Australian sailors Ben Austin, left, and Nathan Outteridge. Outteridge is sailing in the Olympics this year despite breaking his back three years ago. The pair won the ISAF World Championships in January.
Ben Austin, left, and Nathan Outteridge in front of their 49er, the lightest of all Olympic boats. The pair won the ISAF World Championships in January. Louisa Lim/NPR
It seems every Olympic athlete has a tale of an epic struggle of persistence, determination and commitment to his or her sport. But for some, the odds are much higher than for most.
Australian Nathan Outteridge's Olympic dream was almost derailed when he broke his back. Now, he is worrying about weight and how to make his boat lighter. With partner Ben Austin, he races a high performance skiff called a 49er, the lightest Olympic boat.
Just three years ago, his worries were of a different order — whether he would ever walk again, let alone sail.
The Australian yachtsman was driving to a regatta when he fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree. His back was broken and one vertebra was crushed to pieces. Surgeons performed a nine-hour operation fusing three of his vertebrae.
"Before the operation they told me there was a chance I wouldn't be able to walk again after this, if something goes wrong during the operation," Outteridge says.
On A Course For Success
Before the accident, his path to world-class competition had seemed almost assured. At just 18, he had already won the title of World Youth Champion for three consecutive years. And despite his young age, he was already a veteran at competitive sailing.
"My dad taught me how to sail when I was four," Outteridge says. "He took me out in a little boat and after a while I said, 'Okay, I can do it by myself now.' So he got out and said, 'Now you can go racing.'"
After the accident, Outteridge's entire future was in doubt. And though the operation was successful, he was in hospital for five weeks, followed by three months in a back brace learning how to walk again.
He spent a total of nine long months off the water, unable to sail. Yet even from the beginning, lying in his hospital bed, he was focused on getting back into a boat.
"While I was in hospital, my dad went out and bought me a new boat," Outteridge says. "He said, 'It's a really good buy, and I know you can't sail now, but I just want to entice you to do everything you can.'"
Outteridge says at times he thought his sailing career might be over, but he wanted to get back to what he loved doing.
"That was the thing that kept me going," Outteridge says. "And I guess all that thinking about it actually got me there.
Ben Austin was driving ahead of Outteridge when he crashed and he watched his friend get cut out of the wreckage.
At the time they weren't sailing together, but even before Outteridge was fit to get back in a boat, Austin asked him to be his sailing partner. They were thinking about the Olympics even then.
"There wasn't ever really any hesitation in my mind that he wouldn't ever be able to sail," Austin says. "From the time we started talking about it, it was always presumed he'd be able to do it."
Climbing The Rankings
That confidence — along with a lot of hard work — evidently paid off. The pair steadily climbed up the rankings, winning the world championships in January.
Outteridge says the accident has toughened him up mentally, giving him — he hopes — that extra edge over his competitors.
"It's almost 90 percent a mind game," Outteridge says. "Everyone who's at the Olympics has the best equipment, has done their boat-handling preparation, and they all have the skills to win. It's those who can deal with the pressure, each situation, and trying to work it out in their mind, the communication between the crew and coach. And having been through such an ordeal, having a lot of time to think about it, hopefully, I feel, should help me."
A major challenge they face, along with the other competitors, is the notoriously light winds in Qingdao, where the sailing events will be held. To compensate, they've both been on strict crash diets to lighten their boat's load.
For Austin and Outteridge, the focus is the immediate future, and the accident is already in the past.
"I have to say it's not something that plays in our mind at all anymore," Austin says. "We're here to win a gold medal, we're not here to just collect a tracksuit and go home. The medal is the thing that counts. For sure."