The Last Word

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:09 AM ET

Bruce Millar has rediscovered his first love.

All it took was an airplane crash, a broken back and a yearning to find an escape from the wheelchair that paradoxically was his helpmate and his prison.

This weekend he can be found canoodling his 2.4-metre boat through the waters of Lake Ontario in the NOOD regatta -- one of North America's most prestigious sailing events.

When you're trying to walk on water, legs are optional.

Millar's one-seater has taken him around the world as a member of the Canadian sailing team.

"The beauty is (the 2.4-metre boat) allows you to compete against anyone whether they're disabled or able bodied," says the 45-year-old member of Toronto's National Yacht Club. "I just want to be treated as any other sailor."

Sailing always came naturally. He spent summers on Toronto Island as a youngster. His grandfather was a commodore at the National and "when I was a kid my dad (David) was building boats in the basement. As kids, instead of going to summer camp we went to sailing school."

But, he grew up, got a job and was working as a flying instructor. Instead of the water, he sailed the air currents in ultra-lights.

In 1997, that all changed.

"I was teaching a student in an ultra-light aircraft. We had a mechanical failure on takeoff and landed pretty hard."

It made him a paraplegic searching "for something that I could do. I sort of thought maybe I could get back to my first love."

He entered a regatta and discovered that as a paraplegic it's possible to sail as well as anyone.

"You just need a boat you can sail in. I got involved in the 2.4-metre class."

It has taken him to the Athens Paralympics in 2004, where he placed ninth.

"Awesome," he says, "they even had gunboats in the water to protect us."

It was then he decided to become "a full-time athlete" in hopes of qualifying for Beijing in 2008.

This past January he beat some of the world's best sailors in Perth, Australia, placing fourth. Last week he was at the U.S. nationals in Connecticut and he'll be competing for Canada in Helsinki in July at the 2.4-metre world championships.

But sailing, for Millar, is more than sport.

"When you're on the boat you're concentrating on sailing instead of your disability. I experience pain on a constant basis but it all fades when I'm sailing -- you get into the competition, into the thrill of being on the water. It's a comfort. I love the water; the waves coming over and splashing me in the face. Just the freedom.

"There's competitive things that drive any athlete." Millar says, "but for a disabled athlete there's an extra component. I mean I'm getting out of my wheelchair that I've been sitting in for nine years. You leave that wheelchair on the dock."

Millar's tiny craft will be sharing the water this weekend with about 130 other boats and 300 sailors in six yachting classes. Today's races start about noon and then "the sailors come in and we feed them dinner and share war stories," marketing director George Brengle, of the regatta's co-ordinating body, Sailing World magazine, says.

There's no prize money.

"It's all for a silver mug," Brengle says, "it's more prestige and bragging rights. You don't find prize money in sailing at all, even in the America's Cup where millions are spent to win."

Racing takes place about a mile off-shore. Spectator boats are welcome. And, there'll be plenty to ogle, including the Canadian championship in the Mumm30 class.

"This is the Grand Prix of sailing," says Kevin Brown, arguably Toronto's best sailor, former winner of the Canadian Olympic Regatta in Kingston and a two-time national champion who is competing with his seven-man crew on Notorious.

Among the opposition will be Jim Richardson, a two-time world champ from Boston who is trucking in his boat, Barking Mad.

"It's like a motorsport operation but with the boats having to be identical," Brown says. "A multi-millionaire like (Richardson) doesn't necessarily have a leg up because you can't out-spend your opposition. But he's the guy to beat."

Brown's crew includes two-time Canadian Olympic medallist Hans Fogh. The boats are worth more than $100,000 and Brown admits it's expensive taking care of a crew and transporting Notorious to events such as November's world championships in Miami.

"Sailing has always been looked on as an elitist sport but it doesn't have to be," Brown says.

Look no further than Millar and his 2.4-metre boat. They sell for about $12,000. Millar recommends renting a boat, joining the National's dinghy club or crewing for someone else.

You play, they pay.

"You can spend a lot of money sailing but you don't need a lot of money to get into sailing. At our club, the annual dues for disabled sailors is $30.

"It's actually dirt cheap. I wouldn't call it a rich man's sport at all. There are certainly wealthy people out there sailing big boats but that's not the majority."

If anyone knows about sailing being a sport for the every- man it would be Millar.

"When I'm sailing I'm not viewed as disabled. When people sail against me they're not saying: 'Oh, I'll let you go this time because you're disabled.' It's all-out competition. Your disability doesn't exist in the boat."


Videos

Photos