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Bridget Bodo finds second wind in sailboat racing

Bridget Bodo, a Lake View resident who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident in 2003, races sailboats in tournaments for disabled sailors.

Bridget Bodo found sailing a saving grace after she lost her leg in a motorcycle accident in Lake View.
Bridget Bodo found sailing a saving grace after she lost her leg in a motorcycle accident in Lake View.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Bridget Bodo worked to remain calm and encourage her sailing partner, who is visually impaired, as they raced against five other vessels last weekend in the Independence Cup, a tournament for disabled sailors that took place out of Burnham Harbor.

Even in the heat of competition, Bodo still feels a sense of peace and gratitude.

She’s confident in her abilities and feels almost invincible on the waters. The excruciating phantom pains that still ache 18 years later in her missing limb disappear when she’s on the sailboat.

“I’m starting to think of myself as almost like able-bodied, you know, on good days or at least on a sailboat, I feel really capable,” Bodo said.

Before she found sailing — or rather it found her — Bodo was in a dark place. She sunk into a deep depression after she lost her leg and suffered a brain injury in a motorcycle accident in Lake View in 2003.

“My life was totally, totally turned around,” Bodo, 45, said. “I went from being a very active, single, working person to a disabled, very isolated, very sad person who just sat at home all day not being able to do anything. I couldn’t even walk.”

“It changed her”

Bodo was always the most outgoing among her two sisters. She loved the spotlight.

Parents would often stop her mother, Bridget Cirino, and say, “Wow, I think she’s going to be an actress.”

“She was so funny,” Cirino said. “She was a little star in her own way.”

Bodo, who’s originally from Cleveland, became a workaholic in her young adult life. One of her only escapes from the day-to-day grind of being a working professional was her motorcycle.

Bodo was on a ride in the summer of 2003 when a car turned left into her bike near Belmont and Campbell avenues.

The collision caused her to slide across the pavement. Her lower left leg was torn from her body and found nearly 50 feet away from the accident, she said. Bodo suffered facial trauma and a brain injury, too.

Cirino recalled nearly fainting when she saw her battered-and-bruised daughter laying in a hospital bed.

The transition into Bodo’s new reality was arduous. She struggled knowing she would need a prosthetic leg. Her sister moved in to help with rent, her dog and wound care.

Still, feelings of helplessness consumed her. Bodo turned to donuts and cookies for comfort. She binge-watched TV in a way she had never done before.

“It changed her so much,” Cirino said. “At one point, I think she wanted to die because she was so depressed.”

“I was just sitting at home in a bed not knowing where I was gonna go in life, not knowing what my next career was gonna be,” Bodo said.

A chance encounter

Bodo missed the freedom of getting in a car and driving or taking the train whenever she wanted. Rarely did she leave her home. If she did, it was usually only to go to physical therapy and even that was exhausting because she had to rely on the city’s paratransit. And those rides, she said, would often be late — sometimes showing up more than an hour after its scheduled arrival.

Bodo was sitting in the lobby of the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly known as the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, after a physical therapy appointment in the spring of 2004 waiting for her ride. It was late and she was growing more frustrated by the minute.

That day, Peter Goldman was staffing a booth for the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation, an organization with programs that teach people with physical disabilities as well as at-risk youths in Chicago how to sail. He cheerfully asked Bodo if she had any interest in sailing.

Bodo was skeptical.

“I just wasn’t there mentally,” Bodo said. “Everything was so hard, everything was such a project.”

She remembers thinking: “I don’t know what this is gonna do for me.” Eventually, she gave in and signed up.

“It helped her be able to live again”

Bodo had been on boats before. She and a family member traveled across Lake Erie in a 50-foot powerboat one summer before her accident. But never had she sailed.

The first time on the water with the program was a refreshing experience. She said it was great to be out of the house and in the fresh air.

But it also was another hard reality check. She grappled with the thought of, “Wow, I’m going to need help now,” she said.

“I was somebody who could do this all and then some on a giant boat,” Bodo continued. “... and now I need somebody to hold my hand while I kind of like crawl on.”

Bodo couldn’t help but to return to the harbor at every opportunity. And each time she sailed, she felt more empowered.

Eventually, Bodo volunteered to do some of the more physically taxing chores of sailing, such as pulling the sails down or jumping off the vessel with the lines to tie it up at the dock.

Bridget Bodo unhooks one of her sails on her sail boat at the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Program docks in Burnham Harbor.
Bridget Bodo unhooks one of her sails at the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Program docks in Burnham Harbor.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

That confidence transferred to her life off the boat. She remembers one day after sailing needing something from a high cupboard. Initially, she was waiting for her sister to get home to help. But after a while, Bodo climbed onto a chair to grab it herself.

“It was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’” she said. “I was just on a boat like on water and moving all over the place and it was little things like that.”

And little accomplishments, like grabbing something from high up, started happening more frequently.

“She became like a new woman,” Cirino said. “It’s amazing. I don’t even know how to describe it. I was so impressed, so happy that she found something like that because I think that saved her life . . . It helped her be able to live again.”

“Sailing can be an equalizer”

Bodo found her second wind in sailboat racing, which has taken her all over the United States over the past 17 years. She’s won many races, including two regattas. Last weekend, her team finished fourth out of five vessels, despite some good showings across the four days.

But it’s not the rankings that matter to Bodo.

When she’s sailing, she says, “I’m not thinking about being disabled at all. I feel like I can do everything that I need to do on the boat.”

Goldman — whose family founded the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation in honor of his late father who became disabled after a bone infection stunted the growth of one of his legs when he was a teenager — said he’s heard many success stories like Bodo over the past 31 years.

“What happens is that they come into the program, and they just learn how to sail and . . . it changes their life,” Goldman said.

Bodo now helps to recruit other people with disabilities to join the program.

“She has been able to encourage other people so that other people realize that it’s not impossible — just because you haven’t done something before in your life, you can learn to do it,” Goldman said. “Sailing can be an equalizer in many ways.”

Bodo, who’s writing a book in hopes of helping others, said she’s just grateful for the opportunity to be on the water.

“The nicest thing about all of this is, again, is community. . . There’s so many people out there in the world that are really, really wanting to help people out.”

Bridget Bodo unhooks one of her sails on her sail boat at the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Program docks in Burnham Harbor, Saturday, July 24, 2021.
Bridget Bodo unhooks one of her sails after docking in Burnham Harbor.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times