Australian Sailor Back On Course After Accident Australian Nathan Outteridge's sailing career almost ended after a serious car accident broke his back. Now a sailing world champion, Outteridge hopes to tack his way to Olympic gold in Beijing in the lightweight 49er class.
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Australian Sailor Back On Course After Accident

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Australian Sailor Back On Course After Accident

Australian Sailor Back On Course After Accident

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Earlier in the show, we heard about the barriers facing Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, but if you really want to see someone overcoming barriers, keep an eye on the waters off Qingdao. That's where the Olympic sailing events take place, and it's where NPR's Louisa Lim met a young Australian whose Olympic dream was almost derailed when he broke his back.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, we changed them to let the light (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: The weight difference is so small.

LOUISA LIM: Nathan Outteridge is worrying about weight, about how to make his boat lighter. With partner Ben Austin, he races a high-performance skiff called a 49er, the lightest Olympic boat.

Yet three years ago, his worries were of a different order: whether he'd ever walk again, let alone sail.

The Australian yachtsman had been driving to a regatta when he'd fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed into a tree. His back was broken, one vertebra crushed to pieces. Surgeons have to perform a nine-hour operation fusing three of his vertebrae.

Mr. NATHAN OUTTERIDGE (Olympic Sailor, Australia): Before the operation they said you know, there's a chance you may not be able to walk again after this if something goes wrong during the operation.

LIM: Before that, his path to world-class competition had seemed almost assured. At just 18, he'd won the title of World Youth Champion for three consecutive years.

Mr. OUTTERIDGE: My dad taught me to sail when I was four and took me out in, like, a little boat, and after a while I said look, I can steer now, and then he got out, and he said, all right, well now you can go racing and all that.

LIM: After the accident, Outteridge's entire future was in doubt. Fortunately, the operation was successful. Still, he was in hospital for five weeks. This was 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.

Mr. OUTTERIDGE: Yeah, well while I was in hospital, my dad went out and bought a new boat.

LIM: At that point, did you think about the fact that your career in sailing, it might be over?

Mr. OUTTERIDGE: Yeah, yeah, I thought about that all the time. Like I just wanted to get back into sailing, and I guess all that thinking about it actually got me there.

LIM: Ben Austin had been driving ahead of Outteridge when he crashed. He watched his friend being cut out off the wreckage. At the time, they weren't sailing together, but before Outteridge was even fit to get back into a boat, Austin had asked him to be his sailing partner, and even then, they were thinking about the Olympics.

Mr. BEN AUSTIN (Olympic Sailor, Australia): There wasn't ever really any hesitation in my mind that he wouldn't ever be able to sail. From the time we started talking about sailing, I think that it was just presumed he'd be able to do it.

LIM: That confidence, along with a lot of hard work, evidently paid off. The pair steadily climbed up the rankings, in January winning the World Championship. Outteridge says the accident has toughened him up mentally, giving him, he hopes, that extra edge over his competitors.

Mr. OUTTERIDGE: It's almost 90 percent a mind game. Like I guess at having been through, you know, such an ordeal during the car accident, having a lot of time to think about it, hopefully, you know, I feel should help me.

(Soundbite of ropes being pulled)

LIM: A major challenge they face, along with the other competitors, is the notoriously light winds in Qingdao, where the sailing events will be held. They've both been on strict crash diets to lighten their boat's load. For Ben and Nathan, the focus is on the immediate future. The accident is already in the past.

Mr. AUSTIN: I have to say I don't think it's something that plays in our mind at all anymore. We're here to win a gold medal. We're not here to, yeah, just collect a tracksuit and go home.

LIM: Is it just the being here that counts, or is it really the medals that count?

Mr. AUSTIN: Oh, the medal is the thing that counts for sure, yeah.

LIM: And with that, they get back to work, filing screws, tightening lines and looking, always looking, for more ways to lose that extra ounce of weight.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Qingdao.

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