Boating: Paralympian keeps his passion for sailing

Written by Gary Fallesen, Democrat and Chronicle April 25, 2006

Keith Burhans doesn't let the lack of lower legs and feet slow him down.

He sails on through life, a living encouragement to others that people with disabilities can be enabled.

"That's pretty much my credo," says the Paralympic sailor from Irondequoit.

Burhans, who turns 50 on May 1, lost both of his legs below the knees in a boating accident in 1995. But he remains a fixture on the sailing scene, competing against people who are able bodied and people who are not.

"That's the beauty of the sport of sailing," Burhans says. "It is an inclusive sport. We can go out and compete in our Sonars with able-bodied sailors on an equal basis without giving quarter.

"Try to go play golf with Tiger Woods. That's not going to happen. In the sport of sailing, I can sail against (Etchells class world champion) Bill Mauk or with Rolex (Yachtswoman of the Year) winners Betsy Alison, Cory Sertl (of Brighton) and Jody Swanson people of super stature within our sport."

Not only has Burhans excelled for himself, he has helped others. From coaching the Greek team in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, to bringing sailing's disabled world championships to the Rochester Yacht Club in 2007 to teaching people with disabilities how to sail through the Rochester Rehabilitation Center's SportsNet program.

"He simply IS the adaptive sailing program that we have been able to offer through SportsNet," says Nancy Steinkamp, SportsNet's director. "Through his involvement with the Rochester Yacht Club, he has enabled SportsNet to use this beautiful facility to offer clinics to people with disabilities."

Burhans says it is all about enablement.

He was the driving force behind SportsNet's purchase of a Martin 16, a sailboat that is fully accessible to people with physical disabilities. It has puff controls so it can be steered by a person's mouth.

"I laid the groundwork for RYC to have a relationship with SportsNet," says Burhans, a Rochester Yacht Club member and former Rochester Rehab Center board member. "The idea was that there's already an adult learn-to-sail program offered to the public for people to get certified to sail on their own. Our goal was to offer it to our SportsNet members. They can become certified so they can use the boat without anyone's assistance."