DARIEN, Conn. -- Competition is what drives Ricky Doerr, a member of Noroton Yacht Club in Darien. Always has, most likely always will.
Nearly 25 years after a motor vehicle accident left him a paraplegic, Doerr’s determination to succeed burns as bright as the day when he was a multi-sport high school athlete in New Jersey.
“I was active in anything I could get my hands on,’’ said Doerr, who will be the skipper for the U.S. team in the Sonar sailing competition at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The event runs from Sept. 7-18. “Football, ice hockey, tennis, golf. I played football, hockey and lacrosse in college. In grad school in Colorado, I was a ski instructor. If It was a sport, I wanted to master it.”
The 1992 car accident forced Doerr’s hand to find a new athletic love. He experienced sailing growing up in New Jersey, but felt skeptical he could return the sport.
“I thought there’s just no way I can get on a sailboat,’’ said. Doerr, a member of Noroton Yacht Club for about 15 yeas. “I remember being in the rehab hospital, two months after the accident. The physical therapist and recreational therapist were good at keeping me motivated. I saw a flyer in the lobby in the lobby about sailing, and the physical therapist taunted me. That was all I needed, somebody to dare me to do something.”
Doerr was in his fourth year of surgical residency in Chicago at the time, in late summer, and the city’s short sailing season ended a few weeks later. The following spring, Doerr found his new athletic passion. “I was chomping at the bit to get back to racing,’’ Doerr said.
He moved to Miami in 1996, and learned sailing would be introduced for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta as a demonstration sport. His team finished third at the U.S. trials -- only the winner advances to the Paralympics -- but he also learned how competitive the sport is. He developed campaigns to compete at the Games in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, and qualified for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. Doerr’s crew fell just short of earning the U.S. bid for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“After Beijing, the team had to go our own way and go back to their regular jobs,’’ Doerr said. “We had to recruit some new guys in 2012 and it was like starting at square one. We just missed making it through at the trials. There are so many subtle things. After eight years with this crew, we’ve come to understand each other and do it well enough to eliminate the chance of bad things happening.”
Doerr competes with Brad Kendell and Hugh Freund in the Sonar class. (Click the link above for a Hooplaha video of the team). Doerr likens his role as skipper to being the anchor leg of a track relay team. “The skipper is the guy with the most experience,’’ Doerr said. “A lot of times the crew looks toward the skipper in challenging conditions. Things are not always rosy in competition. In fact, they are very rarely rosy. Everything is kind of fluid within this group of boats. The important thing for me is to bring the conversation focus back to what we’re doing.”
Doerr’s approach in the 12-race series is to keep the team near the top in each race. Like cross country running races, the team with the lowest score at the end of 12 events is the gold medalist. “The important thing is to have a low average,’’ Doerr said. “If you can finish with thirds and fourths, that’s what you want to do. You can do things to try to win a race, but when you do that, sometimes you lose big and those are brutal. Sometimes we get caught up in trying to win and I have to bring the conversation back to make sure we don’t make any mistakes that could potentially cost us.”
The sailboats in which Doerr and his teammates compete have adaptive equipment that improves their mobility and helps them function at a higher level. He believes the team could contend for a medal if it can navigate the tricky Rio winds.
“The recent Olympics were the most challenging I’ve ever seen,’’ he said. “You can go from first to last in an instant. I don’t know what to expect, but I know we’ve been sailing well.”
Doerr enjoys the competition and support from his fellow members at Noroton. “When you’re sailing at Noroton, you’re sailing against the best,’’ Doerr said. “I wanted to sail against a lot of good sailors, people who know how to win trials and learn about the boat. They’re always around and have given me a lot of support.”
This figures to be the last attempt at the Paralympics for Doerr, 55, as the sport will be dropped from competition. But it just might provide him the incentive to find another sport and pursue his passion for competition.
“In any sport, you’re critically reviewing your performance,’’ Doerr said. “Even if you win, you think about something you could have done better. Every time you say say is that the best I could’ve done? It takes away from the joy, but it’s also going to make you better.”
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