From Underneath My Boat to the Top of the Charles
It was five years ago when I wrote my first post-injury blog about my fledgling athletic pursuits -- “Showering is My New Water Sport.“
It “dripped” with irony since, prior to an SUV crashing full speed into my bicycle and instantly turning me into a paraplegic, I was an avid swimmer, kayaker, water skier, triathlete, and scuba diver.
But one of the many orthopedic traumas I suffered during the accident left me with a serious thigh wound that will likely remain forever unhealed. Because of that injury, I could not go into the water again. Even now, regular submersion in pools, lakes, rivers, and oceans is verboten.
Nevertheless, I wake up every day wanting to claw back as much of my old life as I can. So if I can’t go in the water, why shouldn’t I go on the water?
That was the idea that “flowed” into me and motivated me to apply for the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, one of the premier rowing competitions in the world.
My participation is the culmination of a rowing journey that began in 2014 when my Columbia Business School classmate, Ivan Rudolph-Shabinsky, told me that an adaptive rowers program was in the works at his club, Rockland Rowing Association, which serves rowers in both New York and New Jersey. This is the same club that supports Charlotte Buck, a Rockland Rowing coach who went on to compete in this year’s Olympics in Tokyo.
I had never rowed before but had considered Lightweight crew in college for about 60 seconds -- until I realized I had to wake up at 5 am to train each day. No thank you.
My first time out with Rockland Rowing, we had an equipment malfunction and I capsized. Beforehand, everyone swore that no one ever capsizes. Yet there I was, very securely strapped into my fixed adaptive seat, and in the water and under the shell on Rockland Lake. It was a huge cause of alarm for my clubmates (and me).
I know what you’re thinking: Bicyclist survives head-on collision with SUV, only to drown in rare rowing accident. But not to worry, I successfully dislodged myself, slid out from under the shell, and my clubmates saved me.
Shortly after, when our family was attending our youngest daughter’s Boston University Family Weekend, it coincided with the Head of the Charles competition. We went to watch my teammates compete, including my buddy, Ivan. The crowds, the excitement, the buzz, and the beautiful fall weekend -- I was hooked.
Though the pandemic gave me an unplanned year off from rowing, I resumed my routine this year. I grew stronger and more committed, and that’s when my coach and I decided I should apply to the Head of the Charles.
My guiding light is Rockland Rowing’s masters rower and adaptive coach, Greta Nettleton. Greta started coaching 15 years ago and has coached novice and adaptive rowing programs at several clubs in New York and New Jersey.
Once she saw that I was committed, she was all in. But adaptive training requires many more bodies than just me and Greta.
Each time I go out on the water, volunteers are needed to lift and carry me on and off the dock, in and out of my chair, in and out of the rowing shell. And others need to accompany Greta on the launch boat to keep an eye on me on the lake. It takes a near-village, and I’m grateful for those who always make it happen.
We trained and trained while awaiting word about my Head of the Charles application. When it was a go, I needed a partner.
Since the event was Mixed Inclusion, there would be one disabled and one able-bodied rower of different genders. Greta found a strong and amiable rowing partner in Ali McCann.
Ali rowed in college at SUNY Geneseo, and had previously competed in the Head of the Charles as sweep (two hands on one oar) and as the coxswain who guides the boat. Greta has also rowed the Head of the Charles and drilled into us the importance of managing the crazy turns and numerous bridges.
Ali and I started rowing twice a week, then three times, then four. Blisters on my fingers bubbled, healed, and bubbled up again. I now have the calluses to prove it. As the regatta date approached, the excitement grew. Through it all, the entire club came through and supported us. They readily volunteered for whatever was needed.
When the Rockland Rowing board committed to developing an adaptive program more than six years ago, they had the foresight to make the joy and freedom of the water more inclusive and accessible to a much broader community -- rowers with spinal cord injuries like me and others with traumatic brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, cancer, amputees, and more.
To gather support for the initiative, I worked with the club to approach foundations that shared our vision. Both the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which I also personally support, and the Neilsen Foundation generously funded our program.
The financial commitment to run these programs is always greater than anticipated. For me, the end result has been exponentially greater than I could have ever imagined.
Without exception, everyone in the club -- masters, youth, and coaches -- got behind me, cheered, and supported and propelled me forward. I’m in their debt, and today I serve on the board with the utmost of appreciation for the board’s mission.
Ali and I rowed a strong race in very windy conditions in Boston two weeks ago and had the full support of USRowing, which had officials on site every step of the race. We completed the regatta in under 30 minutes, achieving the goal we set. Ali pointed out that we have more aggressive goals still to be reached. Yes, we do. And don’t we all?
For all of this, I am beyond grateful.
From the bottom of my heart, from in the water underneath my boat, and from on top of the Charles -- thank you, Rockland Rowing.
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