It was obvious long before they joined forces that John McRoberts and Jackie Gay had the potential to be a great sailing team.
Both of them possessed a burning desire to win, the ability to communicate effectively, strong tactical decision-making skills and decades of sailing experience.
Their classifications also aligned: Every team sailing the SKUD 18 (two-person keel boat) skiff must have one member with high level of disability, while the other must be a mobile disabled person. McRoberts, quadriplegic, has the high-level disability, and Gay, a single-leg amputee, is the ambulant member of the team.
As tantalizing as this opportunity was for both McRoberts and Gay, it was not a decision they could make impulsively. Careful thought and consideration was needed from both of them to determine if a professional union could be established without harming the important connection they already shared: their marriage.
“We were both reluctant at first so we let some time go by,” McRoberts admitted. “One day we looked at each other and said, ‘you know, what’s the worst that can happen? We can try this but if it doesn’t work out we can’t stop.’ We weren’t afraid to try.”
They approached this venture with their eyes wide open.
“We knew it was a risk,” Gay said. “Obviously our relationship is more important than
sailing and we always knew that. We always said to each other that if it’s not working out then we would stop.
The Victoria B.C. residents’ on-the-water collaboration racing the SKUD boat for Canada has been, and continues to be, very fruitful. Sail Canada awarded them with the organization’s team of the year award in 2013, and it is expected that they can contend for the podium in Rio seeing that they won a bronze medal at the Garda Trentino Olympic Week international competition in Italy back in May. They are also ranked the sixth-best two-person keel-boat team in the world.
Rio will be McRoberts’ fourth appearance at the Summer Paralympics. He won gold steering the crew boat at the 1996 Atlanta Games when Paralympic sailing was a demonstration sport, he captured bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games navigating the SKUD 18 (with partner Stacey Louttit), and he finished fourth in London four years ago.
Gay, born and raised in Great Britain, is making her Paralympic debut. She was a member of the British sailing team prior to teaming up with her husband after London. Her SKUD boat partner was Allan Smith, who represented Britain at the 2004 Athens Games. They finished just shy of qualifying for the Beijing Games.
Their respective journeys to get to this point defy what can be assumed as conventional. Neither of them had any inclination to become racers when they sailed as kids.
For McRoberts, sailing was not even his favourite sport when he was a kid— he was passionate about soccer before he became a quadriplegic in 1981 at 18 years old.
He was with his girlfriend at the time and her family enjoying a picnic and some fun in the sun at Lake Erie. His head struck a sand bar when he attempted a running dive into the water. This collision crushed two of the vertebrae in his neck and he became instantly paralyzed.
As calamitous as this accident was, McRoberts says he was also fortunate.
“Half an inch higher and I would be a dependent person that would need a caregiver all the time,” he said.
While completing his rehab, he discovered the sport of wheelchair rugby — then known as “Murderball.” It quickly became his sport of choice as his strength returned and he got used to his situation. He also started playing sports like tennis, skiing and road racing.
“Those sports that I did have a shelf life, so as I was getting older I was looking for a sport that I could continue,” McRoberts said. “Sailing was there and it was a perfect match and timing because the Paralympics were a demonstration sport in ‘96 in Atlanta and I started competitive sailing in 1995, so it was right at the cusp at the beginning of sailing. I caught that wave and haven’t stopped since.”
The 1996 Games made him a sailor for life as the opportunity to carry the Canadian flag and wear the maple leaf hooked him to the sport.
Gay did not even discover the world of Paralympic sailing until watching the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia on her television.
“I remember seeing it and thinking, ‘Oh my God that is so fantastic. I would love to be involved in something like that.’”
Her enthusiasm to partake in the Paralympic sailing was a far cry from how she felt about the sport following her injury in 1994. At that time she said she felt “she lost the boat, lost the water and lost the freedom.”
It was during a trip to Cameroon in West Africa that it happened. A landslide knocked Gay and her first husband’s land rover off the side of a mountain. The car tumbled head over heals relentlessly all the way down the mountain. Her left leg slipped out of the vehicle and it was sliced off in the middle of the jungle.
“The only reason we both didn’t die was that we had a roll cage in the land rover,” Gay said.
After a few years off the water following the injury, her family and friends encouraged her
to try out Sailability, an organization for sailors with disabilities. This rekindled her love for sailing.
“I felt that I gained a huge world, I gained freedom and I gained the water,” she said. “It is one of those interesting paradoxes where you think you have lost something, but really you have gained something.”
She became determined to live that Paralympic experience that she saw on television. It was in the lead up to the Beijing Games where she met her future husband.
“I was racing for Great Britain and he was racing for Canada”, said Gay. “So we kind of knew each other from the circuit when it started, which was in 2007, but we were just kind of friends. We knew each other but not very well.”
A bit of time passed before the relationship developed as they were both very focused on their sailing careers.
January 2008 was the month when they became more than friends.
“We were both in the middle of our trials for China,” Gay said. “We were kind of joking around really just for bit of light relief and we both realized that, ‘Oh, there is something else going on here.’ That is how it started.
“It started on the dock. We always joke that it started on the dock,” she said with a laugh.
As for McRoberts, it was his partner that alerted him that Gay was attracted to him.
“Stacey said, ‘Hey John, there’s a young lady over there. I think she’s interested in you.’ I am a bit thick that way. I started to pay attention to that. So Jackie and I started flirting if you will and within that year we were dating quite heavily.”
Two years later, in April 2010, they tied the knot and became husband and wife.
McRoberts said his sailing partnership with his wife — he is the captain and she is the sail trimmer — has fortified the bond between him and her. Competing together has afforded the couple a chance to get to know each other even better, and it has allowed them to travel around the world to create everlasting memories together.
Undoubtedly, more memories will be created in Rio. While McRoberts has made prior appearances at the Summer Games, he will be experiencing some aspects of the Paralympics for the first time alongside his wife in September. In prior competitions, the sailing events were held at satellite locations often far away from the main host city. This will be the first time he gets to attend the opening ceremonies, live in the athlete’s village and be a spectator for the other sports.
Gay said she “can’t wait to be a part of the whole experience.” She is proud to compete on the biggest stage in the world and to be an ambassador of the Paralympic movement
Earning a medal will not be the ultimate deciding factor in whether or not they enjoy their time in Brazil. The couple is focused on the process of sailing a good race instead of stressing about achieving a particular outcome.
“There is a lot of pressure on us already,” said McRoberts “We just have to keep our cool because we sail our best when we are light, free and happy. The trick is to maintain that over the days of competition.”
Team McRoberts/Gay will make their Paralympic SKUD racing debut on Sept. 12 at Rio’s Marina da Glória.
Photos from the Canadian Paralympic Committee and John and Jackie’s Road to Rio Facebook page