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Paralympian Strives To Help People With Disabilities

Team USA (l to r): Jimmy Jam Joseph, Jacqui Kapinowski and Jim Pierce
The Florida Channel
Team USA (l to r): Jimmy Jam Joseph, Jacqui Kapinowski and Jim Pierce

Jacqui Kapinowski has battled cancer, bacterial meningitis — twice — and a rare neurological disorder that robbed her of the use of her legs. 

Through it all, the 56-year-old Tequesta resident hasn’t stopped rowing, racing and teaching.

A two-time U.S. Paralympian and nine-time world champion in multiple sports, Kapinowski serves as the regional director for Achilles International of South Florida, a nonprofit organization that strives to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics. It also aims to promote personal achievement, enhance self-esteem and lower barriers.

The organization serves all ages and abilities in cities around the United States and in 70 countries around the world. Its South Florida chapter is the world’s second-largest, Kapinowski said, and she strives to reach as many people as possible through her work with the organization.

“I try to bring awareness to the community and everywhere in Florida about disabilities,” said Kapinowski, who teaches hand cycle clinics through Achilles International. “It’s not really disabilities. It’s abilities. I went from being able-bodied to disabled. It wasn’t all peaches and cream. I’m getting older now and out of the competitive side of it. Now I get to do the educational side and bring awareness to these communities. People don’t realize that these programs are out there, like mine, to help educate and get them involved in sports.”

Kapinowski, who is collaborating with the North Palm Beach Rowing Club to offer monthly kayaking clinics for wounded veterans, has been involved in sports her entire life.

Long before two bouts of bacterial meningitis in her 20s, Kapinowski was training for marathons in her native New Jersey.

“I used to run seven days a week,” she said. “I never took a day off. It didn’t matter if it rained or snowed. I ran. I was like Forrest Gump before Gump even came around.”

She eventually was diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare, progressive neurological disorder with no cure, in her late 30s.

Even after the disease left her paralyzed from the chest down, Kapinowski, whose husband, Harry, also is her coach, continued to train and compete.

She’s completed 60 of her 80 marathons in a racing wheelchair; represented the U.S. Paralympic Team in curling (2010) and rowing (2016); won a bronze medal in triathlon at the 2013 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in London; and has started training for an 85-mile rowing trip across the Gulf Stream from the Bahamas to Lake Worth as part of a Crossing for a Cure fundraiser.

“This is my life,” Kapinowski said.

Inspiring others brings Kapinowski great joy, and she relishes her role as an instructor just as much as she does as an athlete.

She held her first Achilles Kayak Freedom Team clinic last month at Bert Winters Park in Juno Beach, and more than a half-dozen wounded veterans and others with disabilities participated.

Her second monthly clinic will be held April 30 from 9-11 a.m., also at Bert Winters Park. It is designed to encourage physical fitness, nature exploration and adventure, Kapinowski said. All skill levels are welcome.

“We’re helping others with disabilities, trying to give people a better quality of life,” she said. “I love it.”