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The U.S. Virgin Islands Paralympic Sailing Team and friends: (from left, standing) Tony Sanpere, Bob Blackwell, James Carney, John Foster, Jan Robinson, Dave Flaherty, Jim Kerr (sitting, left) and Walter Schenk (right). Photography by Captain Jan Robinson
The U.S. Virgin Islands Paralympic Sailing Team and friends: (from left, standing) Tony Sanpere, Bob Blackwell, James Carney, John Foster, Jan Robinson, Dave Flaherty, Jim Kerr (sitting, left) and Walter Schenk (right). Photography by Captain Jan Robinson

Reaching For Success

Paralympic sailing made its official debut at the Sydney, Australia Paralympic Games in 2000. Now, for the very first time, the U.S. Virgin Islands has a Paralympic Sailing Team that, in a very short time, has grown from a concept to a reality – this was made possible through the efforts of Team Coach John Foster and Team Coordinator Jan Robinson.

The team recently returned from The C. Thomas Clagett Jr. Memorial Clinic and Regatta, held in Newport, R.I.  The mission of the regatta is to provide sailors with disabilities the opportunity to improve their skills and reach personal goals through world-class coaching and competition.

Canada, the USA, and the U.S. Virgin Islands were represented with 51 competitors in three Paralympic classes: The three-person Sonar; two-person SKud-18, and the single-handed 2.4mR. The U.S. Virgin Island team competed in two of the three classes.

Top international coaches attended the regatta including Betsy Alison (a five-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, inductee in the 2011 inaugural class of the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and Paralympic Coach of the U.S. Sailing Team), Mike Ingham, Craig Guthrie, Mike Pinckney and Marko Dahlberg. The coaches not only held clinics but also took to the water to observe and advise the participants. Sailing was followed by a debriefing and a collective sharing of knowledge.

The Team leaving the dock: Walter Schenk (port side, stern) and Jim Kerr; Skipper Dave Flaherty has the tiller and Bob Blackwell wears the big hat. Photography by Captain Jan Robinson
The Team leaving the dock: Walter Schenk (port side, stern) and Jim Kerr; Skipper Dave Flaherty has the tiller and Bob Blackwell wears the big hat. Photography by Captain Jan Robinson

The competition began in chilly Narragansett Bay with the sailors facing the challenges of morning fog, shifting winds and tricky currents. Saint Croix’s Antonio (Tony) Sanpere made a perfect start and took the lead around the windward mark. Coach Foster commented, “The Sonar team really pulled together, being their first time out.”  This was Walter Schenk and Jim Kerr’s debut with the team along with Skipper Dave Flaherty and Bob Blackwell.

Each team participant has a unique story and one that sets a great example for others. By sharing those unique stories, we come to appreciate their amazing will and determination as they strive for success.

Let’s meet the two newest team members:

Walter Schenk was shot multiple times in a robbery gone bad in St. Thomas 18 years ago.  He remained in a coma for six weeks and was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of his injuries. Following a number of major operations that left two bullets in his body to this day, he went through painstaking rehab at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. As a result of continuing rehab over many years, and dogged determination that would be the envy of anyone, Walter is now able to walk, however, balance is a challenge and so a walking cane provides the help that he needs.

Jim Kerr is the second new member of the team. Jim was very active in his younger years.  At age 24, he represented the United States in the 1964 Games in Tokyo, taking the silver medal in the Modern Pentathlon team event, and two years later finished second at the 1966 Free World Modern Pentathlon Championships in Sardinia.  He was an eight-time All American in swimming, setting records in 1957 and again in 1962. Having moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, his winning ways continued throughout the 1980s in the sport of fencing; culminating with participation in the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, and for the U.S. Virgin Islands at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Drawn to sailing, Jim was part of the winning team for 1983 Rolex International Regatta.

Jim summed it up best when he said, “that was all long ago and I certainly thought my days of high level competitive World Championship competitions were over. Over, that is, until Jan Robinson, coordinator of the U.S. Virgin Islands Paralympic Sailing Team called and wanted me to meet with John Foster, the head coach.  They were interested in me joining the team. I mulled it over, for at least a millisecond; because I’ve been catastrophically blind since age 67, five years ago.”

Now the challenge is set as the team next travels to Halifax, Canada, August 12 – 25th, to participate in qualification races with an eye toward Rio, host city for the 2016 Paralympic Games!

Follow the Virgin Island Paralympic Sailing Team on Facebook: www.facebook.com/USVISailing

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