Olympic Hopefuls: John Ruf Captures Bronze in First Paralympics
by Thom Burns

John Ruf Photo: USOC

Several mid-westerners made the herculean effort to go to the Olympic Games and to win a sailing medal. John Ruf from Pewaukee, Wisconsin won a bronze medal in the 2.4M one person keelboat at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. This was his first attempt at the Paralympics.

As a youth, Ruf learned to sail Xboats from his grandfather and mother and then he moved to M-16 Scows and E-Scows. He spent much of his childhood shuttling between doctors and hospitals after a tumor was discovered on his spine, but he still sailed. After a car accident, a wheelchair became his mode of transport, but he jumped right back into sailing. He discovered the 2.4M while flipping through a sailing magazine during his recuperation.

John was your average club racer who loved nothing more than being out on his boat racing against friends. He won a few and lost a few, but at the end of the day, heading back to the club and sharing tall tales about the racing was always the best part. But John's sailing focus changed dramatically as he became determined to go for a bigger target-an Olympic medal.

"The thought that I could get the same medal as an Olympic Finn sailor was intriguing. There might be a ramp to the podium but the road to it is exactly the same," said John.

But the road was tough. Finishing 10th at the 2007 Disabled Sailing World Championship motivated John to raise his game and work incredibly hard to increase his speed. "Since then, he has jumped to the forefront and onto the leader board," said head Paralympic coach, Betsy Alison, "It's a fantastic achievement." A month later, John won the right to represent the U.S at the Paralympic Games.

Photo: Betsy AlisonAt the games, with the top seven racers in contention for a medal in the 2.4M fleet, two fourth place finishes on the final day of racing assured a bronze medal for the first-time Olympian.

What John likes best about his 2.4M is that when he's out on the water he never thinks about his disabilities and the daily struggles that go with them. "I have caught myself after a race realizing I never once thought about the fact that I wasn't in my wheelchair. I'm not hanging out on a trapeze, I'm not competing in a 49er, but in terms of sailing my 2.4M, my wheelchair isn't getting in the way like it does in everything else. There aren't many other things I do that give me that same feeling."

John says one of the most important things he's gained from sailing are the friendships he's made. "As I look at it, all the friendships I have grew out of sailing. They're more than just 'sailing' friendships because that's not the only thing we talk about. I feel very fortunate to have met these people. They are very important to me."

Thom Burns publishes Northern Breezes and SailingBreezes.com Magazines.