Sunday morning at the Head Of The Charles kicks off with two very special events in para-rowing. The Mixed Legs Trunk and Arms Four (MixLTA4+), and the Same Gender/Mixed Trunk and Arms Double (TA2x) events have athletes from around the world racing for the title of the Head Of The Charles—something they were not able to until a few years ago, when the para-rowing events were introduced.
In international para-rowing, the events are 1,000 meters to the non-para 2k course, so the Charles is unique in that all the athletes regardless of their abilities are able to race the same course—twists, turns and all.
"Your disability is truly on the sidelines," said Priscilla Lowell who raced theTA2x with partner Stephanie Cox. "I've had MS (Multiple Sclerosis) for 30 years. I think it's a great message for us to be racing this course because anything can happen to anybody."
Jaden Thoennes, who raced in the TA2x with partner Callum Borchers, noted that the athletes feel especially abled on the water because the regatta treats all the athletes equally—the same course, rules, and regulations apply to all. Not to mention the wind, which given the longer race times, is especially challenging in the para events.
Andrew Johnson, who stroked the LTA4+, brought home his third HOCR gold in yesterday's race. Johnson, who has been on the USA Para National Team seven times, including the 2014 World Championships, trains on the Charles and knows what to expect on the course.
"Coming around the Eliot turn is super fun; after you come around it and go through the bridge, you can just empty the tank," he said. "The whole race felt really quick. We got around to Eliot and I thought 'Time to empty the tank and see what I have left in me!'"
Empty the tank they did, to win with a 21:28.23.
Johnson and coxswain Jenny Sichel both commented on the growth of the sport and the excitement of having more competition each year, both at the Charles and in international racing.
In the TA2x, Betsy Irwin Mitchell and Cameron Sinclair combined their American and Canadian forces to win their race by just under two minutes. The two met at Canadian Henley in August 2013 just a few months after Sinclair began to row, and raced last year's HOCR to their first win as a duo. This year, they came back after training separately in their respective home countries for most of the year, and proved themselves once again.
"Certainly the course is challenging, but it's fun to rise to the challenge," said Irwin-Mitchell.
The course is additionally challenging for the TA athletes; additional strokes are needed to make each turn because of the decreased leverage on each stroke. Each of the para-athletes rose to the occasion remarkably.
Israeli para-sculler, and 2014 Worlds silver medalist Moran Samuel, was unable to race this year because there is no HOCR event for her classification, Arms and Shoulder. Though she did not race (but hopes to next year), she still came to celebrate the weekend and share her experience starting para-rowing, after having been an able-bodied basketball player on the Israeli National Team.
"Rowing was like running again," she said. "It was like meditation, feeling one with my body. I had really missed that."
As the field for para-rowing expands, and athletes from different backgrounds, abilities and experience come out of the woodwork and begin racing at HOCR, it will be fun to watch how the events continue to grow and transform.