AN Applecross para sailor took gold in the RS Venture Connect World Championships in Rostocker, Germany on Monday, marking a remarkable comeback to the sport after a debilitating stroke more than 20 years ago.
Genevieve Wickham took the medal along with her coach and mentor Grant Alderson, who coached Australia’s Sonar para sailing team to gold at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
Under the rules of the Inclusion championships, the crew is made up of one person with a disability and an able-bodied sailor.
Wickham’s mother Anne told the Herald that while her daughter has previously won races overseas, winning the championship gold was “a step up into a new world”.
“This particular boat that she sailed is the boat that World Sailing recognises as the two-person para sailing boat,” Ms Wickham said.
Her daughter didn’t have much time to prepare for the championships, as there wasn’t a spare RV Venture Connect to practice with before the big race, while weather conditions were flukey on the riverfront course.
“It was on a narrow stretch of water with really tricky conditions because there were big tall buildings, no wind, and they were trying to race,” she said.
Despite the conditions, Wickham and Alderson also took bronze in the Inclusion World Championships.
Unfortunately the win won’t earn Wickham a spot at the Paralympics, as para sailing has already been left out of Paris 2024 and recently failed to make the cut for Los Angeles 2028 despite a concerted campaign.
The organising committee claimed there weren’t enough countries able to participate, which Ms Wickham says is probably reasonable, added to which ocean racing can be a bit “distant” for spectators.
Wickham had been a national women’s champion as a teenager sailing with her best friend Anastasia Brotherson at Freshwater Bay Yacht Club.
“We used to go all over Australia to regattas,” he mother says.
“And then she got a bit older and her friend moved up to a bigger boat, and because Genevieve is a slight little thing she couldn’t go out on the wire.”
Her replacement on the crew went on to win gold in sailing, Ms Wickham saying her daughter was surrounded by high achievers from an early age.
But in her late 20s, and just four months after getting married, Wickham suffered a major haemorrhage while undergoing surgery to have an aneurism clipped.
“She walked into the theatre and she hasn’t bee able to walk independently since; she’s paralysed down the right side of her body,” her mother said, adding she also faces communication challenges after having to relearn to speak.
Four years after her stroke, Wickham moved back home and her mother started looking for ways to get her out and about.
“We were looking for activities and one of the agencies that we went to suggested sailing and I thought that was a silly idea, because boats tip over and how are you going to get back in the boat when you’re paralysed, for goodness sake,” she says.
“She’ll tell you if you asked how scary it was the first day, but she came home to me and told me she wanted to go racing and I thought ‘good heavens’.”
The came across Sailability and since then Wickham hasn’t looked back, competing across Australia and New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. Her dinghy is named Anastasia in honour of her long friendship with her former cremate.
“On San Francisco Bay when the last America’s Cup was on, she got invited onto the boat that was out there watching New Zealand.
“It’s really a story of someone that had something catastrophic happen to them, then have turned it around,” Ms Wickham said.
by STEVE GRANT