(A reflection by Terry Smythe on her weekend participating in the Louisville Rowing Club’s adaptive rowing program for disabled athletes)
“To love what you do and feel that it matters – how could anything be more fun?”
— Katherine Graham
I can’t sum up my weekend rowing on water with adaptive athletes at the Louisville Rowing Club any better than this quote. I went to Kentucky in great anticipation of an incredible learning experience. What I got was that and so much more. This is a phenomenal program of caring coaches and volunteers supporting adaptive athletes to become whole through the experience of on- and off-water rowing.
Twice a week, some 30 athletes with a wide range of cognitive and physical disabilities meet a small team of volunteers gathered along the Ohio River. The volunteers carefully help the athletes into rowing shells adapted to each of their specific needs, and in some cases climb in themselves as able-bodied assistants.
As the boats pull away the dock fades in the distance, and with it the wheelchairs, artificial limbs, walking canes for the blind and more that are the athletes’ daily on-land companions. These people’s stories are heartbreaking and unfortunate but no one in the Louisville program focuses on the past. It’s all about where you’re headed and how far you want to go, with no limits beyond those you place on yourself. No excuses!
The inspiration starts at the top. Coach Bobby Hurley is an amazing man of dedication, patience and commitment, and a tireless jack-of-all-trades. He makes most of the adaptive equipment used in the program from scratch, or retrofits market equipment to better fit each athlete. That’s in the “spare time” he has when he’s not coaching athletes or running his painting business. All of this is delivered with a quiet, “no big deal” attitude. I think he and Program Director Randy Mills are Batman and Robin, super heroes!
While a good deal of the program is obviously focused on on-water rowing, indoor rowing is a critical piece of the program. It’s a popular piece of equipment because it is more accessible to the athletes than the water and as such gives them a degree of independence they don’t have there. And, as with traditional rowers, the rowing machine is always a great vehicle for identifying successful on-water rowers.
While this was a weekend full of emotion, that wasn’t all it was: This master trainer got an education! Not only did I watch adaptive rowing but I BECAME an adaptive rower when I was strapped into a double with Oksana Masters, a 21-year-old Paralympic Games hopeful who lost both her legs above the knee. Rowing trunk and arms is no swing pick drill, as we able-bodied rowers know it, and I learned that in spades when I experienced it first-hand. Every coach should have that opportunity.
What did I learn? There are many things to consider when coaching adaptive rowers but none of it is impossible!
- Time: It does take time to set up the equipment and transfer the athletes into their various rigs. In fact, this often takes more time than the athlete rows, but it is worth the effort. Each athlete has different, specific needs and it is important to ensure that those are met so as to do no harm. Blisters can be a major issue so strapping and positioning in the rowing shells is critical.
- Equipment: Modalities such as hand grips, special seats, straps, oarlocks, riggers and oars are required. Do they have to look nice? No, but they should, though making equipment affordable for adaptive rowers is always an issue.
- Coaches training: Rowing coaches need training to be able to work with the adaptive. The years that Bobby and Randy have spent working at this are a clear selling point for going to Louisville for training. There isn’t much they haven’t thought about, built, rigged, seen or done. Coaches could learn an incredible amount from participating in one of Louisville’s hands-on introduction to adaptive rowing weekends.
Note: Special thanks to Robert Black for his spectacular photography and film work during the weekend, including the photos shown here.