Many professional sailors in the big boat scene – the America’s Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race – learned their trade in the Olympic classes. But it’s not often you see the pro sailors come back later in their careers to compete on the Olympic scene, certainly not when they’re 62 years old.
But American pro Dee Smith has done exactly that. He’s competing this week in the 2.4mR Paralympic singlehanded keelboat. No one would have been more surprised than Smith himself if you had told him eight years ago that this is what he’d be doing in 2015. It was in 2007, during the America’s Cup in Valencia, that he first discovered that a long-term cancer had been residing in his body and gradually eating away at his spine.
Given just nine months to live, it’s a miracle of Smith’s determination and developments in modern genetic drugs that he’s alive at all, let alone able to get back in a boat. There were times when Smith wondered if his sailing days were over, but he still wanted to stay involved in the sport that has given him so much. “Last year, I went to the technical director of the US Olympics team and told him that I should coach the team in tactics and strategy to help the team get along. And he says, ‘Dee, that’s a really good idea, but if you want to help us to win medals, then you should sail.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can’t sail anything, I’m too old,’ and he goes, ‘Paralympics.’ And I go, ‘No, wait a minute. I’m not disabled.’ And he says, ‘I think you’ll qualify.’ And he was absolutely right.”
The damage to Smith’s spine, plus the damage inflicted on one leg after he was knocked off his bike in San Francisco a couple of years ago, means his levels of disability easily qualify as a Paralympic competitor. “So here I am, trying to learn the class and learn the boat and I’m going to go for it and try to enter the Paralympics in Rio next year, and hopefully get good enough to maybe bring a medal home.”
Racing in a borrowed boat at Medemblik, Smith has had his moments, reaching the windward mark in 4th place in one of the races on Thursday, only to swamp the boat in the treacherously short, sharp chop of the IJsselmeer. But he’s loving the learning process, and adapting to the unique demands of the 2.4mR. “When you’re on a big boat, you’re 15 feet over the water and you can see pretty much up the whole race course. In the 2.4mR, you’re so low to the water, you have to use other things to tell you about the shifts in the conditions, and I’m starting to understand it. Am I doing it right yet? No, but I’m getting better.”