Paralympic Sailor Paul Callahan Reclaims Freedom On The Water

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By: Christopher Kazarian
Published: 08/03/12

There was a time in Paul Callahan’s life, in the early- to mid-1970s, when he was a star basketball player for Dighton-Rehoboth Regional High School and Pomfret High School.

“I had plenty of scholarship offers to go to Notre Dame, UCLA, but fortunately I had been accepted at Harvard and there were too many other things I wanted to do there,” he said.

While athletics had long been a part of his life, he focused on academics as he pursued a degree in anthropology.

But his world came to a crashing halt in 1980 when he fell on a wet floor while a junior at Harvard University. “It was like someone slipping on a banana peel: I went over backwards, hit my head and shoulder and that was it,” he said, in a phone interview this week.

It left him paralyzed, unable to walk and with only use of his arms and partial use of his wrists.

That one accident put the North Falmouth summer resident’s life on hold for the next five years as he sought out experts in both traditional and non-traditional medicine throughout the country to help find a way for him to walk again.

Those efforts would be for naught. At the age of 26, Mr. Callahan was confronted by a friend and research scientist who worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with a piece of advice. “He said, ‘Paul, get on with your life... I don’t want to see you waste your life away and not being productive. You’ll be able to have as normal a life as anybody else to the best extent possible’,” Mr. Callahan recalled.

So in 1985, the year Mr. Callahan received his undergraduate degree from Harvard, he took steps to embrace a life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.

First Victory: Driving

His first minor victory came when he purchased his first handicapped van and began driving.

Those initial trips, he said, occurred as a full-time resident of North Falmouth. “I did some work in real estate development in the Cataumet area, in Bourne and in Falmouth,” he said. “I used to ride around here endlessly looking for pieces of land to buy. That is how I lived in the second half of the 1980s.”

In 1990, Mr. Callahan returned to school, earning his master’s of business administration from Harvard Business School.

Two years later he was working for Goldman Sachs in New York City, handling investment banking and asset management for the private equity firm.

Towards the end of his stint there, Mr. Callahan was invited to go sailing with a friend while on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island. He jumped at the chance. “I was put in the skipper’s seat right away,” he said,. “He [my friend] took duct tape, wrapped my hand to the tiller and as I sailed away from the dock for the first time in 15 years, I felt truly liberated from my wheelchair. As we were sailing away I looked at my empty wheelchair on the dock and I felt this renewed sense of independence.”

 My racing is incredibly important because I’m able to show the children at Sail To Prevail they can overcome any adversity if they are dedicated to achieving their goal, whatever that may be.

                         Paralympian Paul Callahan 

To this day, Mr. Callahan has held firmly onto that feeling. He left Goldman Sachs in 1996 and began pursuing a life on the water, starting Sail To Prevail, a camp that teaches children and adults with disabilities how to sail in Newport. It has since expanded to include a Nantucket chapter.

“I realized that that my life was larger than Wall Street and I wanted to do something more with my work experience and education,” he said of that decision. “A lot of people give you a break in life and it was my turn to take what I had and all that I had learned and accumulated and share that with others.”

While the decision has given him career gratification, it also has provided him with personal satisfaction as well. In 1999, he met his future-wife, Alisa, at the camp when she came on board as a volunteer. The two are currently raising twin nine-year-old boys, Justin and Mitchell, together.

Balancing Teaching With Competing

Though Mr. Callahan has focused part of his life on teaching, he has also used the past 16 years to push his own limits as a sailor. In 2000, he qualified for his first Paralympic Games, representing the United States in Sydney in the three-person Sonar.

“No other feeling compares to walking into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony with 110,000 people shouting ‘USA.’ It really does gives you goose bumps and makes you proud of your country,” he said.

Due to injury, he did not compete in 2004 and in 2008 he lost his second bid to represent the United States in the national trials.

But on his third attempt in January, he was successful once again, winning the US trials as his team earned the lowest combined score in two separate races in Miami, Florida, and Port Charlotte, Florida.

The team consists of Mr. Callahan, the skipper, as well as Thomas Brown of Maine, a single amputee who serves as the mainsheet trimmer, and Bradley Johnson of Pompano, Florida, a double amputee who serves as the jib trimmer.

With his handicap, Mr. Callahan said, the biggest difficulty is simply getting on and off the boat. Once on the boat he has adaptive equipment that he said, “makes me almost on par with an able-bodied person.” He sits in a specially contoured chair that he is buckled into and steers the boat using upside-down bicycle pads that his hands are hooked up to.

It is here, on the water, that Mr. Callahan is most comfortable. “Other than spending time with my family, it is the most exhilarating feeling you can have,” he said. “It is odd. I sailed minimally and I grew up on the water in Falmouth, but I’ve certainly made up for that the last 15 years.”

Though he failed to medal in Sydney, he hopes to do so in the Paralympics London, although the field has grown more competitive in the past 12 years. “We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t want a gold medal,” he said. “We think we have a reasonably good shot at it.”

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To learn more about Paul Callahan and his Sail To Prevail program visit www.sailtoprevail.org.

In last year’s world championships, held in Weymouth, the team finished fifth.

Since qualifying for the games in January the team has been in training, primarily in Florida and Europe. Their last tune-up will be this weekend on the Cape when Mr. Callahan’s team competes against able-bodied teams in the Falmouth Yacht Club’s regatta. Tomorrow’s first race will begin at 11 AM out of Falmouth Harbor, near the Tides Motel, while Sunday’s first race is scheduled to begin at 10 AM.

They will then leave for England on August 20 with the opening ceremonies for the Paralympic Games set for Wednesday, August 29, at Olympic Stadium. The sailing competition will take place on Saturday, September 1.

Whether his team wins or loses, Mr. Callahan realizes that the sport has given him a freedom he never believed possible following his injury. Perhaps more importantly it has allowed him to serve as a role model for others with similar physical limitations.

“My racing is incredibly important because I’m able to show the children at Sail To Prevail they can overcome any adversity if they are dedicated to achieving their goal, whatever that may be,” he said. “So the more I compete and the more I win, the better off the participants and the culture is at Sail To Prevail. They are as much a part of my victories as I am because I don’t think I would do one without the other. The two go hand in hand. I’m motivated to race and win to show them they can overcome adversity.”

2 Responses to "Paralympic Sailor Paul Callahan Reclaims Freedom On The Water"

  1. Hi Paul - An old friend from Cataumet called me to tell me read about you in the Enterprise. Have been looking for you for years. Congratulations on your marriage and handsome sons - still that great hair, Paul! Your work is wonderful and generous. You have "earned your place in Heaven" as the nuns used to instruct us to aspire to. What an outstanding program - the look of such happiness on the kids' faces. Dick and I are in Wiscasset, Maine full time enjoying our retirement. Plenty of room for you and family if ever in this area. Again, sincere best wishes to you, your family and Sail to Prevail. Good Irish success in England. Maureen Jason, (Bourne Planning Board).Box 313,Wiscasset,ME 04578

  2. Hi Paul, I am so pleased, but not surprised to hear of your success. I am also a Falmouth summer resident. We should meet up sometime. You must remember my wife, Diane Fernandes. My email is roger_duquenoy@yahoo.com. Best regards,

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