Sailing to new heights
Australian sailor Stephen Churm brings five decades of experience with him and hope for a medal-winning performance in the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Mohamed Taha reports.
The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games on August 29 officially opened the largest Paralympics in history.
With 4,200 athletes from 165 countries competing over 11 days, this year’s Games have reached new heights in terms of competition.
Among Australia’s contingent of 161 athletes, which is the largest team Australia has ever sent to any Paralympic Games, was sailing hopeful Stephen Churm.
“It was electrifying!” explained Churm after marching with the Australian team in front of a capacity crowd of 80,000 spectators at the opening ceremony.
“I felt like a rock star.”
Churm is part of the Sonar team; one of the three Australian sailing crews in London competing in the Skud 18, Sonar and 2.4mR classes.
Representing the Sonar class alongside skipper Colin Harrison and Jonathan Harris, Churm is looking forward to his long awaited Paralympic Games debut.
“This is something that I have been aiming for since 1998 and now I’m here it all seems surreal,” said Churm.
“I’m extremely proud to represent Australia.”
Stephen’s wife of 13 years, Loueze Churm, is elated for her husband’s debut.
“Finally Stephen’s dream has been answered and I am walking with him every step of the way,” she said.
Churm tore his brachial plexus at birth, leaving him with Klumpke palsy, similar to Erb’s palsy. This condition has left Churm paralysed in his left arm.
The Games classification for sailing is a points system. Sailors are ranked between one and seven points depending on their functional ability. A one-point rating is given to the lowest level of function, while a seven-point rating is given to those with the highest level of function.
Churm is ranked at a five-point rating but cares little about it.
“Stephen would not know what the word ‘barrier’ even means,” Loueze said.
“In our home, in our life, it is all about ‘ability’!”
Churm, Harrison and Harris teamed up at the end of 2011 but got their partnership off to a great start, finishing fourth in January at the 2012 International Federation Disabled Sailing (IFDS) World Championships in Florida, just two points off second place.
In May, they finished with a bronze medal at the ISAF Sailing World Cup round in The Netherlands. A month later in June, they finished fifth at the Sail for Gold competition in Weymouth.
Earlier, Churm narrowly missed qualification for the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games, losing out to the team that eventually won gold.
“It’s something that has been on my mind in a positive way,” he said.
Being the only team member from the 2000 Games qualifiers, Churm said the competition has drastically improved since then.
“The standard of sailors of today would run rings around the fleet that sailed in Sydney. Boats and crews have improved along with equipment since then.”
While Churm’s passion for sailing is unmistakable, the journey hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the 58-year-old.
During a particular race, Churm fell overboard and due to his injuries, wasn’t able to climb back in. With two broken ribs, the crew was forced to pull out of the race and needed a sea boat and sea plane to assist.
“He also acquired a separate injury in 2004 which then led to a series of major operations that set him back for a while,” Loueze said.
“All these setbacks never deterred him from pursuing his dream of sailing to make the Paralympics,” she said.
Nearing race five of the regatta, Churm is finding it difficult to handle the hype of the Games, considering the fact that over two million tickets were sold before the Games began.
“I’ve never sailed a race like this before, the sails have our names on it and the Australian flag,” he said.
“All our gear is green and gold with Australia plastered over it. It’s a complete new ball game and I’m going to grab onto it with both hands even if one hand doesn’t hold so well.”
According to Churm, team Sonar’s strategy is straightforward: “Get out in front and stay there.”
“We have to keep it simple, not getting caught up in any of the dog fights and sail the shifts fast and clean,” he said.
With over 50 years of sailing knowledge and experience behind him, Churm is confident that the Sonar team are genuine medal contenders.
“We get on very well together, on and off the water. We all compliment one another and I am very confident with this team.”
Team Sonar has set their sights on winning gold, but Churm acknowledges the challenge ahead.
“This is the ultimate regatta where we are sailing against the world’s best teams,” he said.
“Even if we come fourth or tenth it would mean that we have that world rating and I’d be very proud of that. But our aim is for the gold medal along with everyone else at the start line. We have the ability to be on the podium at the end of the regatta.”
Fulfilling his dream of competing on the world stage, Churm remains resolute.
“The Aussies are coming again to claim back our gold!” he said jubilantly.
The Sailing competition ends Thursday September 6, whilst the Paralympic Games comes to a close on Sunday September 9.