As arduous as the route to becoming an Olympian can be for most athletes, most Paralympians tread a unique and exceptional path to the pinnacle of their athletic lives. This week two single scullers booked their spots on the 2016 US Paralympic Rowing Team – both of whom rowed in the event last year at Worlds, where each also qualified the boat for the US for Rio – each staging a comeback of sorts from previous rowing success.
Blake Haxton won in the Arms and Shoulders Men's Single, and Jacqui Kapinowski in the Arms and Shoulder's Women's Single to start the day of trials. Here is what they had to say after the racing.
Men's Arms and Shoulders Single
A four-year rower in high school in Ohio who was looking forward to rowing in college, Blake Haxton contracted necrotizing fasciitis, which eventually led to his losing both his legs. He never expected to be involved in rowing again, but eventually got drawn back to do some coaching, and then ended up back in a boat – and today won the Olympic trial and will head to Rio for the Paralympic Games in September. It is easy to understand that Haxton hasn't quite come to grips with his turnaround as an athlete.
"To tell the truth, at this point I'm starting to realize how little perspective I have on it," he said after the racing. "I never thought I would be here. I dismissed those who said I could do it. I refused to think about it. That’s where trust comes in. That’s where the faith comes in.
"Finally to be here and say I'm going to Rio, and to think back to when I never thought I'd get in a boat again, and now the whole thing is just totally reversed. To go from swearing up the side and down the other end that I'm never going to row again, to going to Rio, I don't think I've even wrapped my head around how I'm approaching it. And hopefully it'll set in soon, but it's a lot to process."
"I never thought I would be here," Haxton said. "I dismissed those who said I could do it. I refused to think about it. That’s where trust comes in. That’s where the faith comes in."
Haxton goes to Rio with some experience at this point, having burst onto the scene in 2014 to place fourth at Worlds, and placing fifth last year while nursing an injury in the finals. Even so, it has only been about three years since he got back in a boat, and Haxton is aware of the steep trajectory his career has taken. Even back in 2014, when he and others noticed he was starting to get fast, he wasn't training at what many would consider full-time; that has changed.
"I think I really have learned a lot about myself to get to that volume and get to that speed," he said. "I've begun to understand what it takes to do that, not just from an effort perspective, but from a planning and training and organizational perspective. I still had time for other things, and then little by little I had to start replacing the things in life with more time to row and more time for school and more time for work. But that happened to everyone here, so I certainly don't have a corner on that market."
With the trials behind him, Haxton then hashed out the next training day with his coaches; Monday drive home, Tuesday start training again.
"I can't wait to get back at it. I can't wait to get back to training, back to banging on it."
Women's Arms and Shoulders Single
Jacqui Kapinowski had rowed in the Trunk and Arms mixed double in 2011, but in the interim waged a battle with cancer that had her very much in retirement mode.
"I was just getting through with my cancer treatment, and Tom (Darling) called me," she said on the medals dock after the race. "I said to him, 'Tom, do you know I have cancer?' He said, "Just come back to the camp, Jacq." I wasn't really sure about that. I was pretty much in retirement. He said, 'Just come up and check it out.'"
"I was so scared, but a lot of people helped me, andit's just amazing that these people just believe in me and just think I can get the job done. Here I am a year later, and I can't wait to see Tom and just say thank you, because if it wasn't for that phone call, I would not be sitting here talking to you right now."
As her health returned this year, Kapinowski has been able to train better and harder, and has had some breakthroughs in her rowing as well.
"I had put on weight from the cancer and medicine and stuff like that, so just buckled down really hard and just focused on my training, my nutrition, my rest," she said. "I have lost 28 pounds since last year. If I was going to do this, I want to do it right and I want to be on that podium and I want to represent this country the best way possible."
As her training and fitness improved, so did her rowing. "At camp, I had a breakthrough, an 'aha moment,'" she said. "Everything just clicked, everything was coming together. My stroke, my technique, just everything. It was a great moment."
For Haxton and Kapinowski, the next few months may contain more 'aha' moments, and for certain plenty of banging on it in preparation for Rio.