Patrick Ward is a disabled United States Navy Veteran, injured while on Active Duty. He underwent 52 surgeries and the amputation of his right leg above the knee racking up a total of more than 2 years in the hospital. He has trained at the Miami Beach Rowing Club for the last 5 years, and currently holds Men’s PR2 World Records in the following: 1000, 2000, 5000, 6000, 10,000, one-hour set time (12765), and 21,097 meters.
Some things you never forget. It was noon on day #2 of the 2020 World Rowing Indoor Championships in Paris, and several races were just finishing.
Some of the world's best rowers converged on Pierre de Coubertin Stadium for the championship, a crown jewel of rowing. Draping the stadium façade and flapping under bitter cold winds were three massive banners with images of two intense erg rowers. One was a Para-Rower with a prosthetic leg like mine; there aren't many of us, and I had come to Paris to compete. I'd visualized my race many times and planned my strategy, but I hadn't once thought about the overall experience.
The host Hotel Mercury Paris Boulogne, an 8-story cement structure in the southwest corner of the city, is four blocks from the stadium. The lobby's long semicircular shape with bright lights and polished chrome finishes created a panoramic view of guest comings and goings. Passing through the glass turn styles were teams from Germany, UK, Greece, Italy and Belgium. If you ignored the team jackets and pretended not to notice that most were more than 6' tall, it was still obvious why they were here. A rower can spot another rower at 20 paces.
Still two hours before check-in time, the atrium was already filling with guests from morning flights hoping to check-in early. Staff was welcoming, guests were lighthearted, and with music coming from the café it became an impromptu house party. This group had fun written all over them, and I only wished I could stay. I needed to do an erg workout, had an appointment for Para-Rowing Classification, and wanted to watch some races to get a lay of the land.
Much was riding on this appointment, and not just for me. Several people worked very hard and went above and beyond to make this trip possible for me. I was nervous. I'd come a long way, and if I wasn't classified that day, I couldn't compete the next. My appointment was in the basement of the stadium, a maze of busy passageways and open-door offices. Lingering in the narrow hallway outside the room designated for classification I must've looked either lost or suspicious, because that's how I felt. Classification is a long process, and this appointment was the last part. When it was over, I was a FISA Classified PR2 Para Rower.
If you want to be a good rower, spend time with rowers who are good. The gym was busy, but there were still open ergs. I'd met Olena Buryak, and when I saw that she was starting her routine I asked if I could watch. She's a Master Class in Rowing, and makes every minute of her warm up and workout count. Her moves are deliberate, her attention focused. But she's not the only one. Every rower has something to teach and something to learn.
The stadium lobby was festive organized chaos with vendors, athletes, and spectators. It was welcoming, like a family reunion without the drama. My coach Michael Steinberg and Linda Muri of Concept2 took off to check that my erg was in position, my Resolute Fixed Seat was on, and everything was ready to go.
There was a quiet place in the lobby off to one side where I sat to be out of the way. The sight of a rower with a prosthetic leg sitting on the floor leaning against the wall seemed to warrant investigation, because I had no shortage of visitors. Two Estonian rowers came over. From my vantage point each looked 8' tall. In broken English one said something like "together did shorts at airport you and me" (translation: I saw you at the airport and we both wore shorts) the second said: "your face makes laugh" (translation: you smile a lot). They made my day.
A couple from Germany introduced themselves. The man looked like a skyscraper towering over me. Only she spoke English. "My husband was telling me everyone here does same 2000 meters, except you guys do more," making a gesture toward my leg. I stood up to shake their hands. Rowers are good people; if they're laughing it's not at you. If they're cheering, there's a good chance it is for you. There's no bad guy, no us against them. We help each other and understand each other. A cross section of the entire rowing family was there; 2020 Paris World Rowing Indoor Championship made sure there was a place at the table for everyone. You couldn't help but feel proud.
Looking down from the glass observation wall was nothing like actually being on the floor. Strobes, roving search lights, dance club music in surround sound, LED Jumbo Screen, commentators and referees, camera people everywhere and the best rowers anywhere. It was surreal. Then it happened. Without warning, time stopped, and history was made. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. At that moment there was no place on earth I would rather be.
The real story of the day, passed unnoticed by most, will be remembered by me forever. By all accounts this was a day that was never going to happen, for a guy who would never be able to deliver. The naysayers were wrong. This was a day for Freedom Rows, when a Disabled United States Navy Veteran, an amputee competing in his first World Rowing Indoor Championship beat all the odds and made history by smashing his 2k racing PR and setting a World Record (for PR2 2000 meters my time of 8:27.3 was a New World Record as well as my new Competition PR, which had been 8:36.2).
A photographer from Germany captured the moment, and the picture he took quickly took on a life of its own; I'm the guy in the picture. After about two weeks I started hearing from people I'd never met from places like Kenya, Israel, Greece, Canada, Ireland, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, Italy and Malta. They'd seen the picture, it touched them, so they reached out.
History was made that day; I know because I'm the guy who made it. So did the guy from Spain, the girl from Canada, the relay team from Germany. Russia's Alexander Vyazovkin and Ukraine's Olena Buryak both successfully defended their title as The World's Fastest. Italy's. Lorenzo Bernard captured gold winning Men's 2000m PR2 and France's 94-year-old George Basse brought the world to its feet cheering him on.
World Records were broken in Paris and history was made. New front runners emerged, goals were won and lost. From 52 countries, World Rowing anticipated 2148 participants, they got 3286. Start to finish 2020 Paris WIRCH was planned down to the smallest detail and executed flawlessly. 2021 World Rowing Indoor Championship you have some pretty big shoes to fill.