row2k Features
US Para Team's Collegians
April 1, 2024
John FX Flynn, row2k

Four of the 'Para Collegians' rowed the PR3 Mix4+ last year: from right to left, Saige Harper, Skylar Dahl, Emelie Eldracher, and Alex Flynn. Stroke Ben Washburne (far left) had just graduated.

This week we continue our 2024 spring collegiate racing preview by catching up with four of the five collegiate athletes recently named to the 2024 Paralympic Team: Virginia's Skylar Dahl, Sacred Heart's Saige Harper, Tufts' Alex Flynn, and Temple's Gemma Wollenschlaeger.

Along with coxswain Emelie Eldracher, who will compete this season with the MIT men as she works on a graduate degree, these four Paralympians are all balancing a full spring semester of college with their preparations for Paris.

While undergrad National Teamers are not unheard of in rowing, this is the largest group of students to make the team at once, and most of them have been doing a bit of both all year. You can read the interview here that row2k did with them in October on the doubling up they did at the Charles with their colleges and in the Para event.

Now that they have officially made the 2024 US Team, we wanted to hear how each of them approaches handling the extra responsibility of being Paralympics-bound and about how accessible they have found the Para Team to be as college athletes.

Temple undergrad Gemma Wollenschlaeger raced the PR3 Mix2x last year with Todd Vogt and will be in the Para Four this year
Temple undergrad Gemma Wollenschlaeger raced the PR3 Mix2x last year with Todd Vogt and will be in the Para Four this year

All five were silver medalists at the 2023 Worlds--also as collegians, of course--and were named to the 2024 Paralympic team after January's selection camp: Harper to the PR3 Mix 2x, and Dahl, Flynn, Wollenschlaeger, and Eldracher to the PR3 Mix Four.

Eldracher, Flynn, and Harper will race with their college teams this spring, with Harper especially looking forward to enjoying her senior season. Dahl and Wollenschlaeger opted to focus just on their classes and Paralympics training this semester before returning to college racing next fall: Wollenschlaeger will take online courses so she can be in Boston with the Para coaches and Dahl will train on her own at Virginia between in-person classes before joining the full group in May.

row2k - How did you get involved in the Para Team and where were you in your rowing career at that point?

Skylar Dahl - I was introduced to the Para Team in my 2nd year at UVA. My college coach, Kevin Sauer, introduced me to the USRowing Director of Para High Performance, Ellen Minzner, which kicked off the journey. Being born with bilateral club foot, we figured I would qualify under the PR3 classification, so I was able to get nationally classified during ACC Championships in May 2023 just a few weeks before selection camp for Worlds. Selection camp in mid-June was my first real introduction to much of the Para Team and it has been a great pleasure getting to be their teammate.

Alex Flynn - I got involved in the Para Team during my senior year of high school. One of my coaches at the time, Bob Arsenault, got me in touch with Ellen Minzner, the Director of Para Rowing. After being identified that I was eligible for para-rowing, I continued to train with my high school team leading up to selection for the 2022 world championships.


Saige Harper - I was introduced to Para while I was trying to get recruited to row in college. When I told coaches about my disability, a lot of the schools I talked to asked me if I rowed para or was informed about para because I would probably qualify. It wasn't until my current coach, Luke Wilhelm, started working at Sacred Heart that anyone really pushed for me to seize the opportunity. Coach introduced me to Tom Siddall, the recruiter for the Para Team at the time, and I submitted my scores, got classified in the US, and went to a few para development weekend camps in 2022. That summer, I received my first invitation to selection camp for the Racice World Championships. That first year, my eyes were wide open and I planned to absorb and learn everything I could from everyone there. Making the four that year opened my eyes to all of my future possibilities and to goals I never knew I had.

Gemma Wollenschlaeger - My Paralympic process all started with my coach at Temple, Rebecca Grzybowski. She helped me make the connection with the Director of US Para Rowing, Ellen Minzner, in the spring semester of my freshman year. The Para Team coaches guided me through the process of meeting the team, attending camps, and completing the Paralympic classification process. In all honesty, I was in disbelief that this dream could be a reality for me. I had lived with my disability my whole life, played sports, and never really thought about the Paralympics. I went to a Developmental Week Camp in Summer 2022, where I met some of my future teammates. From there, I completed my classification process for my club foot, attended winter camp, and in June 2023 went to my first official selection camp for Worlds. The best part of the entire process was meeting the other disabled athletes, especially other athletes with my disability, as I had never met another person with a club foot before joining the Paralympic Team.

row2k - How did you fit the January camp, and getting ready for selection, into your college team’s training this year?

Skylar Dahl - After a brief recovery following World Championships, I jumped right back into normal fall season training with my UVA team. Luckily, we had a 6k and a 2k written into the training plan, so I was able to prep and execute those with my team before erg submissions were due prior to camp. Fall proved to be a mostly seamless transition back to training and translated well into making sure I could perform at my best for January selection. I have so much support from my coaches and teammates backing me along the way, so it has been a manageable process.

Alex Flynn - I was lucky enough that I was still on winter break during the January camp so it fit my schedule really well. In preparation for the camp, I followed my college’s training plan and added some additional sessions as I thought were necessary.

Saige Harper - Coach Luke and I worked together to figure out my exact goals--what I wanted to accomplish going into camp and the outcome I wanted from camp--and then helped me form a plan to achieve those goals. My strength and conditioning coach, Jordan Hines, a graduate student at Sacred Heart, was also a huge help to me. He was willing to work with me and Coach Luke to get extra work in to get me ready. I had a lot of help with physical and mental readiness prior to camp and I attribute a lot of my preparedness to both Coach Luke and Coach Jordan.


