For many of us, rowing is recreation; for some of us, rowing is a calling. And, for a few athletes out there, rowing is a bridge, a lifeline, and proof that, come what may, just about anything you want to do is possible, provided you put your mind to it.
UK adaptive rowing athletes Sean Gaffney and Nerys Pearce, who competed and won at CRASH-Bs this past weekend, clearly fall into this latter category. After their events at CRASH-B, Gaffney and Pearce talked with row2k about their training and racing, and what rowing means to them in the bigger picture.
Gaffney, a lower leg amputee who competes with a prosthetic, won the Men's 1000m LTA (Legs, Trunk & Arms) event in a blistering 3:04.1, at an average stroke rate of 39.5. Still on active duty in the British Royal Navy ("An injury such as mine is considered 'barely a scratch' in the Navy," said Gaffney), he regularly competes with (and beats) able-bodied athletes in the UK and beyond.
Because of the relative dearth of adaptive competition in the UK, Gaffney jumped at the chance for a "two-fer" in the US, taking in both the World Indoor Rowing Championships in Alexandria, where he finished second in the Men's Adaptive 2k, then journeying on to Boston for the CRASH-B.
"I was quite fortunate it was my wedding anniversary last week, so my wife and I decided that this will be our wedding anniversary present to ourselves," said Gaffney. "We flew to Alexandria, had a great weekend there, traveled to New York. The unfortunate thing is, because they were only a week apart calendar wise, a lot of people have had to make the decision which one they want to go to."
For Gaffney, competing with his disability is less a question of 'hanging on' than of pushing his limits. "Because I'm still serving in Royal Navy, I'm able-bodied. For me to have a race, I race against the other members of the Royal Navy, or Marines who are able-bodied. I look at someone and go, 'I'm about the same height as you, about the same age as you, what time you pulling?' I can get close, I can beat that," said Gaffney. "I went this year to the Royal Navy indoor rowing champs, I got a silver and bronze against able-bodied rowers. I am comparable. I go into the Concept2 website, I log a time. I want my time to be in the 90th percentile, not against adaptive rowers. I want to be up against the able-bodied rowers. That's how I judge myself. I don't see myself as disabled. I'm a little bit slower, little bit more broken, but I want to get close to their times. I want to beat their times; that's what drives you on."
Sean Gaffney enroute to his win in Boston
Likewise for Pearce, a former GB Army medic who was paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident, rowing was a road back into life and then became a way to continue moving ahead. "Three years ago, I was 120 kilograms, I was on 10 drugs, bed bound, and spent most of my time in hospital," said Pearce. "Because of great friends and family, I've now lost seven and a half stone, I'm doing elite sports, and if I can do it anybody can."
While she did not meet her goal of breaking the women's adaptive Arms-Shoulders 1k indoor world record (currently 4:22), Pearce's 4:30 was a personal best, a new GB adaptive record, and, for her, an indication that she was on the right track.
"I've been training really hard for the world record; unfortunately, I got injured three weeks ago, just one of those unlucky things," said Peace. "I think you just have to get in the mindset of you being better than yourself from the day before. The way I do that is to go into the gym and push my own splits and to chase myself, because I can only change me; I can't worry about any other athletes or what they're doing, or their progress. I can only make me as good as I can be. But it does help with the adrenaline and the whole atmosphere if there's a really close race and there's somebody. Because it does find you that little something extra. It's great here, even though people weren't necessarily in my event. You can see people starting to finish, so you're trying to push even harder."
Pearce also competed in the Open Women's 2k event to end the day, racing alongside able-bodied athletes. "Certainly, a big field always makes you try and push harder. The 2k is now an event that adaptive rowers can set a record in. I missed World Championships last weekend, so just want compare my times with Worlds from last weekend and try to set a new British record on the 2K, you never know."
Beyond rowing, Pearce's next goal is to swim the English Channel to raise awareness for the idea that anyone can get as fit as they choose.
"I'm cheating really, in that I'm paralyzed from the chest down, so everything is just arms," she said. "I just use my arms. Rowing is just turning of my arms, lots of time swimming is exactly the same thing. Basically, it's the same sport!"
Pearce was candid about her overarching goal, both in rowing and in swimming the channel. "Every day I'm saying to people, is there something you want to change in your life? I'm just an everyday old girl, who happens to have ended up paralyzed. If I can get across the Channel and say to everyone, 'if you're missing out in playing football with your kids on a Saturday afternoon, and you've been making excuses, then you can change that.' There will be significant things in our life that just take a tiny mindset to change. Hopefully, seeing me swim the Channel will just push them to make a change for the better for them."