When it was first run at the San Diego Crew Classic in 2015, the Freedom Rows event was an exhibition race run to highlight a new initiative to help US military veterans recovering from the injures and emotional trauma suffered in combat.
That first year, there were only two boats, and able bodied athletes were enlisted to help fill out the crews. Saturday morning, five years after that first race, the Freedom Rows event featured 16 crews rowing in three fours and 13 doubles.
Among the competing veterans was Chad Englebert, a 46-year-old former Alabama National Guard soldier and cancer survivor who lost part of his left leg to the disease, and who was racing in his first regatta.
"I've been to a couple of veteran's training camps and a couple of different camps for adaptive rowers," Englebert said. "But this is my first time racing. And it's been incredible. This is an incredible program."
While the crews were only a part of the Saturday schedule for the 46th San Diego Crew Classic, they were certainly a highlight of the morning of mostly heats set up to decide which crews will race in the Sunday finals. But, for Englebert and his fellow veterans, the event was a big deal.
Racing is one part of what the Freedom Rows athletes were doing in San Diego over the weekend, but is not the main reason they were here. Having rowing as a way to deal with life altering injuries and trauma, is really what Freedom Rows is about.
"This is an incredible program because it gives us a chance to row and compete, it gives us a chance to come to a beautiful place like San Diego and enjoy a really incredible venue," Englebert said. "This is about as nice as it gets when it comes to rowing."
Beyond that, Freedom Rows has helped the former soldier and hundreds of others like him find a purpose he temporarily lost.
"This helps veterans gain some focus in their lives, and take the injuries they have suffered and make them into successes," he said. "This program helps make that happen, helps people create lives after the military. It's a profound experience to be able to train and compete, and the program makes all that possible."
Begun as a partnership between the US Veterans Administration and the United States Rowing Association, Freedom Rows has increased participation from 20 host rowing programs to now 35.
While the original focus of the program was helping veterans returning from years of war in the Middle East recover from catastrophic injury and the lingering emotional trauma of combat, Englebert is an example of how the program has grown and now serves veterans with a variety of health issues.
According to Debbie Arenberg, USRowing's Manager of Adaptive Development, who has also been involved and helped coordinate the beginnings of the Freedom Rows initiative since its inception, the program is continuing to develop and is now introducing sculling as a means to bring the sport to places that cannot support larger sweep teams.
"Traditionally, we have done exposition rowing only in eights in composite boats, which by the very nature of a composite boat, is very challenging," Arenberg said. "But, last year we made a decision to try some sculling and to expand the racing here to include that.
"Most of the Freedom rows programs now use sculling to get their programs started, this has resulted in us having three fours and 13 doubles from seven programs who have come to the race here today. So, we have tripled the participation in the San Diego Crew Classic this year."
And she added, the program is being used to help veterans with both combat injuries and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Most of the vets now do not have the more traumatic physical injuries from combat, they have primarily post-traumatic stress, and we have evidence that rowing, the repetitive nature of the exercise, helps reduce the symptoms of PTSD.
"We have veterans losing weight, we have veterans who have less suicidal thoughts, and they are getting in better shape," she said. "So, it's a very, very effective program and we have evidence to prove that."