Gemma Wollenschlaeger - After Worlds, I went back to Philly and took some time off to just catch up on my life a bit. I started working back into Temple’s training and competed at HOSR and Princeton Chase with the team. After Thanksgiving I diverted to the US training plan to put my full focus on selection camp and making one of the Paralympic Games boats. Now, I’ll be solely training with the Para Team until the Games. My teammates and coaches at Temple have been so supportive of me chasing this dream from Day 1.

row2k - Can you talk a bit about how you are preparing for Paris now that the spring semester is underway?

Skylar Dahl - Now that spring semester is well underway, I have shifted my training to focusing on the US training plan. This will allow me to set myself up for success in training and racing through August. I am finishing my spring semester classes here in Virginia and then will meet up with the rest of my boat in Boston starting in May.

Alex Flynn - Right now I am following my college training plan and in addition, I am rowing with members of the four twice a week. My coach, Tom Siddall, and I believe that the training I am doing at Tufts is the best plan until the entire four can be together at the beginning of the summer.

Saige Harper - I have a lot of smaller, short term goals that lead up to this summer while I'm still at school to help me get in the right headspace for Paris. I look forward to finishing training cycles, 2k tests, certain practices, and progressive exercises in the weight room because all of those small things are all building my mental and physical readiness for the stress of going to Paris. On top of that I will graduate from Sacred Heart University with my Bachelors in Exercise Science in May and will race in my last conference championships also in May, both of which are big and important goals to me. Not to say I'm not wicked excited to go to Paris and achieve one of the most important and huge goals of my life and career, but I have a lot of time, so keeping busy and achieving other things keeps me on track to that bigger goal.

Gemma Wollenschlaeger - I moved to Boston to train full time with the Para Team. I am staying with a host family and just leaning fully into the training environment to make the most out of this year and see how far we can go. On top of that, I am still continuing my studies as an Accounting major at Temple with online classes. I’m really excited about what the next few months will bring. Time feels like it's flying by and I know Paris will be here in the blink of an eye!

row2k - What has been the most challenging part of balancing your college rowing with the opportunities you’ve had on the Para Team?

Skylar Dahl - The hardest part has been that it’s all new. I’ve had trial and error balancing the tasks from both school and national team and, like any athlete, we face ups and downs. In my almost year on the team, it has been nothing short of the opportunity of a lifetime, one that I am grateful for every day, even on the harder days. I am learning a lot, quickly, about what works for my body and mind in terms of recovery, nutrition, and wellness. It’s not always easy, but the ups and downs are nonetheless rewarding and I’m grateful for all the lessons and support I’ve already received in this short time.


Alex Flynn - There hasn’t been much difficulty, as most of the opportunities I have had with the para team occur outside of the school year. The biggest difficulty of being part of both teams is balancing training with schoolwork and making sure I give myself time to recover. I am training around 13 sessions a week sometimes so it is important that I stay on top of my rest.

Saige Harper - Time has been one of my biggest challenges balancing college rowing, the Para Team, and being a full time student. I want to be able to be in clubs at school, go to conferences for my major, train with my teammates on my collegiate team as well as on the para team, go on training trips, and development camps all at the same time. It's hard to decide what to prioritize and when. Luckily both my collegiate and para coaches have good communication and work with me and each other so I can do all of the opportunities I can for both teams.

Gemma Wollenschlaeger - The hardest part for me is trying to manage the Temple Rowing ask as well as the US Rowing ask. I always try to give my best to anything that I do, so when I stepped into an upperclassmen role on the Temple team and a position in the US boat, I struggled to deliver the standard I expect of myself.

row2k - What can you tell other athletes out there about how accessible the Para Team is for a collegiate athlete?

Skylar Dahl - The Para Team has offered me all the resources I could need to succeed as an athlete and they have a focus on helping us improve as people, outside of the sport as well. All my Para boatmates are current or recent college athletes, so we have developed solid foundations and an understanding of the rigid routines required to find success in this sport. It is worth looking into as a collegiate athlete if you think you may meet classification, as it is very accessible and you’re sure to find support and guidance from the para coaches and support staff.

The Para Four on the Belgrade podium. Stroke Ben Washburne (second from right) also made the boat for the Paralympics this year.
The Para Four on the Belgrade podium. Stroke Ben Washburne (second from right) also made the boat for the Paralympics this year.

Alex Flynn - The coaching staff on the Para Team is super understanding of college athletes. Right now the team is really young and most of us are still in college. The coaches understand the importance of not having to put other aspects of our lives on hold to be a part of this team. My college coach has also been super understanding of what I am trying to accomplish outside of the Tufts team and that support has been vital in being able to be a part of the Para Team.

Saige Harper - Find coaches that support you. It is the most amazing experience to be a collegiate athlete and also an elite para rower but I have found that without a support system to help me navigate the load I would not be able to achieve what I have. I am lucky to have understanding coaches on both sides who are willing to communicate with each other and me and help me do as much as I possibly can while I am able. Being a part of the para team in college has let me learn so much about how to work with my disability and then to be able to bring that knowledge with me into the collegiate setting is really special. What I have learned has helped my ability to row more seamlessly with my able bodied teammates in college.

Gemma Wollenschlaeger - If you have made it onto a collegiate team with your disability, then para rowing is very accessible. However, accessible and easy are two very different things. The US Para Team has been competitive, challenging, and has required us to deliver at an elite level.

Wollenschlaeger and Vogt with silver at the '23 Worlds. Vogt will race the PR3 Mix2x again at the Paralympics, with Harper.
Wollenschlaeger and Vogt with silver at the '23 Worlds. Vogt will race the PR3 Mix2x again at the Paralympics, with Harper.

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