Florida Member Jen French: Ship Shape in Sailing and Neurotechnology

You would never know it from watching her dominate the 2012 Paralympics en route to a silver medal in sailing, but Florida member Jen French swears she is a “sinker.” “I always have to have flotation on,” she says. “As long as I have flotation on, I’m comfortable in the water.”

Obviously, French hasn’t let her lack of buoyancy or her spinal cord injury keep her from achieving her goals. In addition to medaling in her first Paralympic appearance, French has won the Milan-Gruson Award, which is given to the top disabled female skipper, eight times, and has won numerous medals at international events.

Her accomplishments off the water are equally impressive. She cofounded Neurotech Network, a non-profit that provides education and information about emerging neurotechnology options for people with a wide range of disabilities, including spinal cord injury. She currently serves as executive director.

French discovered her passion for neurotechnology when she had a stand and transfer functional electrical stimulation system implanted in her lower extremities soon after she was paralyzed in a snowboarding accident. As a C6-7 quad, she wanted a way to boost her abilities but was nervous about medical research options.

“I get really leery around talk of getting things injected into the body so early on in the research process because it’s really not reversible,” she says. “I’m a chicken. I want to wait until it’s a little more proven until I do that to my body.”

She says the implants have been invaluable to her health, in addition to allowing her to do things most quads can’t — like walk down the aisle at her wedding and stand during the seventh inning stretch. “It gives me an option outside of the wheelchair,” she says. “It doesn’t replace it, for sure.” [For more on her implants, see “SCI Research” in the January/February issue.]

Through Neurotech Network, French has worked with numerous organizations, including NSCIA, to develop informative literature about neurotechnology. She also speaks at events and does other forms of outreach. She wants to share her passion with other people with disabilities and help people understand what is involved in neurotechnology and being a part of research studies.

“Not everything is going to be perfect and not everything is going to work well,” she says. “Part of our role as a participant is to work with the researchers to understand what works and what doesn’t and to explore how the technology can be used. It takes a lot of involvement and a lot of patience.”

The same could be said of French’s rise to the top of the sailing world. She started sailing against able bodied friends a couple of years after her accident.

“I didn’t even know it was a Paralympic sport when I started racing,” she says. “The neat thing is you can really adapt just about any boat and you get to go out and race against the able-bodied people. You’re not treated any differently. You don’t get any handicapping.”

Her talent translated to racing against people with disabilities. In 2008 she narrowly missed making the Paralympic team in a three-person boat. This year, competing with a blind partner in a two-person boat, she made the cut. She is responsible for driving the boat while her teammate, J.P. Creignou, trims the sails.

“We kind of compensate for each other’s disabilities,” she says. “He has all working limbs and I have the eyesight.”

This story was originally published in the September/October 2012 issue of Life in Action magazine. You can access our digital archives here.