As I sat in the middle of Seattle’s Lake Washington last spring, the sun touched my face and a breeze rocked my boat. It was my first time in a double scull. I struggled with the oars, but that was OK. Outdoors, on the water, almost in another world, away from the hustle-bustle, it was just me and my rowing partner. As we became more comfortable with the boat and each other, we started to row in unison, gliding, almost flying, through the water.
A New Challenge
I’ve always been active and athletic but knew nothing about rowing — much less adaptive rowing — until November 2017. While participating in an adaptive CrossFit workshop in Seattle, a classmate mentioned there was a local adaptive rowing team named Seize the Oar. “It’s a great endurance sport and I love being on the water,” he said. “It feels like a small family with all of the athletes and volunteers.” He mentioned winter training was starting soon and I should check it out.
When I rolled into the gym for the first time, it felt a little like the first day of school. During the cold, rainy months, Seize the Oar moves indoors for weekly strength and rowing machine workouts. As we circled up to introduce ourselves, my eyes kept shifting toward two exceptionally fit female paras, both lean with beautiful Sarah Connor arms. Having never been on a rowing machine, or erg, as they are known, I kept my gaze on them as they set up.
First, they placed their adaptive seats on the erg and locked them into position with clamps. Then they put their wheelchair cushions on top and transferred over. After strapping their feet on the footplates, they began to secure the rest of the straps. Straps are an important part of adaptive or para-rowing and athletes use them differently depending on preference and injury level. One of the women used five straps, from her chest to knees, and a foam wedge under one of her hips to help her sit evenly; the other used three straps from her chest to hips.
With their hands wrapped around the handles and their arms out-stretched, they leaned forward and pulled back with graceful power, their upper back muscles squeezing together as they moved the handles into their bodies. The handles didn’t stay long, though, as the rowers’ arms were already starting to stretch forward again. It was a fluid movement and there was a rhythm to their in-unison strokes.
Now it was my turn. I transferred onto the seat and, with guidance, got strapped in and started to row. It wasn’t as easy as the two women made it look. Like anything, it was going to take practice and hard work. But I liked it — my heart rate was up and my arm and back muscles were firing.
Filling a Void
Adaptive rowing is a fairly new sport. Para-rowing didn’t become a part of the Paralympics until 2008 in Beijing — 48 years after the first games. “There are nondisabled athletic communities who are used to seeing and interacting with adaptive athletes, and rowing is not one of them,” shared Seize the Oar founder Tara Morgan. “It’s been a learning curve for the rowing community as a whole to learn about our adaptive rowing and know what our needs are and how we can fit in with the nondisabled Masters races,” she says. According to USRowing, the national governing body for the sport of rowing in the United States, more than 60 USRowing member organizations now offer adaptive programs.
Seize the Oar began in 2013 when Morgan, a competitive rower who taught a beginner rowing class, was forwarded an email from a local man with a spinal cord injury who wanted to learn to row. “There were no programs in the Pacific Northwest for adaptive rowers,” Morgan said. Even though she had never taught anyone with a disability, Morgan didn’t hesitate. “I told him to come on down. And lucky for me, when I asked him what he did for work, he revealed that he was not only a doctor, but he specialized in physical medicine and rehabilitation and worked with people with SCI.” From there, with the help of donors, friends and rowing colleagues, Seize the Oar grew quickly. Now it has around eight adaptive athletes on the team at any time.
The team rows out of Renton Rowing Center, which is tucked between a Boeing plant and The Renton Municipal Airport. During practice, the team glides past 737s being built and looks up to seaplanes flying overhead. Seize the Oar travels to regattas across the country and up into Canada. Because the para-rowing competition pool is small, the team often competes against itself or in nondisabled races where adaptive athletes get a head start.
Over the winter workouts, I got to know the two women who had initially caught my eye, Amy Brodsky and Erin Martin — or as they were more commonly known, “Tiny Mighty.” They earned the nickname because they were strong and fast, despite lacking the traditional rower body mass.
Brodsky, a T5 para, and Martin, a T4, joined Seize the Oar about a year apart, fairly soon after their spinal cord injuries. Neither had rowed before and were drawn to the sport for similar reasons — it would get them active outdoors again. Martin, who was injured in a climbing accident, had also been a runner, biker, hiker and camper. “When I tried rowing, I didn’t have anything to compare it to,” says Martin. “It felt new, exciting and challenging. Also, as I rowed, I could see changes in my body and performance. I was getting better. Those things had such a huge impact on my self-confidence and helped me re-connect with my body in a physical way. To be able to struggle, work hard, feel exhausted, push myself … all those things I kind of lost … rowing was the best thing I found to get it back.”
Brodsky, who was hit by a car while riding her bike and then later got myelitis, agrees. “Rowing was a big self-esteem booster — it made me feel strong, capable and healthy. And the community I found was huge for me, especially right after my injury.”
