Real Inspiration • Following last summer’s London Olympics, in which U.S. sailors failed to medal, there was a lot naval gazing and second guessing in the sailing community as the Olympic Committee struggled to understand the problem. A thoughtful report, which you can read on www.ussailing.org, was generated by a select panel.
What didn’t get enough press after the Games is the fact that the U.S. did in fact win a silver medal in sailing—at the 2012 Paralympics, also held in England. Jennifer French and Jean-Paul Creignou competed in the doublehanded SKUD-18 class and finished second. Not bad for a woman who is a quadriplegic and a guy who is legally blind; Jen was the skipper and eyes of the boat while J.P. handled lines and sheets.
But the story is even better than that. Jen French was a high-tech professional and an active snowboarder, runner and outdoorswoman. The motto she shared with her soon-to-be husband Tim was “work hard, play hard.” The play hard part came to a sudden end one winter night when Jen and some friends went for a moonlight snowboard at a New England ski resort. Although an expert rider, the unthinkable happened—Jen missed a turn in the trail and sailed into the woods at high speed. The result was a seriously compromised spinal cord and paralysis from her shoulders down.
But if Jen is anything, she is determined and smart enough to find solutions where others find barriers. She found a research program in Cleveland that was pioneering functioning electronic stimulation by using implanted electrodes to stimulate otherwise paralyzed muscles. It had never been tried on a woman, but Jen would not be deterred, and after several applications she was finally accepted into the program. She became something of a lab rat with a single mission: to stand on her own.
Over the next year, Jen had electrodes implanted in her abdomen, hips and legs. The electrodes are controlled by a magic box worn around her stomach—if she wants to sit up straight or even stand, she can press a button on the box and her abdominal and leg muscles will be jolted into action. After progressing from near total paralysis to the bionic woman, Jen was able to dance with Tim at their wedding.
And then what? To demonstrate that the breakthrough technology worked in the real world, Jen embarked on a quest to sail in the Paralympics even though she had done very little sailboat racing. The determination and smarts that got her standing on her own feet also got her and J.P. through the U.S. Olympic trials and onto England. And there, after a rocky start, they improved over the course of 11 races, securing a podium place on the final day. The silver was theirs. And ours.
Jennifer French has written a book called On My Feet Again that concludes at the 2012 Olympics. You can order it on Amazon. Read it. It will change you.