ST. PETERSBURG — The U.S. sailing team didn't win any medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but local sailors Jen French and JP Creignou hope a fairer wind will blow their way when they race this week at the Paralympic Games in London.
French, a quadriplegic, and Creignou, who is blind, consistently place at the head of the fleet in international competitions. The sailors hail from St. Petersburg and train on the fickle waters of Tampa Bay.
"It has been a difficult campaign for us," said the 41-year-old French, who has used a wheelchair since a snowboard accident 14 years ago. "The downturn in the economy really made it hard to keep going, but fortunately for us, the local sailing community really rallied around us."
French, the helmsman of the SKUD18 team, has competed in a variety of boats, but she is teamed with Paralympic veteran Creignou, a sail trimmer and tactician who is widely regarded as one of the best in the sport.
The SKUD, a two-handed keelboat, made its Paralympic debut in 2008 at Beijing, where the United States won a gold medal. A few months after those Games, one of the winning team's members, Nick Scandone, succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease.
"Nick's story was truly inspirational to everybody in the sport," said French, who has overcome her own obstacles over the years.
French, who also competes with her husband, Tim, in a variety of able-bodied sailing events, has won the Milan-Gruson Award, which is given to the world's top disabled female skipper, eight times. She also won the gold medal at the 2009 U.S. Disabled Sailing Championship and the silver medal at the 2011 and 2012 world championships.
"It's a big honor to represent the U.S.," French said. "We were one of the teams in the running. Only one of us could go. And it was close … right down to the wire."
Creignou, who at 57 is the oldest member of the U.S. Paralympic team, has been to the Games before. The engineer was born in Paris and started sailing when he was 7. A job brought him to the United States, but a degenerative eye disease forced him to give up other sports, including snow skiing and tennis, so he turned all his attention to his first love.
He began competing in disabled regattas in 1997 and participated in his first Paralympic campaign in 2001-04, winning a bronze medal in Athens as part of the U.S. Sonar team. In the years that followed, Creignou won several world and national championships before joining French in the SKUD18 campaign.
"We are ready for anything," said French, who will sail 11 races over six days. "It could be 50 degrees and blowing 30 knots or 70 degrees and blowing 5 knots."
French and Creignou won't be the only St. Petersburg residents competing in London this week. Brad Snyder, a 28-year-old U.S. Navy officer who lost his sight in Afghanistan, is on the swim team.
"I'm superstoked," said Snyder, who was a standout swimmer at Northeast High. "I feel strong and feel like I am getting better every day."
The U.S. Naval Academy graduate was working with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Afghanistan last year when he stepped on a homemade land mine that cost him his vision.
"It was hard at first," Snyder said about his road to recovery. "But I kept at it. I knew that sooner, if I kept working at it, I could accomplish pretty much anything I set my mind to."
Snyder's younger brother, Mitchell, has been at his side through most of the past year. They swim together and in competition, Mitchell works as Brad's "tapper," signaling him when to do his flip turns.
"Sometimes I come in pretty hard," Brad said. "I've crashed a few times, but each race it gets easier and easier."
Snyder has spent the past several months working for a software company in Maryland, and before leaving for London, he spent a few weeks at the Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., and then in Germany for what he called "isolation training."
He qualified for seven events this week in London.
"I look at every race as a chance to get better," he said. "It doesn't matter how I do, as long as I am swimming."
Snyder is considered a favorite to medal in several of the blind freestyle events.
"I will just go over there and do my best," he said. "That is all I have ever done."