David Camilo, 36, began sailing at the age of 24 at Lake Norman Yacht Club in the Club 420. Camilo, who is autistic, began swimming and playing basketball and bowling with the Special Olympics in New York before moving to North Carolina. In his new hometown, Camilo got involved with the local Lake Norman High School Sailing team and soon moved up to full-fledged regattas including skippering for the annual Southeastern Special Olympics.
In Special Olympics competition, athletes with disabilities are paired with a crewmate without disabilities, known as a “Unified Partner.” In these cases, the skipper controls the tiller while the crew controls the sails. Camilo often skippered these events with Sarah Chambers as his crew.
Camilo spoke with US Sailing about his introduction to the sport and his time with Special Olympics sailing for Autism Acceptance Month.
US Sailing: So, tell me – how did you first get involved with the local high school sailing team?
David: I was with the Lake Norman Yacht Club team at the time. One of the coaches there, [Craig Milliken] his son, Brad Milliken introduced me as one of the sailors. Then I participated in the Fourth of July regatta. We had our first practice there as the Special Olympics was just starting out, and I wasn’t really into it at first, but as I got into it a second time, I started to enjoy myself.
US Sailing: So, your first time sailing, you weren’t too sure, but then the second time you really liked it. What made you change your mind?
David: Yeah, so at the first practice, I was still getting my sea legs, so to speak, and I got hit on the head with the boom for the first time. I ended up walking out of the boat with a massive headache, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back again. But from that experience, I learned when to duck, and I’ve learned to enjoy myself sailing ever since.
US Sailing: So as you pushed yourself to be a better sailor, did you learn anything about yourself as you went along?
David: Yes! I’ve learned through sailing how to become self-reliant, self-aware, and how to take initiative to act in a situation. If I hadn’t started sailing when I did, I don’t think I would have been able to learn those particular life skills at that time – I would have learned them much later or not at all.
US Sailing: Those are really good lessons. Now, tell me about how Special Olympics is set up, and how you stepped into the skipper position?
David: Well, skippering came as a complete surprise to me because I was a crew for a few years, and I’d mastered it in practice and in regattas. My coach, Lisa Chambers, felt that I was ready for the next level, which is to skipper the boat. At that point, I was mostly focusing on the steering part, handling the rudder and the tiller. There were points where the crew and I would work off each other, or I would give a command and make a decision to figure out where to go next.
US Sailing: What do you remember about your first time skippering?
David: I remember getting to the back of the boat and just setting off for practice. Like when you drive a car for the first time, you get nervous and you don’t know what to expect, but I was lucky to have a lot of crewmates who were very helpful, very supportive and understanding, who would break things down step by step for me. So I had that going for me. Thank God for that.
US Sailing: Yes, the support people make all the difference. Did you feel like you were ready to skipper, or that you had to be “pushed out of the nest,” so to speak? Did your coach have to push you or were you ready to try it?
David: In hindsight, I think it was a little bit of both. Sometimes us Special Olympics athletes need a little push to go to the next level, and I think from my perspective, that was the right choice to make. It was what I needed to get to the next level. I mean, sure I was a little anxious and nervous at the time, but I felt like it was necessary for me to get out of my comfort zone, because lo and behold, I like skippering as much as I enjoy crewing. Maybe even more so.
US Sailing: That’s a very good outlook. So, do you have much contact with people in the autism community outside of the Special Olympics?
David: Yes, I do. As a matter of fact, I’m part of this group in Davidson, NC, called the Ignite program, which specializes in educating individuals on the autism spectrum in terms of going to college, finding a job, and independent living. I’ve been involved there for eight years now, and I’ve made many friends on the autism spectrum since then.
US Sailing: Have you brought any of them sailing?
David: Yes, I brought a friend of mine, Robert, on the team, and he enjoys sailing as much as I do. He drives a much bigger boat, the Hobie 16. It’s always cool to hang out with him, talking about sailing and just being out in the water together.
US Sailing: Do you know autistic sailors at other clubs?
David: Yes, I’ve met with other autistic individuals who sail outside of Lake Norman [Yacht Club] through the regattas we sailed in both Charleston, South Carolina, and then in Macon, Georgia. It’s always a joy whenever we get together because they are very friendly and welcoming to us. There’s a lot of commonality and camaraderie between different teams, which is what I enjoy about sailing and the Special Olympics in general.
US Sailing: If you could give a message to the sailing community about autistic sailors and people in your community, what would it be? What would you want to say to people not on the spectrum about what it’s like to be on the spectrum and in the sport?
David: To the United States sailing community out there, my message to you is to be open and be patient with us because we like to learn step by step. When you give us the love, patience, and guidance that we need and deserve, I think you can’t ask for any better sailors than us. When we’re given the right guidance and support, we can go above and beyond any expectations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Interview by Allison Chenard.