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The 2004 Canadian Paralympic sailing team practicing off Alcatraz Island, prior to the Athens games (from left)
Brian MacDonald,
Skipper Brian Mackie,
Paul Tingley

photo: Don Martin.

Disappointment Defines Athens
Sailing Canada's team fails to make the podium

By Cheryl Card


"If you're not on the podium, it doesn't matter."

The statement sums up the 2004 Athens Paralympics for West Vancouver's Brian MacDonald whose three-man sailing team, which also included Victoria's Brian Mackie and Paul Tingley, went to Greece as defending world champions and the odds-on favorites to bring back gold.

Not only did Canada's sailing team fail to make the podium, but the crew chalked up their "worst finish in four years," placing a disappointing seventh in a field of 17 boats.

After taking bronze in Sydney's 2000 games, the Canadian team followed up by winning the worlds in both 2001 and 2003. In Athens however, the winds were not blowing in their favor, and the team that normally thrives in "good, heavy air," struggled with the unexpectedly light Greek coast breeze.

For Athens, MacDonald, a double amputee, Mackie, a single amputee, and Tingley, a paraplegic, trained long and hard in San Francisco's high winds in anticipation of the same conditions. Admittedly, the Canadian crew was not prepared for calm seas.

Technically, the Canadians had three "over-earlies" (sailor-speak for a false start, or crossing the start line before the beginning of the race), which sent them back to last place starts for three of the six days. In another example of the team's misfortunate, they were heading for a third place finish the first racing day, when a sudden gust of wind caught the boat and knocked the skipper. Subsequently, the tiller or steering control was lost, and the team finished a disappointing 8th, setting their on-going struggling standard.

Recognizing their lackluster performance, the sailing team took a number of chances. For example, while a conservative route would be riding middle of the course, the Canadians took "flyers" (more sailor-speak, meaning big risks), or basically took to the sides. But despite all the efforts, no win was had, leading MacDonald to conclude that the team "didn't gel in Athens."

More important than the technical flaws in their performance were the issues impacting morale presented by the host country. According to MacDonald, Paralympic sailing was the only sport that did not allow spectators, the reason being, financial. There was not enough money to hire security, and even though the stands were equipped to hold over 100,000 people, the teams' own family members were not allowed to view the event.

Given that each team member expected the support of at least one or two friends and relatives, the issue was a huge blow to morale. Also adding to the growing "bad attitude" was an unhappy military presence that was utilized as security. MacDonald verifies that security personnel lacked common sense, but as with numerous problems in Athens he believes it was all due to a lack of money.

Both MacDonald and Williams concede the food was inedible, and crewmember Paul Tingley came down with food poisoning. The team and entourage were forced to endure long lines at fast food chain McDonalds rather than take a chance with what was provided.

And coach David Williams noted another frustration, "Transport was never where it was supposed to be." Both Williams and MacDonald acknowledge with all the disorganization, it's easy to understand the general impression that Athens didn't want to put on the Paralympics, primarily due to funding requirements.

Williams also recognized that though the host country "tried really hard," and the sailing venue people were "very accommodating," comparatively Sydney was a much better Paralympic experience. He gives a lot of credit to Athens however, for the improvements made since hosting the previous year's World Championships. Not only had there been a monumental "city clean-up", but also the Parthenon was made accessible for wheelchairs, a significant improvement for the 2004 visit.

Having fully committed themselves "24/7" for the year prior to the Paralympic Games, MacDonald and teammates are now recuperating financially, physically, and emotionally. They have sold their 23-foot Sonar boat, and plan to lease one for the next big race, the World Championship to be held in Perth, Australia in January 2006. As part of their regime, the team members will return to Florida for more regattas and training.

As Williams acknowledges, the actual sailing component only occupies 10-15 percent of their efforts, and with costs approximately $100,000 per year and $150,000 per Paralympic year, most of this team's energy will be focused on fundraising.

Already planning for Beijing in 2008, the three sailors are separating to form their own teams, with Brian MacDonald and Brian Mackie remaining in the 23 Sonar class and Paul Tingley going solo in the 2.4meter class. Coach Don Martin has been recruited by the US and is concentrating on the America Cup, while David Williams will remain to coach MacDonald's team.

Williams is already focusing on a change in training strategy to prepare for Beijing's comparatively "light air." MacDonald jokes that he's scouting for a couple of lightweight individuals, "light to non-existent", to help fly easy with the expected low winds in 2008. But more seriously, he views the formation of the new teams as a way to get others involved in the sport.

MacDonald also hopes that rumored "street-talk" may come true at Beijing where Paralympic and regular Olympic sail-teams will be combined to compete in the same venue.

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