Ryan Porteous: Sailing through life’s challenges
Published on October 13th, 2013
If there’s anyone that knows what it feels like when life throws you a curveball, it’s American Ryan Porteous. He is also familiar with how it feels to bounce back. Though he suffers from a spinal-cord injury, the San Diego resident recently qualified for the U.S. Sailing Team with dreams of becoming a Paralympic athlete.
Porteous graduated from High School in 2011, second in his class and designated Male Athlete of the Year. It was just weeks into his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara, where he had planned to pursue a degree in physics, that the unthinkable happened. Porteous slipped on a dock, hitting his head on the edge of it and breaking his neck. At 18, he found himself partially paralyzed from the neck down.
Rehabilitation efforts have restored some of Porteous’ movement. He can walk short distances with a walker and has nearly full use of his upper body. Still, for a former outside linebacker/strong safety whose high school football team won their division championships in 2009 – not to mention his time spent on his school’s swim, basketball and surf teams – the incident was nothing short of life changing.
Porteous’ entire family had been involved in sailing since he was a child. When he was 7 years old, he enrolled in the Mission Bay Yacht Club’s summer program, and was in his own boat by the time he was 8. He competed in local regattas through middle school before he got involved in high school sports. His passion for athletics wasn’t diminished after his injury. The incident, in fact, somewhat unexpectedly led him back to a focus on sailing.
“The first time I went sailing [after my injury] was on my dad’s boat,” he said. “It felt great to get back on the water, and I realized I could still sail after my injury. That’s when I heard about Challenged America out of San Diego Bay.”
Challenged America, conceived of in 1978 by two disabled veterans on Mission Bay, offers adaptive sailing programs to those with disabilities through boats designed with a fixed seat and specially made steering system. Apart from those minor differences, Porteous said, the sport is the same.
“Everything technical is the same,” he said. “Some different equipment is the only change. Other than that, it’s still the exact same sport.”
Porteous met Cindy Walker, an adaptive sailor from Massachusetts, at a US Sailing Team Sperry Top Sider organized and sponsored SKUD 18 training camp in Newport RI in May. A Paralympic-class boat, the SKUD 18 is a two-person boat designed for disabled sailors with two fixed seats on the centerline of the boat that tilt side to side so the sailors remain level when the boat heels.
Though Walker is fairly new to sailing, she and Porteous hit it off as teammates immediately. They decided to enter the C. Thomas Clagett, Jr. Memorial Regatta in Newport, R.I. in June as Team Porteous/Walker.
The race served as the qualifying event for the U.S. Sailing Team Sperry Top-Sider, and Team Porteous/Walker, formed just one month before by teammates living on opposite coasts, took first place and secured its position on the national team.
The win, Porteous said, has given him and Walker the opportunity to travel and compete in national and international regattas. In August, they competed in the International Association of Disabled Sailing’s World Championship regatta in Ireland, coming in fourth place against teams from across the world.
“We did pretty good. We’re happy with the result,” Porteous said. “We haven’t sailed this boat very much and we’re a pretty new team, but we felt like we did pretty good, all things considered. It was good to see where we stacked up.”
Finding out where they stack up is important for Porteous and Walker. Their goal, after all, is not only to make it to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, but to bring home a medal for the U.S. Though they’re currently the No. 1 team in the country, they’ll have to continue to work hard to stay on top and give the rest of the world’s teams a run for their money.
“It’s hard to tell exactly who our competition is right now, but definitely the British, Australian and New Zealand teams are very good,” Porteous said. “And there are good teams here in the States, too. There’s definitely a high level of competition. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
To reach their goal, Porteous and Walker are racing in as many regattas as they can. Their next big race will be the International Sailing Federation’s World Cup in Miami in January, where the top Paralympic- and Olympic-class boats will compete.
Apart from more training, Porteous said he and Walker are hoping to get sponsorship to help them acquire the necessary equipment – namely, a newer, faster boat – that will take them the distance. Though membership on the U.S. Sailing Team gets them some funding, most of that goes toward travel expenses and regatta fees.
And Porteous himself has other expenses – he has returned to school, taking general education classes at Mira Costa Community College, with plans to return to UCSB in 2014 to finish his degree in physics. His injury has proven to represent a detour, rather than a complete roadblock, and sailing, he said, has been a defining factor in the challenge to not letting himself be dragged down.
“It has been huge, just awesome, that I can still do sailing,” Porteous said. “It has helped me deal with everything and stay positive. I just want to focus on what I can still do, not what I can’t do.
“I want to continue sailing my whole life. It’s really one of those sports everyone can do, and we see younger kids and older guys all racing. You can do it forever, and that’s my plan.”