More than two dozen athletes spent the weekend at the Lake Norman Yacht Club on Sept. 20-21 competing in the second-annual Special Olympics Sailing Regatta.
The athletes – 31 in all, representing Special Olympics teams from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama – and their “unified partners” (volunteer assistants) sailed 420-class sailboats and Hobie 16-class catamarans on a course set up on Lake Norman.
“We started our program six years ago, on our own,” said LNYC member Lisa Chambers, who coaches the yacht club’s Special Olympics sailing team. “We reached out to Special Olympics and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got the boats and we’re willing to support this team. Is this something you’d like to get started?’ They’ve supported us 100 percent.”
The idea for the sailing program – which has been offered as a “locally popular sport” by Special Olympics North Carolina since 2004 – came from a seminar Chambers attended in Charleston, S.C., in 2008.
“We were at an annual (US Sailing) meeting and they had this presentation,” about Special Olympics sailing programs, Chambers said. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so awesome. We have got to do this.’
“At the time, in North Carolina there was only one other team, and it was in Wake County. It was just a brother-sister team. So we wanted to start this program for Lake Norman. Special Olympics … had always wanted to do it, anxious to do it, but could never find the right avenue to do it.”
While the LNYC team has competed in Special Olympics regattas in other states over the years, the yacht club hosted its first regatta last year. That event drew just 11 sailors, according to Chambers.
“We nearly tripled that this year,” Chambers said. “Sailing is a pretty tight group. It’s really more word of mouth than anything. But we’ve actually got someone here from Washington, N.C., looking to start a team. We’re hoping we can help them get things started.”
The LNYC’s regatta drew athletes with varying levels of experience in sailing. According to Chambers, most of the competitors were “Level 1” sailors, which meant they served as crew while their unified partners served as captain and piloted the sailboat.
However, there were several “Level 2” sailors – athletes considered experienced enough to captain their sailboat, with the unified partner serving as crew.
Still, safety is Rule No. 1 for the competitors, according to Chambers.
“There’s different levels within Special Olympics … but they have the unified partners with them all the time,” Chambers said. “Plus, we have two certified lifeguards out there at all times, two safety boats and two committee boats that are out there to assist if needed.
“So if an athlete would happen to go (overboard), the unified partner would make sure they were clear of the rig. Regardless of whether they are in any danger or not, the lifeguard would jump in and stay with them until the safety boat can come over. They stay in the safety boat until their sailboat can sail over, and we put them back on their boat.”
Chambers would like to see the LNYC’s Special Olympics team grow – it currently has six athletes – as well as the regatta itself. Currently, she said the yacht club plans to hold the Special Olympics Regatta every other year.
“The future of this event is unlimited, and the future of the team is unlimited,” Chambers said. “The main reason we’re going to do this event every other year is because of funding. A team from Georgia, it’s expensive for them to travel to two regattas a year. It’s a huge expense.
“So we’re going to do it where Lake Norman does it one year and Macon, Ga., does it the next year. Then, of course, everybody wants to go compete in Charleston every year. That one is a pretty big deal for them.”