It might seem some cruel twist of fate that, having spent the past 25 years coaching para sailors to be the best that they can be, Betsy Alison now finds herself competing as a para athlete in her own right.
Except that this relentlessly positive woman from the USA doesn’t seem to see the downside in anything that comes her way. With the Para competition at Lake Braassemermeer approaching its climax, Alison finds herself leading the field in the women’s Hansa 303 singlehanded class.
To reach this point, to be within striking distance of the podium, even to be sailing at all, has been a battle of sheer grit and determination.
The past 18 months have been a life-changing whirlwind for the 63-year-old from Newport, Rhode Island. “Back in November 2021 I started having pain in my hip,” recalls Alison. “I thought I pulled a muscle in my hip area because I had some pain. But it never really got better over the holidays.
“So in February 2022, I went to see my doctor and then an orthopaedist who said my bones looked fine on X-ray. So I did physical therapy until April but still wasn’t improving.”
A series of MRI scans and a biopsy revealed a malignant tumour in the hip and pelvis.
“I got that final diagnosis in mid-July and by August I was in radiation treatment and then started chemotherapy, which ran through to October.
“In mid-November, they removed a cancerous tumour from my left hip and it was the size of a football. Whether it’s an American football or a rugby ball, it doesn’t really matter,” Alison laughs.
“That’s how big it was. So they took out all the wing bone, the ilium, out of my left hip as well as about 80 per cent of the muscle. It’s pretty extensive. I had what they call a hemipelvectomy, where they take out half of your pelvis.”
Since November Alison has undergone exhaustive rehab and follow-up treatment.
“I’ve been learning how to walk again, learning how to stand again, going through the healing and making really great progress. This championship was a test for me to be able to come back and travel alone, and to be able to come to an event and manage to go sailing. It’s kind of a very ironic thing that I spent nearly 25 years coaching Paralympic sailors, only to find myself on the flip side, doing what I’m doing now, being an athlete. It’s kind of a crazy situation.”
Asked what the lowest moment of the whole ordeal has been, Alison struggles to find anything but the positive.
“Never once in this journey of having my diagnosis, having the surgery, talking to my oncology team, not once did we ever talk about this being terminal for me, about whether I was going to die or not. That was never a factor in my head.
“When people ask me, ‘how can you be so positive all the time?’ well, you know, I think to myself, what’s the alternative? If I’m in a negative mind space, I can’t move forward. There were probably a good two and a half months where I really didn’t want to talk to anybody. I didn’t want to take phone calls, I wasn’t really reading emails.
“I really just wanted to focus on healing. That was really positive for me. The physical pain has been really bad at times, but I knew that if I didn’t push through the pain, then I wouldn’t make the progress as rapidly as I have been able to do.”
Alison believes she owes a debt of gratitude to the sport that has defined her life.
“I think that being an athlete, doing the campaigns and the sailing that I have, always having to work through muscular pain and learning new boats and pushing hard in strong wind conditions, and working through injuries, all those things have helped me tremendously.”
The past 18 months have also been an opportunity for Alison to practise what she has been preaching for the past 25 years.
“Working with Paralympic athletes for as many years as I have, it has allowed me to put into action the coping mechanisms, the things that I’ve asked my sailors to do in the past. I have watched them work through the challenges posed by different disabilities. I have taken that and I’ve applied it to my own recovery. So it has been really a very positive experience, to be honest.”
However, there was a moment during the opening ceremony on Scheveningen Beach at the start of the Allianz Sailing World Championships when something hit home to Alison.
“It has been really fun for me to see a lot of the sailors that I have come across over the years, and the coaches that I’ve worked with too. But it was a little bittersweet for me being surrounded at the opening ceremony by the Olympic class sailors and and seeing able-bodied friends of mine that I’ve competed against and coached against. All of a sudden I realised that a chapter has closed for me, because I’m not sure that I could ever jump into an Olympic class like the 470 and be able to sail it the way I was able to do in the past.
“So that was a little bit of a sad moment the other night. But you know, you get by that and you move on.”
Alison hasn’t had much time to dwell on any regrets. She’s fully focused on doing the best she can this week in the Hansa 303. She hasn’t sailed the boat before but has got to grips with its quirks quite quickly.
At the time of writing, topping the standings with a string of race wins, gold looked well within her grasp.
“I’m really enjoying the experience. Whether I finish first or fifth, it doesn’t really matter,” she says, although I’m not sure anyone who has raced against Alison would entirely believe her.
She is fiercely competitive and the winning does matter, however much she might argue otherwise.
“Of course I’m going to give it my all every time I’m on the racecourse and every time the start gun fires. I’m going to do my best to finish as best as I can, and let the cards fall where they may. For me the racing is secondary. It’s been the journey to get here, being able to support my teammates in the other classes, that has been the most important part for me.”
If she also finds herself taking the stop step of the Hansa 303 podium, she will be very happy with that too. It would be the crowning achievement of a remarkable story of resilience and reincarnation.