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One of the bestBy admin | Sep 7, 2012
Halifax sailor competes in 2012 Paralympics
By Richard Shrubb
Paul Tingley, a sailor athlete from Halifax, was at a pre-Paralympics international sailboat racing event in Weymouth, England, when we met in May. He was introduced by his United States rival as the likely gold medal winner at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Tingley’s medal was all but nailed down.
On the third day of the Paralympic sailing events, he was far from amused–at that stage, lying 5th in the medal table. Despondently, he told me on the dock, “I’m not happy–5th wasn’t the goal. There’s lots of fight in this dog yet; it isn’t mathematically impossible to get on the podium,” he said.
Tingley is one of the best sailors in his class of boat in the world. In 2010, he became world champion in the Open Class of the 2.4 mR single handed keelboat class. What makes him exceptional is that he did this despite being unable to use his legs after a skiing accident when he was 24.
Tingley’s personal coach, Stellan Berlin, from Sweden, says that this particular class is “able bodied, and disabled people compete on a level playing field. Your disability means nothing in this sport,” he says. Berlin has won the world championships five times in his own right and has coached with Team Canada since 2005.
Paralympic sports are arguably becoming as elite as the Olympics. “For us, the Paralympics is about the sport we do, not our disability,” says Tingley. “Though I accept others will feel inspired by the extra challenges Paralympians face, no one really wants to talk about their disability all the time.”
Even so, it’s unlikely that he would have gotten into sailing as a career but for his back injury. He started sailing at The Waegwoltic, a sports club in Halifax, in 1980. “It was a way of my parents getting rid of me for the day,” says Tingley. “I never really took it seriously; I was the best in the club at water fights rather than racing!”
Tingley was still at college studying computer science when he broke his back in a skiing accident in 1994. “My physiotherapist took me out to try a range of sports,” he says. “One day I went sailing at Sail Able in Halifax–I was hooked. Sixteen years later I’m still a junkie.”
This is his fourth Paralympics. In the Sydney 2000 games, Tingley won bronze as crew on the Sonar class, but didn’t get a medal in Athens in 2004. In 2005, he got into the single handed 2.4 mR class. In Beijing, 2008, he proved the wisdom of this move by getting gold in his first Paralympics on this boat.
For the singlehanded racer, it’s about thinking strategically in the race as well as the various jobs on the boat. “It is a great feeling sailing singlehanded–you can train when you want, not answering to anyone else, and there’s more to do,” he says.
Tingley laughed when Halifax Magazine suggested that perhaps one day he should do a single handed round the world yacht race like the Vendee Globe. “I like sleeping in my own bed at night, thanks–not being thrown about in the Southern Ocean for weeks on end!” he says. Still, he’s looking seriously at how to get into kite surfing and other kite sports, which are traditionally the domain of the able bodied. Given his character, one can easily believe he will succeed.
Tingley’s elite training went up a level after another accident. He somersaulted out of his wheelchair while playing basketball in 2010, causing an infection on the metal bars holding his spine together. “Once the infection gets on the metal there is nothing doctors can do, except take them out and replace them,” he says. He was already in contact with a non-profit called B-210, and they paid for surgery privately, which took place in Montreal. This enabled him to recover quickly. Later that year, he won the world championships in the Netherlands. “I was better after the surgery than before the infection,” he says.
North America isn’t the best place to train to elite level, according to Canadian Paralympic Team Coach Brian Todd. “You must train where the best competition is; racing alone doesn’t do it,” he says. Tingley took this aboard and, in April this year, went to Sweden to train and race. “Sweden has one of the most competitive fleets of his class in the world,” says Todd.
Competition is fierce. Speaking before the regatta began, he listed five of the nine teams competing as rivals for the podium. Training and racing among them all the time is good for everyone racing. Tingley has been on the road continuously for 11 months.
Even so, with full time globe trotting commitment he was beaten to the top of the leader board comprehensively, 10 points behind the bronze medal and 21 points behind Team GB’s Helen Lucas. When success was slipping from his grasp, he said “that’s sailboat racing–anything can happen!”