Leveling the Playing Field, One Boat at a Time

Maureen McKinnon-Tucker was twenty years old when she first learned to sail. When she met her husband Dan Tucker, a J24 racer, the two developed a tight team both on and off the water. But all of this changed for McKinnon-Tucker on a day in 1992 when she was sidelined while her husband’s team went out to race in Rockland, Maine. Pushing her bicycle down to a ferry landing, McKinnon-Tucker slipped off a seawall and fell into the sand at low tide. A 13-ft fall paralyzed her from the waist down.

A weaker woman would have run from the water. But McKinnon-Tucker slowly returned, first in kayaks because the J24s in which she once competed were now uncomfortable and challenging. The Freedom 20s, boats designed for disabled sailors, proved too tame for the competitive racer. But once she was suited in a Sonar, McKinnon-Tucker found a platform in which she could not only compete, but also excel. Thirteen years after her fall, McKinnon-Tucker went on to be the first woman to compete on the US Paralympic team, eventually becoming the first female Paralympian to bring home the gold in the 2008 Beijing games.

Perhaps McKinnon-Tucker’s greatest achievement does not lie in bringing home the gold, but instead within proving that “disabled” and “able-bodied” sailors can compete in performance sailboats on the same level. Her commitment to the sailing has opened up the sport to other highly competitive sailors who might otherwise be discouraged about racing in a disabled category.

Mark LeBlanc is one such sailor. The 25-year old grew up sailing in his native New Orleans and went on to drive a successful Paralympic campaign in the 2.4mR, eventually qualifying as an alternate for the Beijing games. The experience pushed him to elevate his career further, and he is currently pursuing a 2012 Paralympic campaign.

LeBlanc’s boat is the 2.4mR, the “world’s smallest keel boat” designed specifically for singlehanding. Often referred to as a “scaled down 12-meter,” the boats are popular among dinghy sailors in Northern Europe, while they’ve gained the most attention in the States for their accessibility for disabled sailors. The boats are popular around Shake-A-Leg in Miami, but are somewhat of a sasquatch elsewhere. McKinnon-Tucker’s group, Piers Park Sailing Center in Boston, seeks to change that perception by offering a weekend of demos on the sailboats with Mark LeBlanc and another Paralympian hopeful Hugh Freund offering coaching expertise and advise. McKinnon-Tucker is back in the game, preparing for her next campaign as well.

Those who know her well realize that this is less of a challenge for her than a destiny. At SAIL, we are proud to be part of Team Maureen.

Sailors interested in learning more about Olympic and Paralympic campaigning are encouraged to attend the event, as well as sailors who are simply interested in checking out fascinating, challenging boats. For more information, click here.

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