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People with challenges are conquering windsurfing - and their own limitations

By Jill Taylor - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The Palm Beach Post
Sunday, March 11, 2001

STUART - The sensation of the breeze, the light spray of the river water, the gentle creaking of the mast, the slap of the water against the board.

The sensations of windsurfing are not just for the wonderfully athletic or amazingly agile among us. Even those with disabilities - the blind, the physically and mentally challenged - can experience the sport with a little guidance and the courage to try.

To that end, Ross Lilley and others from AccesSportAmerica visited the Treasure Coast this week to teach avid windsurfers how to share the sport they love with others who might never have imagined themselves skimming along the Indian River or one of the many other popular windsurfing spots in Martin County.

Lilley, a pastor from a suburb of Boston, started the not-for-profit organization in 1994 with the goal of helping the disabled realize thier potential and gain confidence by taking part in the so-called high-challenge sports of windsurfing, waterskiing, kayaking, competitive rowing and para-sailing.

"It gives you a sense of who you are and what you can do," Lilley said Saturday while working with trainers at the Stuart Causeway. "We challenge people."

Lilley and the trainers of his staff work with thousands of people every year and came to Stuart at the invitation of avid windsurfer Dick Rasmussen, a Stuart winter resident familiar with Lilley's work in New England.

Rasmussen, 66, said he thought about the unusually large number of active windsurfers over the age 65 in the are - he knows at least 20 - and what they might be able to contribute if properly trained.

Lilley and his trainers came to Stuart with the cooperation of the Hutchinson Island Marriott, which has a windsurfing program for guests and the community.

The resort provided a place for the training and will keep the specialized equipment that helps the disabled stay on and maneuver the boards. Officials hope to hold sessions for both adults and children at least every other month.

Cold weather kept away most of the participants Saturday, but the group worked with about 20 children on Friday and eight of them tried the boards.

"They were thrilled," Rasmussen said. "But I think the adults were more excited than they were."

Part of Lilley's inspiration for the program is his 14-year-old son, Josh, who has cerebral palsy.

Josh has been riding the board since the group began and although it's hard to understand his words, there's no mistaking his meaning when he is asked if he likes windsurfing.

His eyes sparkle, his grin widens and his hands make circles in the air as he tries to express his joy.

Lilley said the experience has been a huge help to Josh, encouraging him to try other things that might be considered out of his reach - like walking.

"One time we sailed together 10 miles on the board," Lilley said. " The biggest trick to this is just to have the confidence to do it.

The trainer Lilley leaves behind will work with local groups that offer programs for the disabled and with disabled veterans' groups. Those interested in learning more can contact the Marriott or just stop by the Stuart Causeway on a nice, breezy day. The windsurfers will be there.