I’ve always loved water sports -- swimming, kayaking, water skiing, scuba diving -- but the only water I’m sporting in these days is the shower.
Since a bicycling accident that left me a paraplegic almost five years ago, I’ve been under doctor’s orders to stay away from the pool, the ocean, and the lake. A sleepy driver slammed into me head on, and the force of the impact thrust me off my bicycle and thrust my femur through my thigh. Today, I still have an open thigh wound, so no water for me.
It’s kind of ironic because the first item of “adaptive” sporting equipment I bought was a Hippocampe all-terrain wheelchair that goes into the water with you, allows you to get out and swim, and floats nearby until you’re ready to get back into it so you can get out of the water. I bought it in May 2012 shortly after being discharged from five months in hospitals. My wife and I discovered it at the Disabilities Expo (yes, there is an “expo” for everything) and immediately knew this would be something I’d like when I went swimming that summer. What we couldn’t imagine was that my leg wound would not be healed by then -- or even by now.
For years now, I’ve been yearning to go into the water. If I couldn’t go in, maybe I could go on. My buddy Ivan from grad school is a masters rower and a lynchpin of the Rockland Rowing Association in New York. And although the core of the club has been adult and teenage rowers, this year they brought on Melissa Boyd, their tireless, full-time director, and she expanded the program to include adaptive rowing.
Before this, I had been a weekend kayaker but knew very little about rowing. Ivan rowed at Cornell and had been connected to the sport for most of his life. I had thought about trying out for lightweight crew when I was in school but quickly realized that getting up at 5 am would not be a strength of mine during college. And that was the end of the story. Until now.
Though my legs don’t move, with a strong upper body, it seemed I could probably do a reasonable job with rowing or sculling. Of course the legs are a big part of the power but the arms and trunk are as well.
On another level, I was drawn to rowing because I knew it would make me feel as if I was in/on the water again. If I could go out on the water, I could try to capture the freedom that water sports offer and life in a wheelchair does not. When I told my wife what I was going to do, I knew she’d encourage me but she instantly wanted to know: What if you fall in?
Not to worry, I told her. The adaptive shells are built not to capsize. No one ever falls into the water. There is no issue whatsoever. I’ll be fine.
And so it was this summer that the club members helped get me down onto the dock, out of my wheelchair, and into the boat. They had positioned pontoons on the side of the boat to add extra stability, and away we went.
Well, not so fast. The sport is considerably harder than it looks. I went out in a two-person shell with Ivan. I have the strength to row but the rhythm is challenging and staying in sync with your rowing teammates is the key. Even with Ivan following my every move to keep us aligned, it wasn’t pretty. Still it was great to be out on the water. It was beautiful and tranquil, and the Lake DeForest reservoir is incredible -- long and narrow, perfect for rowing. It was a lake I rode by numerous times during my cycling days.
By the end of my session, I had adjusted my seating to allow me to row more efficiently and we had a nice pace going.
Ah, but you might have guessed it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, uh, sculling. My second time out on the lake, the evening was beautiful. All was good until my rowing partner’s rigging came out. Remember how I told my wife that these boats never capsize? Well… with the weight now out of synch, the next thing I knew we both ended up in the water. Getting my thigh wet was the least of my worries just then. The more pressing emergency was that I was in the water with my paralyzed feet strapped into shoes and my paralyzed waist strapped into the seat. I could see the headlines now, “Bicyclist survives head-on collision only to drown in rare rowing mishap.” Nope, not quite. Thankfully, my feet came out of the shoes easily, and while I was underwater, I quickly managed to unstrap myself from the seat, and then grabbed the shell and pulled my head above the water. The club’s safety boat came racing over, and they hoisted me out of the water.
Luckily, there were no ill health effects of being submerged in water. In fact, I have to say -- despite some seconds of terror -- it felt really good to be in the lake.
I can’t wait to see what my next time out on the water brings. I hear that the Head of the Charles has a two-man category for one adaptive rower and one able-bodied athlete. Any interest, Ivan?