Lead image: Betsy Alison, US Sailing Director of Adult programs & Paralympic Coach. Credit: Walter Cooper US Sailing
John Seepe was in the Navy and 26 years old when he started sailing. He claims to have been self-taught and thought he knew how to sail until he started one design racing in the Thunderbird fleet in Seattle in the mid-90s, where he jokes, he got his butt handed to him. His life situation changed dramatically when four years ago he lost his leg, among other serious injuries, in an accident. Nonetheless, he’s still sailing at a highly competitive level, and he’s still smiling.
“I was riding a motorcycle to work when an Uber driver turned left and ran me over at a green light,” Seepe, 61, from North Port, FL, said. “I ended up with a plate in my right wrist, a plate in my left shoulder and my left leg was more or less ripped off.”
Seepe was recently selected to join the US Para Sailing Team, which will represent the United States in all four Paralympic classes at the Allianz Sailing World Championship in the Hague, the Netherlands and taking place in the port of Scheveningen from August 10-20, 2023. Like the rest of his teammates, he has a gracious acceptance of his disability and feels more than anything fortunate to be alive.
“I’m lucky to be here and I’m glad they had enough blood at the blood bank!” he commented good humoredly. “I’m going through physical therapy right now so that my prosthetic will bolt directly onto my leg.”
The team, which was granted funds by the St Francis Sailing Foundation to attend the World Championship, will be led by Betsy Alison, five-time Rolex Yachtswomen of the Year, who will race in the Hansa 303 women’s division. 2008 Paralympic Gold medal winner Maureen McKinnon is also on the team sailing in the RS Venture Connect. Joining the women are John Seepe (2.4 Meter) and Jim Thweatt (Hansa 303 men’s division). Shan McAdoo will sail on the RS Venture Connect with McKinnon. All five are veteran sailors with loads of experience under their belts and selected based on their outstanding sailing resumes.
The combined World Championships is a major stop on the road to the Paris 2024 Games and is one of the biggest international events with over 1500 sailors expected on the 2023 Olympic and Para sailing calendar. Up to forty countries and some 125+ sailors are expected to race in the Para classes on Brassemermeer (a lake between Amsterdam and the Hague), and several countries like the US will field a team in each of the Para Sailing events. This is the first time that the Para classes will be sailing the combined World Championships alongside their Olympic counterparts, a meaningful action by World Sailing for Para Sailors as Alison acknowledges.
“In past iterations of this combined World Championship, it’s always been Olympic classes gathering together to compete; Para classes were never invited to sail Worlds at the same time,” Alison (age 62 From Newport, RI) commented. “World Sailing leadership has worked really hard over the last 8 or 9 years to get sailing back into the Paralympic Games, and they realize that elite sailing at the Para level is really important to recognize. We had hoped that our application to the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) for re-inclusion would result in a positive response from the IPC and that we would be back on the slate of events for LA 2028. That did not happen, but World Sailing recognized nonetheless that having this combined World Championship, which happens every four years, was an important event to include the Para classes and this is the first time it’s ever been done.”
Seepe sailed the Hansa 303, the RS Venture Connect but fell in love with the 2.4m and committed to the boat in December 2019 when he received a grant boat from the Clagett Foundation. His training program leading into the Worlds is impressive. In late June he’ll compete in the US Para Championships at Clagett Regatta/US Para Sailing Championship in Newport, RI. From there Seepe heads to Finland for the Nordic Championships in the middle of July, followed by the 2.4 World Championships also in Finland which finishes on August 5. On August 6, he flies to the Hague for the World Championships.
“You always go out hoping for the best and obviously you want to go into the Clagett building off everything and that’s really what my hopes are,” Seepe said. “Most of our sailing is done on tidal water so I think there will be a little bit of learning there – Clagett is on tidal water – and the following two regattas – the Nordic Championships and the 2.4 Worlds will both be on lakes so it will be good to get some lake sailing in prior to the Netherlands where the Worlds Sailing Championships will be sailed.”
Thweatt has been involved in adaptive sports since the ‘70s after losing his leg in high school. He learned how to ski, joined the ski team, skied for 20 years, and sailed in the summer coastal sailing off Dana Point in Southern California. A physical therapist, Thweatt became interested in racing as a Para sailor after watching Paralympic quadriplegic sailor Paul Callahan in the Sonar at the Sydney Olympics in 2002. Thweatt said to his wife at that time, “You know, I can do that sport.”
Thweatt (69, from West Sacramento, CA), started training, attending Betsy’s camps, and learning as much as he could and training as hard as he could on the water and in the gym. He has sailed with and competed in the Hansa fleet out of San Francisco for the past 20 years and competed in multiple Paralympic campaigns in the three-person Sonar class as well as PHRF sailing on San Francisco Bay.
“The Hansa 303 is an interesting boat, it’s a great platform because of its side-by-side seating which can accommodate 2 people, but at the Worlds, we will be sailing in a single person format,” Thweatt explained. “It’s considered a non-technical boat, but you can still get a lot of out of it. A number of Paralympic athletes have gone from the Sonar and other boats that are no longer a Para Sailing class into the Hansa, so the field is deep.”
