Team Paradise trains disabled sailors to win gold

Daniel Evans of Miami training in rough seas in his 2.4-meter sailboat at the U.S. Sailing Center in Coconut Grove.
Daniel Evans of Miami training in rough seas in his 2.4-meter sailboat at the U.S. Sailing Center in Coconut Grove. Miami Herald Staff

Biscayne Bay looked like a vast, pea-soup-colored washing machine on the spin cycle on a recent Friday when Daniel Evans boarded his boat at the U.S. Sailing Center in Coconut Grove. Winds were howling out of the north at about 20 knots, churning up 3-foot waves — a good day to train in Evans’ mind.

A passerby had to hold the 2.4-meter sailboat tight to the floating dock as the 36-year-old Miamian first lowered himself out of his wheelchair, then eased down into the recessed cockpit. After unfurling the mainsail and jib, he was off, barreling through the sloppy waves at a surprisingly quick clip.

“I actually really liked sailing today,” the drenched U.S. Marine Corps veteran said later. “It’s pretty fun. You can find your limits.”

Evans is one of scores of disabled veterans and others with handicaps who have sailed with Team Paradise over the past nine years. Launched in 2005 by 2000 Olympic gold medalist Magnus Liljedahl of Miami, the non-profit, mostly-volunteer organization provides training, coaching and accessible sailboats free of charge out of Shake-A-Leg Miami and, since June, the U.S. Sailing Center.

Through fundraising drives and grants, Team Paradise sports a fleet of 14 boats — Sonars, 2.4-meters, and SKUD-18s — all featured in the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes. Sailors of any nationality, not just the U.S., are welcome to train.

“We try to take people from nowhere and try to bring them up to the Paralympic team,” said Liljedahl, 60.

So far, the organization has been successful in reaching that goal: all three gold-medal teams in the 2008 Paralympics — one each from the U.S., Canada and Germany — trained extensively with Team Paradise. The St. Petersburg team of Jen French and J.P. Creignou, who won silver in the 2012 Games in SKUD-18s, got their first boat from Team Paradise.

Evans, who began sailing the 2.4-meter — a single-handed keelboat — when he came to Miami in 2011, is now a two-time U.S. national disabled sailing champion and member of the U.S. Paralympic Sailing Team. Coached by Liljedahl, the paraplegic veteran hopes to represent the U.S. in the 2016 Games in Brazil.

“I guess I like doing the best at what I’m doing,” Evans said. “I want to be the best.”

Evans isn’t the only one. Another prospective Paralympian who trains with Team Paradise is 62-year-old U.S. Army veteran Donoray Bickham of Homestead. Bickham, who has been legally blind for nearly eight years, never set foot on a sailboat until two years ago. That’s when Liljedahl introduced him and several other vets to the Sonar — a triple-handed boat.

“It was something I was born to do. I just didn’t do it. I didn’t know about it,” Bickham said. “I’ve always wanted to do my best. I love competition.”

Bickham skippered a sailboat called American Veterans to victory in the ARC-2 class in October’s Columbus Day Regatta. His next big competition will be January’s ISAF World Cup on Biscayne Bay serving as jib trimmer on a Sonar with teammates Richard Ramos of Medford, Mass., and Adam Parks of Las Vegas.

Liljedahl says Bickham has an “abundance” of natural talent and a good shot at making the U.S. Paralympic Team.

“I’m going to coach them all they need,” he said of Bickham and his crewmates.

But like all aspiring Paralympic athletes, Bickham and Evans both say they need money to allow them to train and maintain their boats. Team Paradise (teamparadise.org) is conducting a fundraising drive, trying for $200,000 to keep the operation going through its 10th year.

Liljedahl hopes for even more athletes to be able to follow the paths of Paralympians who got their start with his organization.

“It isn’t like we made it all happen in their journey,” he said. “But we claim a stake in their success.”

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