Brodsky and Martin’s bond developed when they started training together for an indoor rowing championship. “We began to work out together, encouraging and pushing each other as teammates instead of just two people on the same team,” Martin shares. “Our friendship developed, we had a friendly competition,” adds Brodsky.
In the Same Boat
Morgan saw the connection between Brodsky and Martin. “They had a similar drive and work ethic, so that spring I put them in the boat together,” she says. Success in the boat depends on a strong connection between rowers, which is why Martin and Brodsky make such a great team. “As soon as we got in the boat together, it felt natural and fun,” says Martin. “We communicated well, we could tell each other what we needed and what worked.”
Martin sits in the front of the boat — though technically she sits behind Brodsky as they are traveling backwards — and is the “bow coxswain.” Brodsky is the “stroke.” “My job is to keep a regular rhythm and have precise strokes, so I’m easy to follow, and make Erin’s job as easy as possible,” says Brodsky. As the bow coxswain, Martin is in charge of steering and figuring out the best path to take. She also communicates to Brodsky when she needs help turning or when an adjustment should be made to their stroke. “Amy is just so strong and fast and such a great rower — like a metronome,” says Martin. “And her technique is really awesome. So the arrangement for me to be bow coxswain and do all that stuff, and for her to be stroke and be strong and consistent and row, works out really well for our particular personality types and strengths as athletes.”
Morgan says coaches dream about athletes like Brodsky and Martin. “They’re strong, coachable, they pay attention to their bodies, like to be challenged and even more fun, they push each other,” she shares. “Each season, they improve, and a huge bonus is they provide great role modeling for the newer athletes coming onto the team.”
As for the future of adaptive rowing, Martin and Brodsky would like to see the sport continue to grow and become more inclusive for athletes with higher spinal cord injuries. “Right now, the sport favors people with lower injuries,” says Brodsky. “FISA, the international rowing federation, changed the strapping rule — you have to have a chest strap. It can be as loose and low as you want, and that shuts Erin and I out from higher level competition. In adaptive skiing there are so many classifications; hopefully one day it can be like that.”
Morgan envisions the sport and its leaders continuing to push innovation in all areas — especially equipment design, racing opportunities, and injury prevention and recovery methods. Seize the Oar is also working on implementing inclusive strategies across the sport in the Pacific Northwest with coaching mentorship, training programs and evaluations of area boathouses to assess who they can best serve inclusively.
“Rowing is the ultimate sport for all abilities,” says Morgan. “It challenges and transforms mind and body and no day on the water is the same. I love the team aspect — how interconnected you have to be with your boatmates, with Mother Nature. Finally, rowing challenges the idea of perfection — there are so many variables you can’t control. Rowers are in an ongoing journey, luckily experiencing little perfections here and there.”
My First Time On the Water
After training on the erg all winter, being on the water in springtime is an adjustment. Now I have two oars to maneuver, and I have to steer and watch out for water traffic. The boats are sensitive, so a pontoon is attached to each side to help stabilize them. And then there is Mother Nature. Depending on her mood, the water may be serene and smooth, or rough and choppy.
In June, my rowing partner and I pulled into the start line at our first regatta, the Northwest Masters Regional Championship in Vancouver, Washington. Our first race was 1,000 meters to the finish line. I had a death grip on my oars as we waited. “Attention,” announced the starter, raising a red flag. After a moment, he snapped it down — “Go!” Five quick strokes propelled us into the race, and then we settled into a rhythm. Making our way down the lane, we encouraged each other: “Pull harder!” “Don’t forget to breathe!” We were the last boat to finish, but that didn’t matter. Our cheeks were red, we were out of breath and we were smiling.
The Health Benefits of Rowing
One of my favorite things about rowing is it’s a counter motion to all of the forward movement we do as wheelchair users. Corley McBeth, a physical therapist with Movement Systems PT, agrees. “While rowing is a great exercise for just about everyone, it has particular benefit for wheelchair users given the strengthening of the opposing muscle groups to those required for chair propulsion,” she says. “This may minimize the risk of repetitive overuse injuries that can arise from dominance of the pushing muscles when they are left unchecked.” Plus it’s good for our hearts, and builds strength and endurance, “which is beneficial for overall health in any population,” she says.
Movement Systems Physical Therapy is an official sponsor of Seize the Oar and attends practices and works with the team to enhance performance and efficiency, reduce the risk of injury, and promote gains in strength and mobility. “We have a strong relationship with the coaching staff,” said McBeth, “and that allows us to act as a resource for them with regard to best serving their athletes with adaptations.”
• USRowing, usrowing.org/adaptive-rowing
• Concept2, concept2.com/indoor-rowers/adaptive-rowing/adapting-indoor-rower