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Area represented at Paralympic Games in Athens

Sailors with local ties are in Athens representing the USA on the Sonar sloop at the Paralympic Games.

Sailing started as a paralympic demonstration sport in Atlanta in 1996. John Ross-Duggan, along with crew Chris Murphy and Jim Leatherman, garnered the bronze medal on Georgia's Lake Lanier after training at St. Petersburg Sailing Center with coaches Serge Jorgensen, Gene Hinkle and Dave Ellis.

This year, Ross-Duggan, 49, won the trails in St. Petersburg to be the USA representative at the Athens Games.

Ross-Duggan was a typical Southern California surfer-sailor. He bought one of the first Hobie 14s and started racing. By 1977, in his third year of medical school, he had won the Hobie 16 Nationals.

Eight months later, Ross-Duggan broke his neck in an auto accident. He was 23 and paralyzed from the chest down.

Eighteen months after the accident, he was back in graduate school and trying to return to the sport. After a few frustrating years attempting to find the right boat, Ross-Duggan started racing Freedom-Independence 20s at the Shake-a-Leg facility in Miami, a disabled sailing group. The Paralympics in the Sonar was a natural progression.

J.P. Creignou, 49, lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, who brought him over from his native France. An engineer educated in France, Creignou worked as a sailing instructor in California before relocating to Florida.

At about age 30, he started to suffer the effects of hereditary degenerative eye disease. Creignou thought his sailing days were numbered as he lost his sight. The Paralympic Games gave him incentive to continue.

"I feel pretty at ease on a boat, and I know where everything is," Creignou said.

Brad Johnson, 29, was born in the Midwest but had a strong love for the water.

After attending the University of South Florida, he was traveling on I-95 en route to taking the entrance exams for law school when his car hydroplaned into a guardrail. He lost his left leg below the knee and his right above the knee.

Fourteen months later, Johnson entered law school and now is an attorney. He played for five years on the national disabled volleyball team, going to the Sydney Games. But he was ready for a new challenge.

A friend at Shake-a-Leg introduced Johnson to sailing. After he learned the sport and crewed on bigger boats, Betsy Alison, coach of the 2000 Paralympic Team, introduced him to Ross-Duggan, who needed a mainsail trimmer. Less than three months later, the team had won the Paralympic Trials for Athens.

The alternate crew is Roger Cleworth, 44, of Brandon. He graduated from FSU in 1982 with a management degree, and he sailed recreationally as he ran his business.

Seven years ago, Cleworth was the president of an environmental company. He was at a building site in Jacksonville and needed to make a pick-up. Two miles down the road he had a collision with a semi.

Both vehicles caught fire, and the wreck left nothing of Cleworth's truck. Though he lost both legs, he says he was "a very lucky guy."

Cleworth sailed the one-person 2.4-Meter Paralympic boat in the 2004 trials, finishing second. He won the 2004 Nationals in the class.

After returning from Athens, he plans to take a breather from the sport and spend more time with his family. He has his eye on the 2008 Games, back in the 2.4 meter.

"The accident was definitely a turning point in life," Cleworth said. "It was just my turn. Life is fuller now. I've traveled the world and met a lot of people through disabled sailing. Sailing is a challenge that's 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. There is a lot of satisfaction when you do well."

We won't know until Tuesday how the team fares. After the second day of racing, it was leading the regatta.

The favored Israeli squad was disqualified from one race. But after several races, the worst finish is discarded, so that team now leads. The USA is a close fourth. The same difficult conditions that the Olympic sailors experienced have negated some early leads in several races.

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