With spring upon us and summer around the corner, it is only natural to turn our focus the Summer Paralympics as we continue our blog series about athletes with disabilities. Welcome our spotlight athlete, Cindy Walker! Cindy, a Paralympic sailor out of Massachusetts, was kind enough to take time out from training to answer some questions about her sport, disability awareness and more.
1. How and when did you get into sailing?
I got into sailing about two years ago when I met people at a spinal cord association. I happened to run into a few enthusiastic adaptive sailors out of Piers Park Sailing Center in East Boston in the fall of 2012 and we started sailing after that summer and we did some regattas.
2. How do you typically prepare and train?
The training is with US Sailing. They get other teams together and we do a lot of tuning-up on the water and we try to make sure our boats are the same. I see a personal trainer, go to the gym a couple of days a week and I meet with a nutritionist. We have a lot of logistics to work out.
3. What was it like competing for the first time?
It was incredibly nerve-wracking and overwhelming. When I first competed, it was a test event for the teams going to the London Olympics. It was pretty high-caliber. It was exciting talking to the other sailors and getting their mindset on what they were thinking about on the water. You’re dealing with the elements and anything can change, especially here in New England. You’re trying to get ready for the game of sailing. When I was doing this for the first time, I was trying to keep this all in mind. I was in the front and the skipper was on the main sail. You need to work together. It’s so technical because all of the boats are trying to get the right time. I had all of this in mind, and at the same time was trying to have fun.
4. What would you say the difficulty level of piloting one of these boats might be?
For us, because we are in the Paralympics, the tricky part is getting our adaptations to work properly.
You’re competing with yourself and making sure your lines are the same. I have three sails at any given time, so I have to make sure I’m balanced and tied to my feet, and I have to reach all my lines. My skipper is also canting side-to-side.
5. What is competition like?
Competition is pretty awesome. We are really lucky because all the sailors I’ve met are really friendly and supportive. Everyone is friendly on the water, mostly because of the people who are coming back. They’re really welcoming to the new sailors. A lot of the sailors switch classes. There’s not a lot of smack-talking, but it’s intense. Everyone’s a really good sailor and they know how to work with the weather and currents and there’s a lot to think about and keep in mind while on the water. My skipper and I are always talking and our teamwork is awesome. My advice is to keep your head out of the water and focus on your jobs.
6. Would you recommend this sport to anyone who might be interested?
I would definitely say everyone should sail. I know people are afraid of the water and being in this sort of open area without a lot of control over what happens. Whether you want to do it competitively or for fun, sailing is great because it helps build teamwork and it’s relaxing and soothing when the winds die down. If you do want to take it to a competitive level, it’s there. It’s not a contact sport, but you’re pushing yourself and you’re working with your teammates and trying to stay in the game. I definitely prefer working with a team. Collectively you have a bigger team and community of support in US Sailing. I think it’s an awesome sort and activity and it’s all-inclusive. Sometimes, you don’t need adaptations. I don’t use a lot of adaptations. We leave our wheelchairs on the docks and we sail with our friends and family. If you’ve got the boat, you can throw anyone into it.
7. What do you suggest to anyone who is interested in getting into your sport?
It’s really awesome, I’m lucky to work with US Sailing and a lot of community sailing centers have a lot of capabilities to put disabled athletes in the boats and are really accessible. I would suggest reaching out to community sailing centers and programs in your area and going down to talk to them. If you want to get into racing, most centers have a Tuesday or Thursday racing night where you’ll find people who have these interests. If you want to do little dingy sailing, just go down to your community sailing center or talk to your local yacht club. There are always classes and seminars going on. US Sailing has an intro sailing program, there are all these programs to help you learn how to sail. Chicago has the North American Challenge Cup hosted by Chicago Yacht Club. Also Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing is a resource.
8. What would you say was your most exciting/favorite race?
Last year, it was the IFDS Worlds and it changes location every year. They were in Kinsale, Ireland. It was our first IFDS Worlds event and the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to. The community treated us like family. The stores greeted us and they had a parade for us. The racing was phenomenal. The conditions were beautiful, the scenery was out of a movie and it was awesome beating the sailors from other countries during our first Worlds event. It’s a learning experience when you have to travel like that. You have to plan or you’re not going to find the shops that have the equipment and hardware you need. Planning is crucial.
9. Our mission is disability awareness. How do you raise awareness for disabled athletes?
Whenever we’re out and about, we always have our team gear on. People are always asking us what is this about. There are a lot of disabled athletes, and people are curious. And a lot of people will just come up and ask what we’re doing there. Some of my friends are really interested in seeing us and stepping out of their comfort zones.
11. Do you have any advice for people who have recently become disabled?
I know that everyone deals with life differently and it’s really hard to see the positive because it’s a tough situation. For me, it brought a lot of positive things. I would say, “Just work hard, focus on the things you still can do, and the things you still have.” I would say the same thing to people who aren’t disabled. I gained so much more, for me it was like my life was beginning again. I’m a New England support group leader for transverse myelitis. When I first came into the racing side I found so many people. My friend, who is a double-legged amputee was talking to another person about which sockets to use when you’re trying to run. It’s important to talk to people who have been in a similar situation. If I hadn’t been paralyzed, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
13. What is your life’s philosophy now?
I kind of think it’s always changing. The one constant thing is that nothing is constant and nothing is forever. It’s important to enjoy the moment you’re in now and work as hard as you can so that you don’t look back at your situation and wish you hadn’t done anything different. You just want to lay everything out there so you know you gave it everything you have. Sometimes the rewards will be great and sometimes there won’t be one. I feel proud that I put 1,000% into everything and that I shared it with people.
14. How do you think you’ll fare if you qualify for the Paralympics?
Every year we have to continue qualifying for the national team and the competition is a high-caliber competition We’re going work and train our hardest. We have to be our own teammates. You can only bring one teammate. It’s going be hard. The next two years are going to have long, challenging roads ahead. I know we’ll be ready if we win the spot to go.
15. Where can we find more information about your sport?
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