There are 26 adaptive events on the schedule at the CRASH-Bs now, giving competitive opportunities to athletes with a large array of physical and cognitive impairments. row2k caught up with a number of athletes and adaptive support staff at the CRASH-Bs to talk more about their experience with rowing as adaptive athletes.
Dan Ahr is a former US adaptive national team athlete, finishing 12th in the Arms & Shoulder single sculls at the World Championships in 2013, and is currently training with the goal of qualifying for the Paralympics in Rio later this summer. At the CRASH-Bs, Ahr won the Men's Masters 30-39 Arms & Shoulders event.
row2k: What was experience like competing here today?
Ahr: It was fantastic. This is a great event. I'm from Washington D.C. so I did sprint race down in Virginia a little bit earlier in the season and just the atmosphere, the intensity. The adaptive events kick off the day, so folks are coming in, they're primed for their own events, they're primed for competition, and we get to sort of feed off a little bit of that energy. It's a great set up.
row2k: What's your preparation like for this event?
Ahr: I race on the water as well, so it's nice to have a target to kind of cap off the winter season, if you will. It's a reason to be competing all year round. The Paralympic trials are in April, so I've been sort of dual tracking, making sure that the work I'm doing will help prepare me to come here, but also complementary for the work I'm doing on the water. In the last week or so I've relaxed a little bit because I know I've got a big push from here until mid-April. I've made some changes to my race plan and I was just coxed amazingly today, so I was able to get out of my head. Since last season I've cut over 20 seconds, so it's been a good winner.
row2k: How do you approach your preparation and your racing?
Ahr: Part of the beauty of this sport is that we're on the same floor, we're on the same water, we're in the same boats. The ability to be part of the experience and know that I'm rowing for time. I'm rowing to win, but I'm also training to be part of a larger community, to be an athlete.
To come here means to have conversations with other athletes and talk about the ways that the athletics in sports impact my entire life. I have a two-year-old daughter at home and for me, training and competing is a reason for me to get in the gym every day, and being in the gym every day makes my entire life better. It's easier to pick my daughter up. I know that as time goes on, if I continue to train and stay fit, my body won't give out on me along the way and I'll be there for the next several decades of her life events. Having these races along the way gives me a reason to keep showing up and watching the times come down.
Dan Ahr celebrates his win
row2k: Is a win here the icing on the cake or more?
Ahr: I think as an athlete it's tough to say that the reason I'm out here is not to win, right. Winning is great. For me, at events like these in particular, watching, knowing that the work I've done, that I'm making progress. Win or lose, knowing that the times are coming down, that I'm coming off the machine feeling spent or good, that I still have the fire and the discipline to do 1,000 meters all out and not come off the machine feeling like I was too afraid to leave it all there, but also to know that last week and the week before and the month before and working through the Christmas break and everything else, translated to a faster time, and it's nice to get that kind of positive feedback.
Don't get me wrong. It is very nice to win. It is always very nice to win. But, I'm also trying hard and I've got a lot of people who are helping with me to put this entire experience into perspective.
row2k: Speaking of entire experience, are you now a rower for life?
Ahr: I think so. I was in the Navy before I got hurt and I love being on the water. I love being near the water. I'm privileged to work with a program that has a large concentration of veterans, veterans of all ages. Young guys who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way up to Vietnam vets and older, who are out to get on the water to compete and train.
When my top level competition days are over, the ability to give that to somebody else and to be on the water and to know that there's something I enjoy that gets me out of bed every morning to work a little bit. It has been a gift for my whole life.
Like all athletes, adaptive rowers depend on their support structure of coaches and supporters, but for adaptive athletes, that support almost necessarily includes medical professionals who are helping adaptive competitors bridge the gap between therapy and competition.
There are a number of organizations doing this on a larger scale. We caught up with therapists (and former collegiate rowers) Rebecca Shaffer and Colleen Caty, who were on hand working with a group of athletes from the Boston-based EXPD ("Exercise for Persons with Disabilities") program out of Spaulding Rehabilitation. Many of the athletes in the EXPD program row the erg using the FES system, which sends electrical stimulation to the muscles over which they have limited or no control to enable them to row
row2k: What is EXPD?
