If Rockland Community Sailing needed more motivation to move forward with its adaptive sailing program, it surely has it now.

Paralympic gold medal winner Maureen McKinnon spoke at the organization's "Second Thursday" lecture series March 14, a talk that gave Midcoast residents a sense of what the new program has to offer.

The adaptive sailing program, which started late last summer, gives youths and adults with cognitive and physical disabilities the opportunity to sail and work on boats.

McKinnon, paralyzed from the waist down, has significant, life-altering ties to the city.

In August of 1995, she was in the city to participate in a sailing regatta on Vinalhaven. Although her plans to sail that particular day fell through, she still planned to travel by ferry boat to the Penobscot Bay island to watch the regatta and perhaps bike around the island.

"And as the story goes, I never made it to the boat," she said.

It was at that point that her life changed forever.

"I tripped and fell over at the [Rockland Ferry Terminal] into low-tide sand and rock 13 feet below," she said. "I fell over the sea wall. I just tripped. It was really just a freak accident."

The accident caused McKinnon's paralysis at the age of 30.

She was rushed to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport where she stayed for "about eight hours or so" and was then transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where she spent 2 1/2 weeks before returning to her native Massachusetts.

"It was a really painful fall," she said.

That fall broke McKinnon's back, but not her spirit.

After the accident, McKinnon literally threw herself into work and family, including her two children, and later won a gold medal, along with teammate Nick Scandone, for their race in the two-person keelboat at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, China .

Scandone suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease and passed away months after winning the gold medal with McKinnon.

McKinnon also tried out for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England, but fell short in the trials and did not qualify. She also plans to try out for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

McKinnon, who lives in Marblehead, Mass., previously worked as the director of disabled sailing at Piers Park Sailing Center in Boston, Mass. and more recently the director of development and community outreach at the Courageous Sailing Center in Charlestown, Mass. before taking on public and motivational speaking full-time.

In essence, her disability has become her life and she has dedicated her life to helping others learn to live with disabilities.

March 14 marked the first time McKinnon had returned to Rockland since the accident that changed her life. Nearly 40 people turned out for the lecture on the adaptive sailing program, which Kevin "KC" Heyniger started last summer.

McKinnon and Heyniger, the waterfront programs director for RCS at The Apprenticeshop, met last year in Boston at a symposium sponsored by the U.S. Sailing Association.

"I met Maureen to get some information about [the adaptive sailing program] and she said basically, 'You've just got to start doing it and go from there,' " said Heyniger. "I never expected her to be coming here and be speaking in such a short time. She was really impressed that we've already got some activities going."

"I challenged KC to do an adaptive program," said the now 48-year-old McKinnon. "I told him if he did it I would come, drive up and talk to the community about the program to help garner understanding and support for it. And I stuck to my word."

Heyniger said McKinnon's lecture was "very encouraging."

"I had three different people come up to me [after the lecture] wanting to help out," he said. "That was part of it, too. To have people come together who might be interested in getting involved in something like this and getting the word out. It's somewhat of an unknown thing in this area."

The adaptive sailing program started last summer with adults from the Maine Vocational and Rehabilitative Associates (MVRA) in Rockport. Then the Transitional Life Skills program at Camden Hills Regional High School, which has 4-8 students, had sailing dates of its own in October.

From there, Heyniger set up a program where twice a month the TLS students learn how to care for and store boats in the winter, along with buffing out scratches and assisting with other relative boat projects.

Heyniger said to thank his students for their work over the winter, he plans to have Rockland Community Sailing, comprised of roughly 25 students from Camden Hills Regional High School, Oceanside High School and Watershed School in Camden, take the TLS students out on the water for a group sail in the coming months.

Heyniger said the adaptive sailing program "is going to be good for all the students involved" because one of the greatest challenges children with disabilities face, whether at school, work or in the community, is being accepted.

"It's kind of a core value that goes way beyond sailing," he said. It's a little bit of a life lesson wrapped up in a little bit of sailing."

McKinnon agreed.

"There's no special equipment involved, just special people," she said.

Heyniger also credited TLS teacher Ana Alley for having much to do with the success of the adaptive program in its opening stages.

"[She's] a teacher that knew exactly what we're trying to do," he said. "And who knew how to work with her school and her ed-techs and her students and say, 'Hey, here's another opportunity for us to do something in that community, to try a new sport, to try a lifeskill [and] get out on a boat.' She was onboard for all that and the ideas we had just fit."

As the adaptive sailing program expands, it could become something that is offered through other local high schools in the future.

"Many schools offer some kind of special education course, and now I can work with Ana and say, 'How would this work at Oceanside and who do I talk to? How would this work at Medomak [Valley]?' So the pieces are kind of being set up for that."

McKinnon's trip back to Rockland came full circle after the lecture.

"After the presentation that night we went back to the place where I last stood on land [at the ferry terminal]," she said. "It was very spooky, kind of eerie-feeling. My daughter was taking pictures of it because she knows it was a major intersection in my life and it changed dramatically at that very moment."

Courier Publications Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email at mhaskell@courierpublicationsllc.com.