John Ross-Duggan had a full career ahead of him when he won the Hobie 16 National Championship in 1977, during his third year of medical school. Eight months later, he broke his neck in a car accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. He was 23.
After battling through months of therapy to finish medical school and his residency, Ross-Duggan got back to racing boats. He won the bronze medal in Freedom Independence 20s at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, the same year he won three national and international championships and was named Male Athlete of the Year by US SAILING. He returned in 2004 to win a bronze medal in the Sonar class in Athens, and now has his sights set on Beijing in 2008.
SAIL: What do you think about the latest adaptations to the Paralympic raceboats?
JRD: I credit David Cook from Canada. For the 1996 Paralympic Games, he took the wheelchair, removed the wheels, and put the seat on the boat. It was so advanced it was rejected by the judges, but they eventually came around.
We have to move side to side to remain competitive, and I've learned how. People have taken the idea and built sophisticated rigging systems and platforms. Most amputees don't need much special equipment, but quadriplegics are in a harness and a fixed seat, so we need to rig up something to steer the boat. We focus on boat mechanics, boat handling, training and switching gears, and try not to play with any new gear too late in the campaign.
SAIL: What has changed on the Paralympic scene?
JRD: In the 1999 World Championships in Newport, Rhode Island, the U.S. dominated. Paul Callahan and I got #1 and #2, and the Europeans weren't major competition. Then they got serious, they got money, coaching and training, and came back in 1999 and kicked our butts.
The competition has changed the most, and the skill level has increased. It comes down to time, energy and money. You can't just throw up a sail at the last minute and get a trophy. People have obviously mastered the skills, and you go from winning events to finishing seventh.
SAIL: How important is teamwork?
JRD: It didn't used to be important at all. I could put just about anybody in the boat, and I could tell them what to do, and they'd do well. But now we have coaching, and we have to delegate the duties and let them do it. It's like teaching an old dog new tricks, and it was difficult for me letting them make the calls. But we strategize before the start, and the coaches see what our strengths are. Teamwork has become a very good part of our program.
SAIL: Who is your major competition now?
JRD: The rest of the world started to take notice, and they're not letting us escape now. The Israelis are the team to beat. They are not huge, strong men, but they have their act together and are fast all around in all conditions. It's really disconcerting when a team of smaller guys goes faster than us. But it's not always about winning. I have a tremendous camaraderie with the teams who beat me; there is not a lot of backstabbing but a lot of mutual respect and team spirit. Maybe that differentiates the Paralympics from the Olympics.
SAIL: What is your most significant achievement?
JRD: I'll always be indebted to my father for getting me into sailing. It's such a great sport. It always feels good to do well in an event, but I'd like to think I helped expand the sport, and got people interested in it, and they're having a good time out on the water. Maybe I've helped the sport grow, and that's important to me.
SAIL: What are you working on now?
JRD: My eyes are set on Beijing. And I want to get a big catamaran, in the 30-foot range, keep it in Hawaii, and go daysailing and racing. They're pretty impressive to watch.