Shaffer: It is Exercise for Persons with Disabilities program, and basically we use FES [Functional Electrical Stimulation – Eds], so it's electrical simulation going to their quads and hamstrings to help people row, basically. We mainly have people with spinal cord injuries.
EXPD instructors Collen Caty (center) and Rebecca Shaffer (right) enjoy the accomplishments of an EXPD patient
row2k: Is rowing part of what they do or all of what they do?
Shaffer: It's all of what they do. We have about five adaptive rowers in the rowing program that we have in Spaulding. It's like an outpatient program and we have just patients come in, do a workout.
row2k: Do the patients self-select to come into rowing, or do you encourage them to get involved?
Shaffer: A little bit of both. Some people hear about our program online or through a friend. Other times we recruit. It just depends.
row2k: Is this scientific adaptive rowing?
Caty: In some ways. Some people don't qualify for the research study [that Spaulding is conducting], so they go directly into the exercise program. Other people will start in the research study, be in it for six to twelve months, and then enroll into the exercise programs. It varies, at any given time we usually have 20 or so people in the research program and about 60 to 80 active rowers in the exercise program.
Collen Caty works with an adaptive athlete
row2k: You both come from a rowing background. What's it like to see people who are disabled or who are working to put exercise back into their lives after an injury or an illness succeed here at CRASH-Bs?
Shaffer: It's incredible.
Caty: It's honestly so inspiring. To see people who have been in-patient, in a hospital, and then within six months they're doing this rowing and activity. It's really, really incredible to kind of see the physical but also social and kind of emotional changes that people go through as they start in the program.
In addition to being a really good exercise technique, it's also a great social environment for people to be in. Someone who has been injured for a month gets to interact with someone who's been injured or 20 years and kind see, like, "Oh, I can make this work, and I can adapt and learn how to drive and learn how to go back to having an everyday routine," with their injury becoming a part of them instead of defining them.
row2k: The competition here is a side product to the larger goal of getting them back into life, or does it become the goal itself for some?
Caty: I think it kind of does both. Some people are more competitive than others, which is pretty cool to see other people get more competitive as they've been in the program for longer. I think for some people, this is just a great thing to be able to say, "Wow, I did this." And other people say, "this year I'm going to take 15 seconds off my time. Next year I'll take a minute off my time."
Shaffer: We started back in 2009. Every year we've just progressively grown.
Caty: The first year they had three competitors, so every year it gets bigger and bigger.
row2k: You work with a big cross-section of ages, from fairly young kids to older patients. Is that interesting as well, having a group that's made up of really all different ages, all different walks of life?
Shaffer: Absolutely. I think our youngest participant is 19. The oldest is 80. He wasn't here today, but it's pretty cool to be able to see people who get along really well with one another. One thing that I always think is awesome is we have some patients who are really good friends when they're 20 years different in age.
It's a good day to win a hammer!
row2k: You seem to have straddled that line between rehab and competition pretty well. How does that, as instructors or as rehabilitators--for lack of a better word--how does that make you feel at the end of the day like today?
Caty: It's awesome to see people kind of come out with this competitive side. A lot of people get into rowing as a way to become more physically fit. With a spinal cord injury or MS or Cerebral Palsy, it's really hard to be able to get exercise. For a lot of people, this is the best way that they can get their heart rate up. They can sit and they're able to do this amazing exercise.
Not everyone who comes in competed today, but I think there is a really cool line between rehabilitation and competitiveness in that people will sometimes start and say, "I'm just doing this to get my heart rate up," and now they're crazy competitors competing with some of the best people in the world.
This is a really good goal for people. It's hard to put a time on what people are looking for, but this is a really good way to drive people's goals for continuation of every single year they want to get better and better, and this is that check to make sure that's happening.
row2k: How does this go back into their larger goals for getting back into life or staying active?
Caty: We have people who have lost tons of weight. If you look at wheelchair users and consider how much easier it is to transfer and to get into the shower and so forth when you're not having to work with 50 to 60 extra pounds. That's something that's huge for a lot of people.
Some people have worked through injuries that they have in their shoulders and their backs and certain things because of the rowing. They've gotten stronger. It's so much easier to go about everyday life in a wheelchair when your arms are stronger and your traps are stronger. That translates to almost every aspect of life.