As the athletes around them were vying for hammers, PRs and national titles, many of the rowers who raced in the Para categories at CRASH-Bs rowed with an additional motivation: simply being able to compete.
It can be difficult for the fully able-bodied to grasp the feeling of not being able to choose to compete, much less exercise at all, and it's this mission of returning that choice to disabled athletes that drives many in the para-rowing community, including Patrick Johnson of Athletes Without Limits.
Johnson, himself a disabled military veteran, has seen firsthand what returning to sport can do for a person. "You can do things," said Johnson, who was in Boston as the team leader for a group of AWL athletes competing in the Para and ID (intellectual disability) events at CRASH-Bs. "People are grateful for the fact that they can do sport, and the pleasure is that coaching rowing gives me the opportunity to do that, there's real energy in there."
Johnson pointed out how far from "normal" many of his athletes are coming from in their journey back to rowing and to competing at the CRASH-Bs. "Most of my military guys have been blown up, and most of them are outpatients at Walter Reed [USA military hospital, eds.]. For a lot of these guys, this is their first time going, 'hey, I can be a warrior again.'"
Beyond simply bringing athletes back into rowing and racing, Johnson says that a goal of his group and Athletes Without Limits is to serve as a beacon of sorts to the disabled community. "The whole package is not just coming in and rowing well, it's coming and being an example," he says. "There may be somebody here by seeing you today who is going to say 'Hey, look, you have one leg, how do you do that? I didn't think I could do this.' There's always that one person. All of these guys started that way, by somebody at the hospital who said 'you can do this.'"
AWL's connections to the military has other effects as well, including technological ones. AWL member Paul Hurley, an amputee and a former member of the USRowing Adaptive national team and a 2013 World Championships bronze medalist in the LTAMix2x, used to compete without a prosthetic, but was using a newly-designed prosthetic on the erg this weekend. "He's got a special design and this is the first of its kind, and its allowed him to row with two legs," said Johnson. "A lot of these guys are a part of experiment cases in what military medicine can do. It's this idea of, let's go design something and make this even better."
The para rowing community supports each other
But, probably foremost for Johnson, the benefits of rowing for his athletes went far beyond hammers and times on the erg. "Here in rowing we see people smiling who normally we don't see smile," he says. "That's some of the stuff I think we forget about in our sport. In the para community we're reminded of that, because we do see it. I see it changing every day." It also explains why, Johnson says, the awards ceremonies for para events are raucous, supportive affairs, with every winner celebrated heartily.
"What you see is that camaraderie," says Johnson. "A lot of coaches and programs love seeing each other at events, because we know how hard it was to get here. So it is a tight community and I'm grateful for that."