Paralympics racers of the Ross-Dugan Challenge search for gold.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published February 20, 2004
ST. PETERSBURG - Jean-Paul Creignou learned to sail as a boy on the azure waters of the Mediterranean, but when his eyesight began to fail some 30 years later he thought he would have to abandon the sport he loved.
"Then a friend asked me to participate in the Paralympics Trials before the Sydney Games," said the 48-year-old St. Petersburg resident. "I have been dreaming about competing ever since."
The Paralympics, held ever four years two weeks after the Olympic Games, draw the world's top disabled athletes.
"Many people still don't consider disabled sports real sports," said Brad Johnson, who competed on the U.S. Paralympics volleyball team at the Sydney Games in Australia in 2000. "It is a battle we are always fighting."
Johnson, a bilateral amputee, learned to sail in Miami four years ago. He enjoyed the experience and decided to give up his place on the volleyball team to join Creignou and skipper John Ross-Duggan in their quest for Paralympics gold.
Ross-Duggan, a former Hobie 16 National Champion, broke his neck in a car accident in 1978 at age 22 and was paralyzed from the upper chest down. But through exhaustive rehabilitation and specialized equipment he was able to get back in the boat. By 1996 he had worked his way up the ranks to capture the bronze at the Atlanta Paralympics.
Ross-Duggan, a 48-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif., is the team's skipper and steers the 23-foot Sonar keelboat with the help of a sliding rail system. Johnson, 33, is the main sail trimmer and helps look for wind. Creignou, who coincidentally was born the same day as Ross-Duggan, trims the jib and helps with tactics.
"Each team is allowed 14 points," Creignou explained. "Each sailor receives a certain number of points based on their disability."
Creignou, who suffers from a degenerative eye disease, has a score of seven. Johnson, the double amputee, has five point. Ross-Duggan, a quadriplegic, has one point, giving the three men a combined 13.
The team earned the right to represent the United States by winning the the Paralympics Trials in St. Petersburg in November. On the second day of the seven-day event the Ross-Duggan Challenge was tied with two other teams. On day three 20-knot winds and heavy seas kept two of the five competitors from racing. Creignou, Johnson and Ross-Duggan finished the day's races with a first, a third and a bilge full of water.
After a lay day, the sailors delivered their strongest performance with two firsts and a second, which put them in first place. Creignou, Johnson and Ross-Duggan entered the last day with a two point lead, and all they needed to seal their spots on the Paralympics team was a win in the first race.
"We did and it took a while for it to sink in," Creignou said. "When it finally did hit us, we realized that we still had a long way to go if we wanted to bring home the gold."
Sailors, and not just those with physical disabilities, have had a hard time raising money to mount an effective Olympic campaign.
"We figure it is going to cost $100,000 to carry us to Athens," said Christen Creignou, the team's unofficial manager. "The biggest problem is that 10 out of 10 people I talk to have no idea what the Paralympics are."
The local yachting community has rallied around the Ross-Duggan Challenge and another athlete headed to Athens, Mark Mendelblatt, who will represent the United States in the Laser class.
Anyone wishing to support the Ross-Duggan Challenge directly can contact the California International Sailing Association, a 5013 nonprofit organization, at P.O.B. 17992, Irvine, CA 92713-7992. Ross-Duggan can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org