Come Sail Away
By: Christy Mercer
Name: Maureen McKinnon-Tucker
It was a summer day in 1995 that Maureen's life changed forever. She was attending her husband's J/24 sailing regatta in Rockland, Maine--one that she was initially registered to participate in, but decided at the last minute to cancel. While watching the regatta, Maureen decided to walk her bicycle to a ferry, when she tripped and fell off of a 13-foot seawall to the ground below. She broke her lumbar one (L1), and was paralyzed.
What about sailing?
"They (the doctors) told me straight away that I had a permanent disability, and that I was paralyzed from the waist down," Maureen remembers. She was heartbroken to hear the news and the first things that crossed her mind where, How will I get back to my normal life? Will I be able to continue running my flower shop at home? What about sailing? Maureen wouldn't find out the answers to these questions until she went through therapy and got to return home to try to put her life back together. She says the sad feelings and unanswered questions were frustrating, but she tried to focus on staying positive, saying, "I knew what the doctors were saying, and was not happy about it, but also knew that there would be plenty of things that I could do while in a wheelchair."
It took two months of in-patient rehabilitation and nine months of out-patient pool therapy and physical therapy to get Maureen to the shape she's in now. "Part of that therapy was trying to see if I could use crutches to get around, but it turned out not to be so." Sailing has proved to be some of the best therapy for Maureen, as it requires her to work with muscles in her back and arms that she typically wouldn't utilize in everyday life.
Getting back into the race
Throughout her recovery, Maureen maintained a positive attitude toward her disability, but became a bit discouraged when she initially started sailing again. She tried going back to casually racing J/24 boats, but that proved to be too challenging, so she tried again, this time with Freedom 20s, but these boats were too tame for her competitive spirit. Finally, after giving up on sailing, and spending her days kayaking around the waters of her hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts, she met her fate at a yacht club in 2001. That's where she became acquainted with Dr. Rick Doerr, a paralyzed man himself, who was racing Sonar sailboats and suggested that Maureen try it.
From then on, she was hooked. Maureen entered the competitive racing world, this time with renewed energy and enthusiasm, and competed in the 2004 US Paralympic sailing trials finishing 3rd with her teammates Rick Doerr and Tim Angle. After the trials, Maureen decided to continue competitive sailing and joined a team with Nick Scandone, a competitive sailor who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Geherig's disease) in 2002.
Off to the Paralympics
When Maureen and Nick decided to try out for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, they won the trial and were appointed to the US sailing team. After facing tough competition in the games, Maureen and Nick took first place. For Maureen, this meant more than just winning, it meant she had achieved the goal she had set for herself of becoming the first woman on the US Paralympic sailing team, and the first woman to win gold in that event.
Today, Maureen coordinates a sailing program for children and adults with disabilities, which allows her to share her extraordinary story of overcoming odds with people who know first hand the obstacles she faced with her disability. "I think sailing is the perfect sport for people with disabilities, simply because we all have to do the sport sitting down, so that opens up a whole new world of opportunity for people with a great variety of mobility impairment."
She encourages people with disabilities to continue to set goals and work toward them throughout their treatment, recovery, and life. "Someone with a disability can still achieve 90% of all of the things that they had planned to achieve in their life, it's just that those of us with disabilities have to work harder, and it just takes a little longer."
Learn to sail
Maureen McKinnon-Tucker trains and teaches at the Piers Park Sailing Center where you can learn to sail too. The Center is a Reeve Foundation Quality of Life grantee. Learn more about our Quality of Life Program.
Tell us your story
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