England will be chilly, but sailor will be gunning for gold
Sailing in south Louisiana usually means fighting off the double whammy of heat and humidity. But when Mark LeBlanc represents the United States in the 2012 Paralympic Sailing Regatta off the southern coast of England Aug. 31-Sept. 5, that chill in the air and the cold water pounding his face will make it feel like Christmas on the Bayou.
“It’s going to be cold,” said LeBlanc, a 2003 graduate of Jesuit High School who will represent the U.S. in the 2.4-meter sailing class, which is for one-person boats. “I have a dry suit that I wear, and I’ll have several layers of wool and fleece on.
“Last year when I was there training for six weeks, it rained almost every day. I think I wore a jacket and a stocking cap almost every day. It was in the 40s a couple of times in the middle of July.”
Like a duck to the water
LeBlanc, a 2008 civil engineering graduate of LSU, was born without a left forearm, but he’s been sailing virtually his entire life along with his twin brother Allan. The twins’ father, Mark, took them out on the water as babies.
LeBlanc, 27, was member of Jesuit’s fleet racing team, which competed in several state and national events, and he also wrestled for five years. But with sailing in his competitive blood, LeBlanc concentrated on improving his skills.
In the summer of 2006 – less than a year after Katrina – LeBlanc was still at LSU and looking for something to stoke his competitive fire. He spotted a boat he liked, bought it and then went all in.
“I sailed the boat a couple of times and thought, ‘OK, this might be fun,’” LeBlanc said. “I actually started sailing and preparing for the 2012 paralympics, not the one in 2008. But I was somewhat successful early on.”
That might be an understatement. LeBlanc advanced so quickly that in the national Paralympic trials in 2007, he finished in a virtual tie for first place but lost out in a tiebreaker for the sole American spot in the 2.4-meter category to John Ruf of Wewaukee, Wis.
But in this year’s trials – two regattas held in January off the south Florida coast – LeBlanc bested Ruf in the combined time trials, earning him a trip to England for the 2012 Paralympic Games.
No special treatment
LeBlanc never has considered himself disabled. In sailing the one-man boat, he uses his left arm to pull and grab the lines whenever he needs to tack or adjust the sails. While some of his childhood classmates may have looked at him differently, LeBlanc said he “doesn’t remember it.”
“I had a twin brother and my parents treated us exactly the same,” LeBlanc said. “I kind of grew up not really knowing anything different. I’d say I’m one of the less disabled sailors to sail this boat (competitively) because I really don’t consider myself having a disability. I can do everything I need to do. Some of the other guys are paraplegic, and some are quadriplegic.”
LeBlanc is amazed by the ability of Norway’s Bjornar Erikstad, whose hands are attached to his shoulders.
“He trims the sail with his teeth by using a mouth guard,” LeBlanc said. “He’s a very good sailor.”
Medal would be nice
LeBlanc said he hopes to medal in the games. He considers his top competition to be Damien Seguin of France and Thierry Schmitter of The Netherlands.
“It’s going to be a fantastic feeling representing the U.S. and walking into that stadium for the opening ceremonies in London,” LeBlanc said. “I think I have a chance of winning a medal. Everyone’s very good, but I’m right up there with them. It just depends on whether I have a good regatta or not.”
First, a trip up the aisle
Before LeBlanc flies to England in August for a few days of practice on the water course, he will take care of some even more important business. He will be married in July at Mater Dolorosa Church to Caroline Hardie.
“I’ve got a lot of things going on, but I think now is the time to do it when I’m not working and I do have some free time,” LeBlanc said, smiling.
LeBlanc took a leave of absence from his civil engineering job with the Shaw Group in order to train full time for the games. Although the U.S. Sailing Association defrays some of his training and transportation expenses, LeBlanc relies on corporate and individual sponsorships to help.
Addie’s Angels, a nonprofit organization that helps children who have experienced limb loss, has offered to match any donations made to LeBlanc through the end of May. Go to www.Team-LeBlanc.com for more information.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarion herald.org.