The genesis of Western New York Adaptive Water Sports was really two separate but related events that happened in the summer of 2003.
I happened to stop in at a local marina one beautiful summer afternoon when some friends suggested we go out for a sail. Among the group were Tom Hagerty and Mike Nowak both of who were partially disabled by MS but had sailed before and loved sailing. Getting from the parking lot to the docks could not be done with wheelchairs so they struggled on crutches, which even with help, was difficult for them. When we got down on the dock and out on the narrow finger dock, it took three of us to try and boost Mike up and over and in to the cockpit of the boat. Well, in the process Mike slipped and fell between the dock and the boat into the river. We fished him out and dried him off and he was a good sport about it, but I said to myself “There’s got to be a better way”. At that time there were no public wheelchair accessible docks in the entire region.
About the same time, Tony and Carol Anderson became Adaptive SCUBA instructors and started working with Dave Leonard who also was handicapped with MS and who found moving around on land to be difficult and painful, but found a great new freedom when he strapped on a SCUBA tank and went underwater.
Tony and I had collaborated with some other folks on producing waterfront events and Expos, trying to showcase our waterfront and the various water related activities one could get involved in. This collaboration resulted in forming The Great Lakes Water Sport Institute and one of the Institutes goals became advocating for accessible docks and facilities so that folks with disabilities could participate along with everyone else.
Along the way we applied for and received 501(c)3 status which enabled us to receive tax deductable donations and we started promoting our program to get folks with disabilities out on the water, or under it as the case may be. At first we didn’t have much equipment but tried to make the best of it by using what we had and borrowing what we could. At times we would drive to Erie, or New Jersey just to borrow adaptive dinghy’s for a weekend event. On one such trip my truck broke down with a trailer full of dinghies half way to New Jersey and I said to myself “There’s got to be a better way”.
After that experience we got together and built a couple of adaptive sailing dinghies which we could use and drag around to various shows and displays to promote our program. About the same time we were fortunate enough to receive the donation of 19 ft. power boat with the capability to pull water skis. Once we had the boat and the use of a jet ski, Steve Goodwin came down from Rochester with his adaptive equipment and taught us how to do adaptive water skiing. Steve was also an officer of Disabled Sports USA and set us on the path to becoming a chapter.
Disabled Sports USA is a national organization promoting and advocating for sports for individuals with disabilities. They bring us, as a chapter, many advantages including education, a national presence, insurance, and some grant opportunities (our first adaptive ski was paid for by a grant from them). Among their requirements for chapterhood are you must be a 501(c)3 organization, you must have a board of 20 people of which 10 must be disabled, and disabled folks must take an active role in the organization. We organized Western New York Adaptive Water Sports as a d/b/a of Great Lakes Water Sports Institute and we achieved chapter status in 2007.
From the very beginning we have been looking for a permanent home where we could provide the facilities to run first class programs like they have in many other areas. At first we were simply gypsies going wherever we could find a spot. Then we had two summers at the Small Boat Harbor where the weeds choked us and they gave us a hassle over mounting a lift on their dock. After many public hearings and much advocating, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. has installed excellent wheelchair accessible docks and has allowed us to install our lift on them. We still want our own permanent home but for now, this works quite well.