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Sailing solo

Photography by Matt Haas

September 2013

John Ruf, a bronze medalist in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, will compete in the U.S. Disabled Sailing Championship this month on Lake Michigan.

When the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center hosts the U.S. Disabled Sailing Championship Sept. 5-8, athletes from across the country will be in the city to compete. One of the toughest sailors to beat will be John Ruf of Pewaukee, who first launched his own boat on Pewaukee Lake at the age of 9.

"The U.S. Disabled Sailing Championship is the biggest event in disabled sailing," Ruf says. "Iíve actually never sailed my own boat in it, only crewed for a friend. So Iím looking forward to having a chance to sail in that regatta. It brings out the best sailors."

Ruf, now 45, represents his familyís fifth generation of sailors. He says he learned the sport from his mother and grandfather. "We had a 16-foot boat that kids sail, and I sailed that ítil I was 15," he notes.

Ruf says he was born with a tumor on his spine and, as a child, had surgery at the Mayo Clinic followed by radiation therapy at Childrenís Hospital of Wisconsin. "I spent a fair amount of time at Childrenís and had multiple back surgeries," he says.

In 1998 Ruf was in a car accident that necessitated a surgery in 1999. As a result, he now uses a wheelchair. He thought his competitive sailing career might be over, until he heard about a one-person keelboat that would be a class for sailors with disabilities in the Paralympic Games.

"I always had a crew, and didnít sail by myself until 2000," Ruf says. "It is a huge, huge difference sailing with a crew vs. sailing by yourself ó youíre the only person whoís pulling the lines and deciding how youíre going to sail the course."

After intensive training and competing in trials, Ruf took the bronze medal in the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. "Besides learning how to sail by myself, the 2.4-meter (keelboat) took some getting used to. Itís the wettest boat Iíve ever sailed in my life. Itís like being in the bathtub with the shower on," Ruf says.

Ruf went on to win the 2009 Open World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., which attracts both able-bodied sailors and athletes living with a disability from all over the world. In 2010 he won the U.S. Nationals, also an open competition.

Competitive sailing has taken Ruf all over the world, from sites along the U.S. East Coast to France, Sweden, Norway, Finland and England.

One thing he hasnít yet done, he says, "is enough just cruising around. Itís great just to be out on the water. Thereís something about sailing thatís incredibly freeing for me. Thereís pretty much no other place where Iíve experienced that sort of serenity and solitude that you get when youíre sailing by yourself."

The upcoming U.S. Disabled Sailing Championship will include a racing clinic on Thursday, Sept. 5, with races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 6-8. An awards ceremony will be held on Sunday evening. This is the first time the competition will be held on the Great Lakes. For more information, go to

This story ran in the September 2013 issue of: