Mark LEBLANC and Albert FOSTER took the honours in the 2.4mR and Sonar fleets respectively on the last day of racing in the 2007 Independence Cup/North American Challenge Cup (IC/NACC). Victory in the Freedoms, for the fifth time, went to the queen of the IC/NACC, Karen MITCHELL of Deerfield Beach.
Top-ranked disabled sailors competing at the annual US Independence Cup/North American Challenge Cup (IC/NACC) - a three-day US SAILING National Championship hosted by the Chicago Yacht Club and sponsored nationally by Rolex Watch U.S.A., Dry Creek Vineyard, American Airlines, and Hyatt Hotels - were treated to a range of wind conditions: a first morning of light 4- to 6-knot breeze; a second day of 12- to 15-knot blows that gave crews in all three classes a workout; and a final day of lighter-air sailing. Wind conditions may have been varied, but fleet leaders remained consistent in their commanding performances.
Winner in the six-boat 2.4mR class LEBLANC from New Orleans never finished worse than second place in the opening two days of the event to capture a win in this singlehanded class. In his early 20s, he may be the youngest skipper to yet capture a win at this US SAILING championship, but LEBLANC showed how youth could translate to sage sailing on the racecourse: he held his lead until the conclusion of the regatta - with a third place becoming his discard race - and finished 9 points ahead of some formidable class talents, including US Disabled Sailing Team (USDST) member John RUF and Charles ROSENFIELD, who finished 2-3 respectively on a tie-breaker.
LEBLANC, who was awarded the Judd Goldman Trophy for his win, was third last year, but a full 18 points away from the class leader. His key to preparing for this event was time on the water: 'I competed in every regatta I could this year,'
he said of his training efforts over the past 12 months, which included competing in Europe.
The IC/NACC, held from 2-6 August, drew half of the members of the 2007 USDST, the top-ranked disabled sailors in the USA who represent the country's most promising hopefuls to earn berths for the 2008 Paralympic Games in China. The 2.4mR and the Sonar, both sailed at the IC/NAAC, are two of the three classes to be raced at the 2008 Paralympic Games in China. This was the first time the Sonar was raced in this championship.
Freedom Independence 20 skipper MITCHELL racing this year with JP CREIGNOU, arrived at the IC/NACC as the only four-time consecutive champion in the history of this event - and a clear favourite for yet another class win. But after the first four races, the points situation in this seven-boat class left little margin for error: skipper Mike STRAHLE lead the fleet with 9 points, while MITCHELL and Chicago skipper Mike JAFFE were tied with 10 points each for second place.
MITCHELL then made her move, winning races 5, 6, and 7 to edge into the lead. She won the class to become the first five-time champion at this championship and winner of the Chandler Hovey Jr. Trophy. A member of the 2007 USDST, she is also working toward a longer-term goal: to become the first woman to represent the USA at the Paralympic Games, where MITCHELL and CREIGNOU hope to compete in the two person SKUD18.
The six-boat Sonar class was topped by FOSTER, at age 70, the eldest skipper to capture a class win at this championship. Racing with David BURDETTE and Jim THWEATT, FOSTER won seven individual races in the 14-race series against some tough Sonar competitors, including second-place Paul CALLAHAN, who represented the USA in the 2000 Paralympic Games and raced the championship with USDST member Roger CLEWORTH and Tom BROWN; and third-place skipper Ken KELLY, racing with Don TERLSON and Marc SHAW, all of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
FOSTER's reaction to his great success belied his age, and he waxed as enthusiastic as a teenager as he savored the victory, which he attributed to his crew: 'Those guys have gotten so good,'
said FOSTER of his crew. 'I am just so proud of them, I can hardly stand it!'
Race watchers who follow the IC/NACC each year cannot but help be inspired by the disabled sailors who compete at this event - individuals who often face enormous hurdles, just to reach the starting line. Sonar contender Lieutenant John PUCILLO went from elite Navy diver to disabled Iraq vet to Paralympic hopeful, all in less than a year, when he lost his left leg above the knee while stationed in Iraq with the Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, the Navy bomb squad. Now a member of the USDST, PUCILLO crewed with David SCHROEDER and Keith BURHANS. This team finished fourth in class and may not have taken a medal at this event, but PUCILLO's outlook demonstrates that he has already logged a personal victory, just by getting into the game. 'Disabled sailing has taught me that you can do extraordinary things, even though bad things have happened,'
PUCILLO said, before heading to Chicago to compete in the regatta. 'It's inspiring and motivating.'
Class winners and many of the competitors at the IC/NACC will be seen this fall on the starting line of the Paralympic Trials to be held in Newport. The Trials will determine which teams will represent the USA at the 2008 Paralympic Games in China.
The 2008 Independence Cup will move to Long Island Sound and will be hosted next summer by the American Yacht Club (Rye, N.Y.). The North American Challenge Cup will remain at its home in Chicago and will once again be hosted by the Chicago Yacht Club.
As national sponsors of the event, Rolex Watch U.S.A., Dry Creek Vineyard, American Airlines, and Hyatt Hotels play a vital role at this US SAILING National Championship. The support of corporate supporters is critical to the success of the IC/NACC regatta, for the logistics involved in traveling to and participating in the event can be both physically and financially daunting. Corporate partners provide the generous support needed so participants can concentrate on the tough competition they face on the water.