopped him doing what he loved.
At just 20, Fitzgibbon was competing at a regatta in Sydney in the 470 class, he was campaigning for the Olympic Games with Nathan Wilmot his biggest competitor.
That night he was at a function when he came off a jetty into shallow water and broke his neck making him a C5 Quadripledic, he suffered the same injury as Newcastle Rugby League Player Alex McKinnon.
Next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital to doctors telling him he will never walk again. He spent the next three months in traction and the next year in hospital.
He explains, “it is quite interesting because we have Alex McKinnon, the footballer, who just had the exact injury that I had.”
“I was sailing in Sydney at the Sail Sydney regatta so I wasn’t close to home or anything. When the accident happened, I was knocked-out, unconscious and I pretty much woke up in the hospital.”
Although the accident occurred 17 years ago, that night is still emotional for Fitzgibbon.
“The full aspect of what really happened doesn’t come clear and you don’t really know, you are just told you had this accident this is what has happened to your spinal cord.”
He spent the next 12 weeks in traction, laying flat with a weight on his head to restrict movement. “I sailed that day, had the accident that night and then didn’t get out of bed for the next three months so it was pretty crazy.”
“But you really just want to keep positive, you don’t want to believe the worst case scenario. So I just set goals, I said look I just have to get to this milestone – get out of bed, get more healthy, get stronger and I motivated myself by setting goals which is what I have kind of done all along.
The doctors tell you the facts ‘look you’re a quadriplegic and we don’t think you will get much functional return’ but you don’t want to believe it until you have to. Everyone wants to be the most positive but as the years go on, you realise you have a lot on.”
Fitzgibbon spent the next seven years settling into life as a quadriplegic. Throughout the whole experience, he never lost the drive to sail and in 2004 he hit the water for the first time in a 2.4mR.
“At the time Paralympic sailing only had two disciplines, a 2.4mR and the Sonar.”
“I wanted to get back into sailing so I bought a 2.4mR and I modified that. I put a jib boom on it which was a self tacking jib boom and some electrics that wind on the ropes and I sailed that for a bit but it was too complicated. I couldn’t do the back stay and I just figured I wouldn’t be competitive in that class.”
Due to his disability he was unable to sail the Sonar and saw the need for a new class in which a high level disabled person would sail with a person with a low level disability. He wrote to the International Association for Disabled Sailing (IFDS) suggesting this new discipline. He then bought a Martin 16 from America, a one-person boat with a seat for an observer at the back.
“I thought why don’t we convert that into a two-person boat. So I bought one of these boats and got it to Australia, I put a 29er mast on it and a deeper keel and the seat set up with the crew at the front and the skipper at the back.”
“That’s when Julian Bethwaite got involved with disabled sailing with Chris Mitchell. And they designed the Skud 18 and that is what they chose for the Paralympics. When that happened I got involved with the class and bought one in 2006/07 then trained leading up to the games in that class which was Beijing 2008.”
The Skud 18 debuted at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008 and Fitzgibbon was sailing with Rachael Cox. Their goal was to medal at these games and he was successful in winning the Silver. Nick Scandone and Maureen McKinnon-Tucker from the United States of America took out the gold.
“It was awesome on the podium but they played the Star Spangled Banner and Nick Scandone, who is a yachting legend won the gold and it just wasn’t our moment.”
Fitzgibbon and Cox parted ways shortly after and he teamed up with Paralympic Wheelchair Basketballer Liesl Tesch.
“I saw the documentary for the Sydney to Hobart on Sailors with Disabilities and I saw Liesl on that and someone said ‘you need her on your boat.’ Liesl is very positive and that’s what we need, someone who says this is what needs to be done, let’s do it.
“I said ‘well yea OK I will try and get her.’” Fitzgibbon got the feeling the Australian Paralympic Committee did not want to poach athletes from other sports, but he was able to track down Tesch.
“We had a trial down at the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. I could see the potential in her and it really invigorated the program for us.”
Two weeks later, they were in Miami, USA, for Miami OCR, where they won their first regatta as a team.
“We had a lot to learn and I didn’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves, we had a lot of mistakes to make before we could really get to a point where we could win the Gold, but we did every mistake known to man on the race course. You have to do that, that is the way you learn and that is the way Liesl had to learn and we are still learning today.”
By the time they got to the London Paralympic Games in 2012, they were ready to fight for the Gold. “We were fairly ruthless and went for it and came home victorious. It is good when you plan and then the actual plan works out in the end.”
“We got to see the Australian flag go up over Weymouth Bay and hear the Australian Anthem and it was a pretty awesome moment. And no one can take it away once you do something like that.”
Since returning from London, the pair have been busy with the Integrated disAbled Sailing program at Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club. The objective of the program is to integrate disabled sailors into regular club and inter-club racing.
Club member John Bacon has supported the program through his business Link Healthcare and they have recently launched their Sydney 38, Another Challenge.
“I thought there is no reason we can’t make a yacht accessible for disabled people. We just need to make a few modifications, similar to what we did on the Skud,” Fitzgibbon explained.
“We have a tacking and canting chair – which I haven’t seen one around in the world before, so it is something new. It is controlled by an electric ram that we can cant with a joystick and we are building a joystick steering system for the boat.”
At the moment they are trying to get the modifications accepted into the Sydney 38 class rules so they can compete in regattas including the National Championships, which will be held on Pittwater in December.
“It would be awesome to do a national title on a Sydney 38 with a disabled or whatever crew. And that is what the next thing is, no barriers just go yachting with everyone else.”
But the Paralympic drive is still there, with Fitzgibbon and Tesch planning their schedule to fit both the Sydney 38 and Skud 18 programs.
“I am still doing the Paralympic stuff because I love the intense competition and I love trying to beat those Poms and Americans but I am going to do the yacht stuff too.”
5 minutes with Fitzgibbon:
First boat sailed: Sabot
Favourite place to sail: Pittwater, it’s so beautiful and there is always something going on.
Favourite holiday destination: Honolulu, Hawaii. Great food, weather, scenery and very accessible.
Proudest moment: Gold medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.
Best day sailing: A 12 knot steady, warm north-easterly breeze and sunshine with good friends and a fast boat.
Favourite thing about sailing: The absolute challenge. You can never have a perfect days racing. I love the challenge of trying to achieve it.
If you weren’t a sailor: I would be more involved in property construction and development.
This article was first published in the June-July 2014 issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.