Physically challenged rowers compete for spot on national team
Athletes row despite disabilities
By Pamela LeBlanc
December 12, 2009
They surge down Lady Bird Lake, a synchronized mass of rippling muscle and
fierce expressions against slate blue water.
Reminders of the challenges they face — prosthetic legs and an attentive
guide dog — stay on shore.
Out here, oars dipping and bodies pushing, they’re athletes with a common
goal: to make the U.S. National Team and row at the 2012 Paralympic Games in
Disabilities don’t matter any more than the rain that’s driving down,
soaking them from head to toe.
For three days, rowers from around the country have convened at the Texas
Rowing Center for a development camp co-sponsored by the U.S. Olympic
Committee-Paralympic Division and United States Rowing. It’s a chance for
coaches who will make team selections in June to see who’s out there.
Austin, with its mild climate and scenic river, is one of three centers in
the United States for Paralympic rowing.
Diane McDiarmid , a former academic at the University of Kansas with a
background in social work, started the adaptive program at Texas Rowing
Center a year ago after noticing she never saw people with physical
disabilities on the water. A rower herself, who once headed a program for
homeless people with all types of mental and physical disabilities, she
approached Matt Knifton, owner of the Texas Rowing Center, with a plan.
Today, the center’s Row For All program teaches injured military veterans,
students from the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and Texas
School for the Deaf, and others with physical challenges how to row. The
participants don’t have to pay to be in the program, which is funded through
grants and donations.
“It provides people with the opportunity to find direction, work on their
health and wellness. It really changes a person’s identity from a disabled
person to an athlete,” McDiarmid says.
“We’re a parks and recreation concession, and one of our missions is to
serve everybody in the community,” he says. “Our goal is to be the most
inclusive boat facility in the country.”
In the adapted rowing program, it doesn’t matter if you’re missing an arm or
leg or if you’ve got a head injury. Equipment is modified, goals are set,
skills are learned.
This day, with National Paralympic coaches Karen Lewis and Pat Brown looking
on, everyone wants to row their best.
Natalie McCarthy, 22, came all the way from Seattle for the camp. It’s the
third time she’s tried for the team. As she powers down the river with eight
other hopefuls, her guide dog Gazette waits patiently at the dock.
McCarthy lost her sight 12 years ago, during surgery to remove a brain
tumor. She learned to row five years ago. “I had to learn in a very
different way — through verbal direction as opposed to watching experienced
rowers,” she says. Early on, that was a disadvantage. Today, she says, it
makes no difference.
What does matter is focusing on form and visualizing every second of a race.
A Spanish interpreter for a Washington law firm, McCarthy knows she must
perfect her stroke in order to make the team. That means using her outside
arm more when she pulls, keeping the oar’s blade buried in the water longer
and comfortably rowing 1,000 meters in 3 minutes and 45 seconds.
She’s optimistic but not cocky.
Just getting invited to camp was an accomplishment. Each athlete had to
figure out how to row, despite physical limitations. Each had to qualify
based on how well they rowed on an ergometer, or erg, a land-based rowing
“Rowing is all about balance, so being an amputee presents a challenge,”
Kara Roth, 50, of Spring Branch, says it’s simple. If you’re missing a leg
like she is, you have to make up for it through sheer strength. Roth
severely injured her right leg in a horseback riding accident as a teenager.
Six years ago, doctors attempted knee replacement surgery. It failed, and
two years ago she had the limb amputated.
Today she works as a recreational assistant at the Center for Intrepid, a
rehabilitation facility at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. She
started rowing last year, and comes to Austin twice a month for training.
“It builds core strength I need for walking with a prosthetic,” she says.
She’s hopeful of making the national team, too. “I’m on the older side, but
I figure if there’s a window of opportunity it’s now, so here I am in the
rain. Seize the opportunity!”
Pat Font, 28, of New Jersey, lost his leg below the knee in a car accident
in 2005. The former high school athlete saw a flier about adaptive rowing at
his doctor’s office and signed up for a lesson. His biggest challenge?
Limited range of motion in both legs.
“I thought, ‘This is a chance for me to get back into competitive sports,’ ”
He paid his way to Austin for the development camp, which was free for
invited athletes, his hopes high for making the national team. “If I don’t
make the team, I’m going to work my hardest attempting to,” he says.
The team, when chosen, will train in California and compete at the World
Championships in New Zealand before focusing on the Paralympic Games in
London in three years.
It won’t be easy to get there.
The rain keeps coming. The rowers keep sweeping, water streaming down their
backs and faces.
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