The peak of my sailing career was at the 2000 Olympics. I was young 23yr old, and sailing in a 470, a two person boat. We had a top 10 world ranking, we were fully funded and we were ‘the cream of the cream’ the NZ Sports Foundation told us. Expectations were high.
We were fast in the build up to the Games - we had a very well tuned, well built and fast boat.
We had consistent, good results in the first few races of the regatta and our competitors took the chance to tack right on us when they could. Despite this, we were in 2nd place a few days into the regatta.
There was nothing normal about this regatta; there were reporters surrounding the boat park, the regatta stretched to nine days long due to lay days and days with no wind. There was plenty of time for self doubt to creep in.
We decided to use someone to spot the wind from the Sydney cliffs and talk to us via radio about the wind before the race. Perhaps we were overhyped and overthinking things, but I sailed the race looking around at everyone else instead of just focusing on our own race. We finished mid fleet.
Then, I made a mistake during the rigging the next morning.
We were doing well in the next race and then our jib falls down and we were sailing around the course with only one sail, helplessly watching our competitors sail away.
After the race, we fixed our jib, but desperation took over and I thought I had to do something special. We crossed the start-line and hear the ‘individual recall’ hooter, but we couldnt bear to even consider we might have been over the start line too early, and we stubbornly don't look back. We raced hard and won but we didn't hear the gun when we cross the line - we were disqualified. I later heard we were not just a little bit over the line, we were well over.
The team manager wanted to help give me a public profile and lead me to Peter Montgomery who is live on radio. Peter says, ‘Now Melinda, can you please explain to New Zealand how you can drop from 2nd place to 12th place in one day?’
On the last day of racing we had a beautiful breeze and the crowds were on Sydney’s cliffs cheering on the Aussie crew who were leading the regatta. My pride kicked in and I got caught up in the moment. We tacked in and out of the cliffs moving up the fleet, and I lean out (hike) a bit further, and a bit further still. Then during a tack, I missed my hiking strap and all of a sudden I am in the water staring at the underside of my capsized boat. Embarrassed at capsizing in front of cameras and crowds, we quickly righted the boat. We finished the regatta in 11th overall.
Now, I can honestly say that the build up and the experience of being in Sydney for the Olympics was absolutely amazing. There was so much atmosphere and there were plenty of opportunities to distract myself from feeling the intense disappointment of our placing.
And I still love sailing, which is why it is always a pleasure to get other people into sailing, especially in dinghies, with the TIWAL Inflatable Sailing Dinghy.
When I'm not involved with TIWAL Inflatable Sailing Dinghies, I teach at Sailability and I have met so many interesting people and have learned so much from them.
Most of all, I like the people at Sailability. They make me feel so relaxed as they have so much understanding and endless amounts of patience.
Some are anxious yet are not afraid to ask for help, and some have no fear at all, and will sail off into the horizon if I don't ask them to turn around.
It reminds me to question my own self imposed 'rules' and self limiting beliefs.
Lastly, I fully support the bid to get Paralympic Sailing back into the Paralympics. Let's get behind the bid!
This is written by my partner who observed the scene at Sailability one day:
What Sailing Can Teach Us by Robert L. Dickson
Imagine this: You are one of a dozen 16 to 18 year-old youth at the yacht club's Youth Training Programme. You are being towed aboard a fleet of racing yachts to a pontoon where a hydraulic hoist will lift your boats from the water for maintenance. This fleet is to be used in a fast-approaching World Championships. You and your mates will be cleaning the slimy hulls of these yachts: a new experience for you all! As you approach the pontoon, you see a small fleet of colourful sailing dinghies tied along the pier.
As you leap ashore, an old man on crutches shuffles awkwardly down the ramp towards you. Bert, who is ex-navy, has muscular dystrophy which limits his leg strength and control. He drops the crutches on the deck, and with the help of a younger fellow, begins to struggle into the closest sailing dinghy. You look at your friends for a reaction. They're looking at you for the same.
The overhead boom and chain suddenly rattle and spring into action. You all look up to see another man in a sling being swung out over the water and lowered like a sack of spuds into a purple sailing dinghy a little further down the pier. John is almost quadriplegic since a hang-gliding accident 20 years ago. He smiles down and waves as you gaze in disbelief. With help, he is lowered into his seat, and begins to sort out ropes with fumbling hands.
Just then, a wheelchair rolls down the ramp towards you. It's carrying a small woman (or is it a girl?) whose arms flail about wildly as her legs and feet twist and turn and her pretty face moves in all directions. 'Mack' has cerebral palsy. As you and your stunned friends watch in awe, she is lifted off the wharf and carefully manoeuvred down into the padded seat of a red-sailed dinghy in front of you. With her arms spread out strangely on the deck behind her like she’s flying, she quietly sails away from the dock, unassisted.
A lady staggers onto the pontoon in a walking frame, dragging her feet awkwardly. Jan has progressing muscular dystrophy. With help, she leaves the frame, drops to her knees, and begins to crawl towards her yellow dinghy. She struggles aboard.
Now, you and your friends begin to move to hold the boats while the rest of the Sailability squad get aboard. A young teenage boy with walking disabilities happily wanders past towards his yellow dinghy at the end of the pier.
The coach, steps into a coach boat, starts the outboard, and follows her squad out into the harbour. You all watch silently until your supervisor calls you back to action. It's scrubbing time!
A week later on the squadron's pontoon, your coach announces that he’s invited a motivational speaker to talk to you this morning about ‘attitude’. The speaker will arrive soon. You are all hoping the coach has secured an America's cup skipper, or one of the many Olympians.
Flailing her arms, feet and head as she’s wheeled towards you is ‘Mack’, the cerebral palsy girl. Mackenzie Kench is your motivational speaker on ‘attitude’. She will address you through an electronic dictaphone.
You know now that you will never forget this day, this girl, and the lesson you’re learning on attitudes to life, living and humanity: lessons about humility, patience, determination and the realities of life outside your comfort zone. Way outside!
The Sailability Experience. Any contact with 'Sailability' is a collision with your own attitude. It's a privilege for that reason. Sailability is not about boats or about sailing. It's about people who won't submit to circumstances, and about helping others to do the same. The closer you get, the more you realise 'Together Everyone Achieves More'. TEAM. It might be a team of just two; but it takes a team! A carer or coach and a keen learner. A boat rigger or trailer repairer and a keen sailor. A boom winch operator and a paraplegic adventurer. A yachtsman or ferry-driver on the harbour, and a cerebral palsied girl in a colourful little sailboat. If you 'get' the team thing here, you are about to have a life-changing experience.
The Sailability Experience is repeated many times weekly around the world. You see fear, pain, ignorance, limitations and 'inabilities' overcome; freedom and joy achieved against all odds; and courage, freedom and optimism demonstrated. Out on the water in colourful little boats, with ferries tooting, and motor launches, yachts and speedboats swerving and waving, very few people have any idea what they are witnessing! On any day here, if you know what you’re seeing, you’ll get a healthy re-set of your attitudes, and a reminder of what is important in life.
PS To get in touch with a TIWAL Agent near you, send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will book a sail with a TIWAL sailboat, for hassle free, low maintenance sailing.
I am a New Zealand sailor who learned to sail in the beautiful Malborough Sounds and then went onto represent NZ at the 2000 Olympics.