Skippers with Disabilities Show Physical Therapy Students the Ropes

University of Miami Miller School of Medicine physical therapy students learned about sailing – and life – on the water with skippers with disabilities.

A Miller School physical therapy student high fives a skipper before setting sail
Photos by Josh Prezant

When first-year physical therapy student Kendall Riley signed up for the Integrated Sports and Leisure course at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, she was excited to learn how to sail. Six weeks later, she had learned so much more, and made new friends for life.

At first, Riley was nervous to interact with the course skippers, who live with a range of disabilities, from spinal cord injuries and deafness to loss of both arms.

“I’ve never been exposed to a population like this before,” she said. “But they made me feel very comfortable, and from sharing their stories, I have a new perspective from my new friends, and I will be able to understand patients coming in for therapy and relate to them more.”

Learning Based on Trust and Communication

Since its launch in 1990, the elective course in the Department of Physical Therapy has given nearly 1,000 students insight into the world of adaptive sports, communicating with people with disabilities and transitioning skills from the classroom to the real world.

Conceived by Robert Gailey, Ph.D., P.T., professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the Miller School and director of the FORE Center, and Harry Horgan, president and co-founder of Shake-A-Leg Miami, the annual class is a joint venture between the university and the nonprofit organization that helps people with disabilities and veterans enjoy the water. The concept has taken sail, with alumni bringing adaptive recreational programs in skiing, kayaking and backpacking to cities across the country. Dr. Gailey and his colleagues presented the model this year at the National American Physical Therapy Association meeting.

Two Miller School physical therapy students  and a skipper sailing on the water

“The skippers teach our students how to sail the same way physical therapists teach them as patients who are injured — by building trust and communicating,” Dr. Gailey said. “Students come out with the ability to listen and figure out how they can work together.”

Lead skipper Patrick LoDuca, a certified captain from Shake-A-Leg, covers basics like safety, winds and knots in two evening sessions. Then students and skippers meet weekly at the Shake-A-Leg Miami waterfront. Students learn how to safely transfer the skippers onto the boats before setting sail for the afternoon. When it comes time for the final exam, students put their new skills to the test by sailing four hours to Boca Chita Key, an island in Biscayne Bay, for an overnight camping trip.

This year, students faced their strongest winds yet during the final sail.

“We were flying, going 15 knots!” said LoDuca, who uses a wheelchair and was Riley’s sailing partner. “For the rest of their lives, these physical therapists will have someone with a disability depending on them, but for this moment, they have to put their trust in the disabled person out on the water. That interaction is really unique and lasts a lifetime.”

After docking and helping the skippers requiring assistance onto land, Riley and her classmates divided the group into equipment, food and entertainment crews to set up camp. The students and skippers then bonded over a beautiful sunset, played with hermit crabs and roasted marshmallows over the campfire. A storm blew in around 4 a.m., sending Riley and her equipment crew running around the campsite, nailing collapsed tents back into the ground.

Lessons About Sailing and Life

Riley, who aims to do one thing each day that makes her uncomfortable, said, “There were many things I was uncomfortable with! But Patrick is a really great teacher. I learned so much from him about sailing and about life in general.”

Not only did Riley learn she loves boats and wants to continue sailing, but she found working with the skippers so interesting that she now is considering combining that specialty with her longtime interest in working as a sports therapist.

One of the course’s most impactful moments came not on the water but during a team-building trip to a ropes course. There, Shannen Kogos, also a first-year physical therapy student, was blindfolded.

“I can’t imagine learning an exercise when I can’t see, and it showed me how scary PT can be,” Kogos said. “It was cool to switch the script and feel that fear and anticipation of the unknown.”

The course and the newfound friendships will forever be a tailwind for these budding therapists’ careers.

Tags: Department of Physical Therapy, Dr. Robert Gailey, Integrated Sports and Leisure course, physical therapy