Jennifer French is a competitive sailor,, who just happens to have a spinal cord injury.I had an appointment to meet up with her last Friday at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center. Our appointment fell through because of some things in my life, (bad shoulder wound) but she graciously filled out this interview and returned it via e-mail. I am waiting for some good pix and I am more determined than ever to try sailing. In the meantime here is the interview.
Ralph: It's very nice of you to meet with me today, thank you and thanks for doing this interview.
Jen: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Ralph: So tell me about sailing...When did you start sailing and how did you get involved in it competitively?
Jen: Unlike many of these sailors, I was introduced to sailing by my (now) husband. He taught me how to windsurf on our second date, several years ago. From then, we enjoyed the sport of sailing various craft but did not get into racing until we moved to Florida about five years ago.
Ralph: What are the high and low points of your competitve years sailing.
Jen: Well, it really depends on the aspect. Just he ability to get out there sometime is a high in itself, especially if the breeze is up and you have a good team together. I enjoy sailing in bigger fleets rather than just a few boats, which also means competing against mostly able-bodied sailors. Probably one of my favorite moments was crossing the finish line in third place against a competitive fleet of 41 Sonars up in Marblehead, MA. Looking back and seeing all those spinnakers behind us. That was fun.
I guess low points are really what you make of them. I, personally, get frustrated with the politics of a sports admin. One of the more frustrating is when the medical classifiers determined that my blind teammate was no longer eligible to sail with under "disabled sailing". His condition did not change, but they changed the rules.
Ralph: What is it about sailing instead of any other competitive sport
that drives you.
Jen: There are several aspects of the sport that are attractive. Sailing is not only a physical sport but very much a mental sport as well. There is a lot of science involved.
Sailing is also a sport where the "disabled" can easily compete with the "able-bodied". We leave our wheelchairs, prosthetics, crutches, etc. on the docks and go compete on the water. No special privileges are given to us. Once we are on the water, we everyone is equal and every one is free game.
Ralph:I have looked at your website and it's great that your exposing more disabled people to sailing, however your last results from competion are from 2004! I googled for days to get those...Seriously though tell me how sailing alternatives came about.
Jen: Actually, I’m not involved with Sailing Alternatives anymore. Sailing Alternatives was founded in Sarasota by John Jorgensen. I’m not sure what they are doing these days.
Ralph: I also learned you are the Exec. Director of "The Society To Increase Mobility". I had never heard of it until I started researching for this interview. I have 2 questions about this.
1. What are your functions as director
2. How do you find the time to do all this?
Jen: The Society To Increase Mobility changed it’s operational name to Neurotech Network about a year ago. About three years ago, I co-founded the organization with another Board member. We found a lack of awareness epidemic regarding neurotechnology devices, which are medical devices that interact with the human nervous system to improve or restore function.
The non-profit was created for unbiased information dissemination and the assist the development of the industry. As President, I over see the operations and growth of the organization.
How do I find time? For something where you see a direct impact on people’s lives, it’s worth the extra time. I worked a lot before the injury and somethings just don’t change. I guess, if you want something done, give it to a busy person.
Ralph: I "Googled" you and there are thousands of entries, what are your other web based organizational involvements?
Jen: I don’t know if I can name everything off the top of my head. Recently, Triple Knot productions released a documentary film on our story. It won awards at the Houston film festival and is making its way around to others. It’s now being distributed by Aquarious Health Care Videos.
Ralph: You were one of the first people to have an FES implant for standing. How helpful is it for you and who in our community is it appropriate for?
Jen: The standing system is extremely helpful, however still experimental. It allows me to stand and move around using a walker. Functionally, it gives an alternative to the wheelchair. It also helps to combat secondary conditions associated with spinal cord injury such as muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections, and contractures.
The system is appropriate for persons with SCI that have their peripheral nerves intact. The team at the Cleveland FES Center have implants persons as high as a C5 and down to a T12 level. It is a definite time commitment, of which I have found worth it. However, it is also a clinical study so everything is not perfect. I work with the research team to help them develop and better device.
Ralph: Tell me a little bit about your life outside of all this. Do you have children? What do you for fun?
Jen: No kids, but I have thirteen nieces and nephews. My husband, Tim, and I are pretty active. We also scuba dive, fly fish, canoe, bike. We enjoy the outdoors.
Ralph: It is obvious that having a SCI hasn't held you back from much, but what is it that you miss most about being able bodied?
Jen: Hiking mountains. I know it’s possible, but it’s just not the same.
Ralph: Is there any advice you would like to give on achieving goals that might seem impossible for a newly injured SCI?
Jen: Don’t give up. Small progress is better than no progress at all. Your attitude is everything.
Ralph: It's been a pleasure meeting you and thank you again for answering my questions.
Jen: Thanks, Ralph. I truly appreciate your coverage of so many sports.