Name: Thierry Schmitter
Place of residence: The Hague
Marital status: Married, five children
Studied: Maritime Engineering(1988-1994)
Association: Delftsch Studenten Corps
Maritime engineer Thierry Schmitter (47) was an active mountain climber until he broke his back in an avalanche. What followed was a sports career at paralympic level.
When growing up, Thierry Schmitter wanted to become a mountain guide or windsurfer, but his parents felt that he should study first. After considering civil or mechanical engineering, he discovered that it is also possible ‘to learn to build boats’ at TU Delft. “I started maritime engineering full of romantic visions.”
In 1994, he graduated with a thesis on the loading and unloading of containers using trains, before taking temporary work at the Chantier de L’Atlantique shipyard in Saint Nazaire, France. He took a sabbatical to spend a year climbing. He is originally from the mountains of Grenoble and it had always been his ambition. His aim was to climb K2 led by Ronald Naar a year later. Having succeeded in all of this, he relocated to Winterthur in Switzerland, where he joined diesel manufacturer Wartsilä Marine as a marine architect. In the meantime, he had an opportunity to train as a mountain guide. Four years in, disaster struck. After climbing a frozen waterfall, Schmitter slipped along with a snow field. The avalanche that followed dragged him with it, breaking his back.
He was left in a wheelchair; his dream was over. “I was lucky to have gained my degree from TU Delft. As a Francophone engineer, I had a great career prospects. My work involved marketing for the French-speaking parts of the world, but I was office-bound because I was not mobile enough.” Schmitter resigned. “I found it hard having other people decide what I could and could not do.” In late 1999, he applied to the European Patents Office in Rijswijk. After in-house training, he was able to assess patent applications. “If you understand the technology, it is possible to learn the legal side of the profession, but not the other way around.”
Schmitter refused to accept his disability. While recuperating, he quickly realised that there are plenty of opportunities for sport. Para-alpine skiing, for example, but that was not possible in the Netherlands. He had friends with a catamaran, which enabled Schmitter to sail with relative stability. He got to know different types of boats for paralympic sailing and ended up sailing competitively. “I have a habit of never being satisfied, which always leaves me wanting to achieve more.”
He won world championship titles and two paralympic bronze medals, but after three Paralympics, he was up for a new challenge. “I had seen a boy kite-surfing sitting down. So, I thought: I can do that, and do it better. I am now the only kite foiler who does it sitting down. You do not sit on a board, but on a wing under water. My maritime engineering insights really come into play. I even help to design kites and lighter materials.”