A panting black-haired poodle named Buck lies at the foot of his companion's wheelchair on the dock of Saint Joe's boathouse on the Schuylkill River. “When I'm out on the water he misses me,” says Danny Wheeler, 28, of Cherry Hill. “He sees my empty chair and he gets kind of upset.” Wheeler, who has just won second place in the Arms and Shoulder race, takes a moment to relax by the sparkling river after being lifted back into his chair. The two have been reunited after Wheeler won second place in the Arms and Shoulders race at the BAYADA Regatta.
The Bayada Regatta was the first rowing event dedicated exclusively to adaptive rowing. This year, athletes with disabilities representing 22 different states across the country gathered in Philadelphia on August 16th for the 33rd annual event. Rowers came from as far as California and Florida as teams of athletes with disabilities including blindness, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, paraplegia, or quadriplegia engaged in a friendly competition.
The Bayada Regatta, one of the largest adaptive regattas in the nation, is named for its sponsor and Mark Baiada. In 1975, Baiada started a business that provided home-care services for the disabled, a company that became BAYADA Home Health Care and provides services nationally as well as in India. In 1981, Baiada attended a few Philadelphia Adaptive Rowing (PAR) meetings and decided to support the group by sponsoring a regatta. Baiada's philosophy is to provide services that will empower the disabled with independence and dignity. While there are multiple adaptive sports options, rowing seems to fit best with this philosophy.
“You get out of your chair. The appearance of your condition is less obvious than in other sports,” Baida said, and rowers and coaches share this sentiment. Scott Brown, 47, an adaptive rowing coach in Jacksonville, Florida, has personally experienced this freedom and desires to share it with others.
“You see people rowing who you would never think about getting into boats," said Brown. "You get in a boat and you watch your chair float away. Brown got his start at rowing in Philadelphia with PAR in 1989, two years after an injury left him in a wheelchair. He stresses how important sports like rowing are for the disabled.
“Without rowing I would have been at home on the couch drinking beer and eating Percocet,” Brown said. “Rowing is great physically and mentally-- for the body and the spirit.” Even though those who have suffered an accident attend rehab to learn to navigate their lives with a disability, Brown says that they can easily lose what they learned there and fall into depression. Involvement with rowing helped him with his self-esteem and put him onto the right direction.
The Bayada in 1991 was his first regatta, and he went on to be a world-champion rower, eventually racing in the Para-Olympic Games. His race times were competitive with those of able-bodied rowers even though he is unable to use his legs. More recently, Brown took a job in Florida as a rowing coach at a partnership program of Jacksonville University and Brooks Rehabilitation. Brown had planned on staying in Philadelphia but the job offer changed his mind.
“This opportunity was too great to pass up," Brown said. "I felt strongly that I needed to give back." He came back to Philadelphia for the Bayada, bringing with him a team of rowers from Jacksonville. Philadelphia is considered to be the birthplace of adaptive rowing. In an Army/Navy event for WWII veterans, blind and disabled athletes participated in a rowing competition for the first time. In 1980, the first all-adaptive rowing club was born by the Schuylkill. Several other leaders in adaptive rowing, like Brown, started in Philadelphia and then relocated to spread the sport to other parts of the country.
In addition to freedom from a wheelchair, adaptive rowers are attracted to the community formed around the sport. Danny Wheeler relaxes on the dock with Buck, his dad, and his sister, who is also an adaptive rower. Danny has participated in multiple adaptive sports including basketball, skiing, swimming and archery, but says rowing is his favorite.
“It's so fun," Wheeler said. "I've met some great people and it feels good to leave my chair behind."