‘Don’t let the disease define you’: Couple wraps up Parkinson’s awareness sailing trip in Whitby

Couple wraps up Parkinson’s awareness sailing trip in Whitby
A Winnipeg man is sailing through barriers of living with Parkinson's. The 70-year-old man and his partner just returned from a sailing trip that took them to four of the five Great Lakes. Frazer Snowdon has more.

A Winnipeg couple has just recently docked in the Port of Whitby, following an adventure on the Great Lakes.

It’s part of a journey they call Sail on with Parkinson’s, an awareness campaign and fundraiser for the debilitating disease.

In this case, one of the sailors, Steven Van Vlaenderen, suffers from the disease himself.

“We had some obstacles, but we had to forge ahead, much like the disease Parkinson’s,” Van Vlaenderen said. “You can’t let it slow you down or stop you.”

Taking to the water is quite the task for the 70-year-old. On any given day, his complicated ailments that come with Parkinson’s can be a huge barrier for everyday life.

“There’s been days where I can’t function because the muscles are stiffening up and the joints are painful,” he said.

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The 70-year-old Winnipeg man was diagnosed with Parkinson’s nearly nine years ago and was told he should give up sailing because of how hard it can be, even for the most experienced of sailors.

But Van Vlaenderen, who just started sailing a year before his diagnosis, noticed it helped him being out on the open water.

READ MORE: ‘Not making the connection’: What it’s like for Parkinson’s patients with frozen gait

“When I’m sailing, I’m so focused that I just forget that I have Parkinson’s,” says Van Vlaenderen.

The Winnipeg man decided he wasn’t going to let Parkinson’s hold him back, so he set out on a journey he always wanted to take on: travelling the Great Lakes.

WATCH: (Aug. 12, 2019) Local athlete living with Parkinson’s disease prepares for Tour de Fox

Local athlete living with Parkinson’s disease prepares for Tour de Fox
Local athlete living with Parkinson’s disease prepares for Tour de Fox

Sailing from Superior, Wisconsin last year, the sailor and his partner and crewmate, Darlene travelled over two summers, covering four of the five Great Lakes — an adventure that can be a challenge.

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“You can’t just pull over to the side of the road and ask for directions,” says Van Vlaenderen. “You have to figure it out. And I found out that we are very small compared to the size of this world.”

The trip took five years of planning, and saw them visit more than 50 ports of call, travelling 3,200 Kilometres. At one point, Steven questioned why he was doing it. Over time, though, Darlene, his crewmate noticed a change.

“The stress reduced over this summer and last summer of him taking it into stride,” Darlene said.

READ MORE: Larry Gifford: Exercise is a real prescription for Parkinson’s

Van Vlaenderen says what was most important to him and everyone he met was the fact that people were learning about the disease.

“It needs funding, it needs research, it needs programs,” he said. “It was important to me to get that message out.”

The couple raised $9,000 in donations towards Parkinson’s and plans on taking to Georgian Bay and finishing their tour next year. He hopes his trip and perseverance will help inspire others to tackle their battles as well.

“Just apply yourself and don’t let the disease define you,” he said.

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