As racing commenced Sunday on the Charles, adaptive coxed four teams from Capitol Rowing, Philadelphia Adaptive Rowing and Community Rowing in Boston were preparing for what many consider the most difficult head race in the country. Capitol Rowing won on the clock, and set a new mark for adaptive fours in 2010.
All adaptive teams were launched from MIT to utilize the large dock and proximity to the basin starting area Sunday morning, coaches and team members started arriving before daylight. Even if able-bodied, nerves abound and there is a lot of rigging, warming up and jockeying at the docks before the big race. To manage and transport the more elaborate equipment of athletes with challenges, there is another twist to pre-race prep.
"It was like a circus getting all the equipment out for the Ernestine Bayer race...we put out 5 doubles with one adaptive athlete and one able-bodied," says Gary Piantedosi, of his preparation for the racing Sunday. Piantedosi, a 1976 Olympic rower, former collegiate rowing coach and current adaptive rowing coach and equipment designer, is the Adaptive Program Coach for Community Rowing, Inc, in Boston.
"We have a broad range of special needs here at CRI," says Piantedosi, "We have paraplegic and cerebral palsy rowers Tuesdays and Thursdays, some from Spaulding (Rehabilitation Hospital at Charles River Dam) and Perkins (School for the Blind)...a full range of issues."
At the Head of the Charles, there is a chance to test what athletes have accomplished. For many, rowing is the first time they have moved their legs in years. With the assistance of Functional Electronic Stimulation (FES), rehabilitation patients at Spaulding have been moving previously immobile legs. Although the FES is done in a controlled setting with indoor rowing equipment, athletes are able to "take it to the water" at CRI.... liberating to say the least.
"At CRI the mission is to make rowing accessible to all people, including those with physical and mental challenges," says Piandetosi. He is assisted by Annie Coppock, Christina Viera and Tom Darling (another former Olympic rower, a medalist from 1984).
Piantedosi says he learned a lot from AccessSport America, a group founded by Ross Lilley which provides access to highly challenging sports, including several water sports like kayaking, surfing and sailing to inspire higher function. Anyone who has ever put oar to water knows the technical challenges of rowing, and when CRI opened the new Harry Parker boathouse, adaptive programs were re-invigorated and those inspirations addressed in the rowing world.
Piandetosi also designs equipment for rowers with challenges, aiming for a "rewarding rowing experience" when there are grip issues (weakness in the grip of cerebal palsy athletes for instance) or just rigging to accommodate different bodies.
The time on the clock for the adaptive races on Sunday at the Head of the Charles was probably not an adequate measure. For those who raced and enjoyed the flat water and sunshine Sunday in a river-worthy craft, the minutes and seconds are only a slice of the days, months, and years spent enjoying the freedom of rowing.