Disabled sailing championships a big step for Kowalesky

Judy Kowalesky struggled for six years after becoming paralyzed from the waist down in 2004.

“I had always been active in athletics,” said Kowalesky. “Being in a wheelchair was difficult. I was depressed for six years as I tried to find a physical challenge that fulfilled me.”

Then she went sailing.

“I was in the boat for 10 minutes when I thought, ‘I’ve found it,’” she said. “Sailing turned it around for me. There was so much to learn and so much I could do on the boat despite my disability. As strange as it might sound, sailing is a great calling for a lot of people with physical limitations.

“That’s the message I’d like to get out to other people who might have been in my situation and felt the way I did. Try sailing.”

Kowalesky is teaming with two other San Diegans with disabilities this weekend in the U.S. Disabled Sailing Championships out of Southwestern Yacht Club.

Starting today, 53 sailors with disabilities will be racing on north San Diego Bay in single-, double- and triple-handed boats in five classes.

The event is open to any sailor with a physical disability. Participants have included quadriplegics, paraplegics and amputees, as well as individuals with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, polio and ALS.

Kowalesky, 59, was an ICU nurse at UCSD Hospital in 2004 when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer.

“After having a total hysterectomy, they discovered the cancer spread to my lymph nodes, which required six months of radiation treatments,” said Kowalesky. “The radiation damaged my spinal cord. It happens in three of every 10,000 cases.”

Kowalesky has spent most of her time since in a wheelchair, although she can stand.

“On land, I’m pretty much confined to the wheelchair,” she said. “On the boat, I can move around using handrails.”

Kowalesky will be sailing with San Diegans Steve Edenson (who needs leg braces to walk) and Mitsuhiro Iwamoto (who is blind) on a 22-foot sloop in the triple-handed class. They do not expect to win. “I’d be happy with a strong last,” said Kowalesky.

Several past participants of this championship have gone on to compete in the Paralympic Games, including 2008 Paralympic Gold Medalist and former U.S. Yachtsman of the Year Nick Scandone, who succumbed to ALS two years ago.

The five-boat, triple-handed fleet is led by three-time U.S. Disabled Triple-handed Champion, Rick Doerr of Clifton, N.J. He will be sailing with Oceanside’s Michael Ross and Gerard Tiernan of Falmouth, Maine. Also in the class is 2012 Paralympic double-handed silver medalist Jennifer French, of St. Petersburg, Fla. She won the double-handed U.S. championship in 2009 and is a seven-time winner of the Milan-Gruson Award as the top disabled female skipper. French and Canadian Brenda Hopkins will be crewing for Sarah Everhart Skeels of Tiverton, R.I.

Edenson will steer the local entry with Kowalesky on the mainsheet and Iwamoto on the foredeck. Iwamoto has plans to sail from Japan to San Francisco next year in a 28-foot boat.

In addition to sailing in the Disabled Nationals, Kowalesky is on the committee responsible for bringing the 22-year-old event to the West Coast for the first time.

“Hopefully, this will raise the awareness of what a great sport sailing is for anyone with a physical limitation,” said Kowalesky. “I’m trying to interest the Wounded Warrior program in sailing. I think it would be a great fit.”

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