Thweatt added that the Hansa is the only Para Sailing class boat readily available on the west coast for racing, there are a few 2.4m and RS Venture Connect boats and sailors but not in fleets, the Hansa fleet has training programs in Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Diego where he has run three races this year.
Alison got involved with Para sailing in 1998 when she was invited to coach two of the Sonar teams at the 1998 Disabled World Championships held in Newport, RI. She knew nothing about coaching people with disabilities at that time, then over the next twenty years learned a whole lot, she acknowledged with a wry smile. When Para sailing was removed from the slate of Paralympic sports in 2016, Alison transitioned from coaching Paralympic Sailing within US Sailing to become director of adult programs, adaptive sailing now falls under her purview.
Since 2021, Alison has been the Chair of the Para World Sailing Committee, and not thinking for a minute that she would one day be a recipient of her efforts on this committee until she acquired a disability in November 2022 when she underwent surgery for a massive cancerous tumor in her left hip which left her with very little bone structure and very little muscle in her left hip. Now, she will not only lead the US Para team at the World Championships, but she will also be racing the Hansa 303 in the women’s division. She’s not driven a car or sat in a boat since her surgery given the discomfort of sitting for extended periods but is hopeful to get some time on the Hansa before too long.
“A lot of my training will be dependent on whether I can find a Hansa to sail more locally, and I promise I will get in a boat and sail it prior to going to Europe!” Alison said determinedly. “I’m going to be very reliant on my skill sets from having been an active racer for over fifty years and taking those tactical/technical skills and head-out-of-the-boat skills to put them to the test on shorter course lake sailing – that type of environment that really does put a premium on what you know and how you apply it on the water.”
Commenting on the Hansa, Alison noted that it is limited in terms of possible adjustments putting a premium on trimming sails well and getting one’s head out of the boat and sailing technically well.
“It’s still about finding the shifts, the puffs – what good sailors do all the time – you can’t necessarily fall back on adjustments although there are small things that you can do in this non-technical boat to make it faster and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
McAdoo and McKinnon who hail from the same yacht club in Beverly, MA, began sailing together after McKinnon’s long time gold medal teammate Nick Scandone passed away in 2009.
“Shan knows me as an able-bodied walking-on-earth kind of person, and I’ve known him prior to his MS diagnosis,” McKinnon (58, from Salem, MA) explained. “When Nick passed away and I needed a teammate, I knew of Shan’s diagnosis and that he probably had the ability to qualify as a disabled sailor at the very high end. But he wasn’t ready to be part of that and felt as though he was a bit of an imposter in our group as his disability wasn’t yet obvious.”
McAdoo and McKinnon have tried different two-person boats and the Worlds will be the first time that they will race together in the RS Venture Connect, a three-sailboat with a main, jib and small asymmetrical spinnaker, centralized controls, and fixed seats for participants so those with severe disabilities can be in the boat without sliding around.
“We have done some training on the Charles River (Boston) to get ready for the event,” McKinnon noted. “The RS Venture is a spinnaker boat that is considered technical, with lots of lines similar to the SKUD18 while maybe not as powerful. Our boat has less sail area, especially the spinnaker. I’m really looking forward to sailing an asymmetric again, it’s been a very long time, I’m really looking forward to sailing with Shan!”
McKinnon added that the inclusion of Para sailors in the Worlds is eventful to the team and an important measure of equality between Para sailors and able-bodied counterparts.
Raised on cruising boats throughout the Caribbean and southeastern US, moving into racing was a natural progression for McAdoo from a young age.
“I did a lot of able-bodied racing but as my MS has set in and done its job, I have been happily received in the disabled sailing community and I have been grateful for that,” McAdoo (56, from Essex, MA) said. “The fantastic thing about being a sailor is you get to keep sailing. This sport is unbelievable for its ability to be an adaptive sport. As my MS has progressed and things have gotten harder for me in every other aspect of life, I can still keep sailing; that is what excites me and that is what I am looking forward to.”
He added, laughing, “I’m a little anxious to be honest – we have a woman on this team who has five Rolex watches and another woman who has a gold medal. If this team doesn’t produce some results, it’s going to be the new guy’s fault. I’m just excited to be part of the team and can hardly wait to get over there and stretch our wings.”
*In addition to funding by the St Francis Sailing Foundation, this effort is being mostly self-funded by the participants. The team has put together a website with pictures and bios here. The team is seeking any tax-deductible contribution you can provide through the KMAC Foundation, scan code below.
Note: Currently, Para sailing is not on the current slate of events for either Paris 2024 or LA 2028. Para sailing was removed by the IPC after the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games citing that World Sailing only provided proof of 31 countries participating not meeting the IPC minimum number of countries (32) that were expected to be regularly practicing the sport worldwide. World Sailing redoubled its efforts to support and grow Para sailing worldwide through Paralympic Development Program (PDP) clinics in developing nations around the world, providing coaching and instruction for both sailors and coaches around the world. Over the past several years, PDPs have helped grow Para sailing to approximately 40 countries on all continents. There are programs in Asia, Oceania, Europe, North and South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Northern Africa and South Africa. Competition to get into the Games is fierce with far more sports wanting inclusion than the number of slots available. World Sailing is determined to keep the pedal down with sights on Australia for the 2032 Paralympic Games.