Talking Olympic Dreams with Nichole Rider

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November 27, 2012

Nichole Rider sets her sights on the 2016 Para-Olympics.

People often ask us what we do with the gear after we test it. With a few exceptions, most of the products go to sailing nonprofits. So where did it go this year?

A week ago last Friday, we sent about $2,500 worth of former test products to Shake-A-Leg Miami, a sailing program that Harry Horgan started more than 15 years ago for handicapped sailors. Most of the gear was piled into a shiny, new Independence 20, a boat designed by Gary Mull and built by Catalina Yachts for disabled sailors. Fresh out of the mold, the bullet-proof sloop was to be the newest addition to Shake-a-Leg’s growing fleet on Biscayne Bay. Today, “Shake” offers much more than sailing. It is a model of how generous donors, a supportive local government, and an army of dedicated volunteers can create a true waterfront community. Over the past two decades, it has given thousands of people joy, hope, and—without exageration—a new reason to live. One of those people was behind the wheel of the mini-van towing the Independence 20.

If you have not yet heard the name Nichole Rider, you will. A star athlete in high school and college, Rider was paralyzed in a car accident in 1995. Technically quadriplegic, the 39-year-old sailor has limited motion in her arms and hands and almost no ability to use her legs, but like her friend and sailing mentor, Kerry Gruson, she refuses to let her disability define her. Gruson, a former New York Times reporter, and another disabled sailor, Juan Carlos Gil, first introduced Rider to sailing at Shake-a-Leg in 2010. Two years later, Rider has a laser-beam focus on the 2016 Para-Olympics in Brazil.

While volunteer John Muir and I loaded up the Independence with marine toilets, galley stoves, topside paints, and bilge pumps, I got a chance to talk with Rider. The hour or so that we chatted stayed with me through the week of Thanksgiving. Her passion for sailing and life, with all its ups and downs, is contagious.  

Rider was raised in a small town near Laramie, Wyo., where her father ran a local newspaper. As a child, she was active in almost every sport, eventually settling on basketball. She and her twin sister, Jennifer, were both recruited for the University of Wyoming’s basketball team. In her senior year, the pickup truck she was a passenger in crashed into a rocky ledge. Barely alive, with her neck cleanly severed at the fifth vertebrae, she was airlifted to a nearby hospital. Doctors gave her a 50-percent chance of surviving the night. It is our good fortune that they were half wrong.

Rider’s competitive drive and optimism helped sustain her through the tough years that followed the accident, and sailing has given her new purpose. As she described in a recent interview: “A whole new world has been opened up to me, and the sense of ‘wholeness’ I feel is incredible . . . when you are on the water you forget everything and are completely focused on the task at hand.”

Rider has a new role as an ambassador-at-large for Shake-A-Leg, helping with outreach, sailing clinics, and community events. (Looking at her calendar for the past year, you would swear she has a clone; she seems to be everywhere at once.) But even as she spoke about the range of programs, seminars, races, and speaking engagements she had coming up, I had the impression that the Olympic campaign is never too far from her mind.

She smiled politely when our conversation turned toward cruising, but it was clear where her allegiance lied. “I’m not much into cruising,” she said. “I like the competition.”

I would have liked to talk longer, but the sun had set and the sky was turning dark. They had a five-hour drive ahead. I said goodbye and watched the heavily laden Independence 20 merge into traffic and roll westward toward I-75. For the moment, Rider and her boat were bound for Miami, but I had no doubt where she would be in four years.

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