Mike Parkin competed in table tennis, swimming, athletics and wheelchair fencing at the Stoke Mandeville Games. He went on to represent Great Britain at two World Sailing Championships and laid the foundations for disability sailing in the UK. By co-founding Sailability which has now spread all over the world, he contributed to the sport becoming more accessible to disabled athletes as well as Sailing becoming a Paralympic discipline.

Early Life

Mike Parkin was born in 1938 and from a young age he had a very active lifestyle and spent a lot of time playing table tennis. At age 17 he was rushed to hospital with an epidural abscess, an infection of the central nervous system, and received a life-saving emergency surgery. Although his body was otherwise healthy, it soon became clear that Mike would not be walking again and his dreams of joining the Royal Air Force to become part of an air crew as well as his sporting goals were crushed. Soon after his surgery, Mike was moved to Lodge Moor Spinal Unit at Sheffield Royal Infirmary where he started his rehabilitation process. 

I was fitted with callipers, walking irons, whatever you like to call them. And I was stood up in the gym, within certainly a couple of months as I was young and pretty fit otherwise. It was a new way of life. I was quite enjoying it in a way.

As his parent’s home was unsuitable for his needs, Mike stayed at the spinal unit for a year working on his recovery.  In 1956, together with other members of the Lodge Moor spinal unit he formed Lodge Moor Sports Club. As part of the club Mike took up table tennis again, but also spent some time playing basketball, fencing, and swimming. The club organised several visits to Stoke Mandeville to compete against other spinal injury patients.

After leaving the hospital, Mike enrolled onto a bookkeeping course at his local college, which he completed despite having to take some time out after the first tough months. He took on several jobs afterwards including a position working with his fellow Paralympian, Terry Willett who had set up a business producing hand controls for disabled drivers and importing wheelchairs from America. 

In 1981, Mike attended a water sports event in Nottingham, organised in celebration of the International Year of Disabled People. During that event he went out in a canoe and, to his surprise, discovered his love for water sports. Together with Terry Willett, he was able to access a specialised sailing boat for disabled people and they both got hooked on sailing, making it a huge part of their lives.

Life as a Para athlete

Having discovered his love for sailing, Mike spent a lot of time and money on his new sailing equipment. He joined Carsington Sailing Club, which at the time had little to no facilities to support disabled sailors. He soon became very involved in the club, establishing a safe place for disabled sailors and laying the foundations for disability sailing in the UK.  

In the 1980s he started attending sailing regattas and competed in both single and team boats. Together with a few of his friends he raced in events all over the UK to establish a league table.

Mike about the feeling he felt during the first time he was in a sailing boat:

You feel freedom that you’ve left the chair behind. You can do anything you want. The boats are safe because they’ve got a weighted keel on them, and yet I was getting very wet (...) it’s like standing in a cold shower.

More and more disabled athletes became interested in joining the sailing club alongside Mike. As a result, in 1986, Sailability was formed, with Mike as one of the founders and trustees. Initially Sailability was made up of 12 Sunbird dinghy sailors that travelled across the country to attend events at various venues.

This caught the eye of the Royal Yachting Association which adopted Sailability as part of their national movement for disabled sailors. Sailability has since spread all over the world and supports disabled people to gain access to the sport as well as to enjoy the outdoors and the freedom on the water. 

Mike attended the first World Championships for disabled sailors in Geneva in 1991 together with his friend Terry Willett and 5 other athletes.  At that time, there were no classifications in place to distinguish between the levels of disability and despite not winning the event, Mike’s crew was gifted a tracksuit for being the ‘most disabled crew on water’.

His second World Championships took place on Rutland Water and the conditions had already changed a lot, from hotel access to boat categories, making it easier to attend with a disability.

Mike about his involvement in ‘Sailability’:

I’m very proud. Now sailing is an international sport in the Paralympics for both single handed boats, which we sailed, and crew boats as well. And although I didn’t make the pick for sailing in the Paralympics, it’s nice to think that you started the foundations of it all.

Retirement as a Para athlete

Although Mike retired from his intense sailing days after competing at his second World Championships, he still paid regular visits to Carsington sailing club with his wife Sue for relaxed afternoons on the water or to socialise with the ever-growing Sailability group. In 2000, Mike was elected Vice president of Carsington Sailing Club.  He held this position for over 20 years. Mike passed away in May 2021, leaving behind his wife Sue. Despite Covid restrictions he was honoured by his friends and family as well as many members of Carsington Sailing Club.

Oral history interview with Mike

Interview by Dr Rosemary Hall, 16th September 2020

Mike Parkin competed in events such as table tennis, swimming, athletics and wheelchair fencing at the Stoke Mandeville Games. He was also active in the sailing community and was the founding member and trustee at RYA Sailability. He discusses his experiences at Stoke Mandeville, meeting Dr Guttmann and other memories.

You can also listen to the full interview below or download the transcript.


  • Mike Parkin interview with Dr Rosemary Hall, Transcript, Recorded 16th September 2020