Jasmin Washington, of Oak Park, sits in the boat for a portrait on Thursday, Aug 4, during the practice runs for the U.S. Para Sailing races near Burnham Harbor off of Lake Michigan in Chicago. | Alex Rogals

Boating around Lake Michigan is a summer must for many in the Chicago area, but for Oak Park resident Jasmin Washington, sailing transcends physical limitations.

“It’s a spiritual experience for me,” she said.

The 22-year-old has been sailing for four years now, but she is not your average sailor. Washington was born with no vision in her left eye and can only see colors, shapes and light in her right eye.

Yet she is a champion sailor. Her team won first place at the Robie Pierce One-Design Regatta last June. The race left her soaked, as rain poured, filling her boots, but her spirit was hardly dampened.

“You’re not a true sailor if you don’t sail in bad weather,” Washington said.

This past weekend, she competed in this year’s Independence Cup and U.S. Para-Sailing Championship. Typically a three-day affair, the race was shortened due to thunderstorms on Sunday.

Washington snagged second-place in the Independence 20 event with her sailing mate, Bonnie Everhart, who contracted polio as a child and now uses a motorized chair.

“Bonnie, she’s a great sailor,” Washington said. “It was an overall wonderful experience.”

The Independence 20 boat requires two people to sail but sits three. Per safety regulations, an “able-bodied” individual must be on the boat in case of an emergency.  Everhart steered the boat, while Washington handled the sails, an arrangement that suits the latter just fine.

“When it’s racing, I prefer to man the sails,” Washington said. “I do not have the confidence yet to steer in close quarters with so many other boats.”

The Independence Cup is a premier regatta for sailors with disabilities. This year it was combined with the U.S. Para-Sailing Championship, the national sailing championship for sailors with disabilities. Many who have competed in the championship have gone on to represent the United States in the Paralympic Games. Representatives from the U.S. Sailing Association were on hand to categorize sailors, ranking them for world sailing events.

“We have an eye on who’s here,” said Nancy Mazzulli, U.S. Sailing Association’s adult programs coordinator.

The weekend-long sailing event was sponsored this year by the nonprofit Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation (JGASF), the very organization that brought sailing into Washington’s life.

Call it being in the right place at the right time, but life seems to have steered Washington’s course to JGASF. She happened upon the organization in 2017, while out fishing with her uncle in one of Chicago’s harbors.

“I got really bored,” she recalled.

A group from JGASF just happened to be nearby. The foundation hosts several cruises throughout the year and the group had just docked for lunch. Curious, Washington went to check it out.

“I just started talking to people,” she said. “I have no shame when it comes to making friends.”

Since then she has been a regular at JGASF, taking classes through the foundation’s scholarship program. When she’s not sailing, she volunteers at the regatta, working on one of JGASF’s 20 boats, which are adapted to accommodate sailors with disabilities. Taking care of boats is hard work, but Washington finds it relaxing to take care of the vessels and she likes being around other sailors.

JGASF was founded in honor of Justin “Judd” Goldman, who took up sailing at 17 after being diagnosed with osteomyelitis, a disabling bone disease that prevented him from participating in many sporting activities. He went on to compete in sailing races throughout the world.

He died in 1989 and a year later, his family established the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation, which has been training people with disabilities to sail ever since. Over a thousand people have enjoyed the freedom and joy of sailing through the foundation.

“In many ways, sailing is an equalizer,” explained Judd’s son Peter Goldman. “The rules are the same whether it’s disabled sailing or able-bodied sailing and there’s beauty in that.”

Washington credits JGASF with helping her develop her love of sailing, but the foundation has touched the hearts of many sailors, regardless of experience or ability. Before polio, Everhart sailed often as a child. JGASF has given her that experience back.

“It’s so good to be back sailing in any form one way or the other,” she said.

John Mulesa, who served as the duo’s “able-bodied” individual, got involved with JGASF when personal circumstances made it seem likely he would need to learn adaptive sailing. He recovered, but for the last four years, he has been volunteering with the foundation.

Although Washington is the youngest of the group, Everhart and Mulesa were quick to sing her praises. Her talents also caught the attention of the U.S. Sailing Association and Mazzulli.

“It’s very cool and impressive what she’s been able to accomplish in her 22 years,” said Mazzulli. “She’s beautiful. She’s awesome. Quite talented.”

Washington is taking on bigger challenges in the hopes of becoming a professional sailor in the future. Currently, she is learning to sail larger boats used for long-distance sailing.

She makes time for others though. If you catch her down at Burnham Harbor, she might just offer to take you out on the lake. It’s something of a mission of hers to share her passion with the world.

“I want to introduce as many land-lovers as possible to the boating world,” she said. “Once you sail, you never look back.”

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