What is it that defines you as a rower? Is it wins, or the drive for continuous improvement? Is it the quest for the perfect stroke, or the pain at the end of a 2000-meter erg test? What if, at the height of your rowing career, all that defined you suddenly went away? Who would you be? Would you still be a rower?
This story begins after a telephone call. It begins after a school bus goes through a stop sign without stopping. It begins after Canadian national team training ride ends in an ambulance, the siren squealing as it careens toward Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. The voice on the other end saying simply, “Come quickly. There’s been an accident.”
Andrew Todd has the body of a natural lightweight. His tousled hair and sometimes-beard welcome you in, as if he’s been waiting to talk with you. He has the kind of openness that is usually reserved for the untested, but this lithe rower has passed more tests than a national team rower typically has to.
In May 2013, Todd received the invitation he’d been hoping for—to try out for the Canadian lightweight men’s national team. Todd jumped at the chance. His girlfriend, Jenna Pelham, saw him off on a bus to London, Ontario. Three days later, a school bus blew through a stop sign and hit Todd as he and his new teammates were cycling on the back roads outside of London; he was pinned under the back wheels. The bus came to a stop 20 feet later. Todd’s pelvic bone was crushed. A large chunk of his right knee was gone, and the paramedics in the ambulance gave him a 50 percent shot at making it to the hospital alive.
To most people, this would be the end of the story, or the rowing part of the story at least. But for Todd, this was just the beginning. Even in his hospital bed, as his leg was in a splint awaiting surgeries for skin grafts and bone transplants, he kept a dumbbell for lifting.
Twenty-eight months later Todd stroked the Canadian adaptive national team’s leg-trunk-arms coxed four (LTAMix4+) to a bronze medal at the 2015 world rowing championships in Aiguebelette, France, qualifying the boat for the 2016 Paralympic Games. It wasn’t the boat he was trying out for when he arrived at the national training center all those months ago, but the road to the starting line isn’t always a straight one.
Todd started rowing in 2007 as a novice at the University of Ottawa and progressed rapidly during his time as a student. “In the summer of 2009, I started to take it seriously. I thought, ‘Maybe I can actually go somewhere with this.’”
“When the surgeon says I can hit it hard, I hit it hard. When he tells me to ease off, I listen.” – Andrew Todd
Todd has an affable way about him. He pauses slightly while telling me the beginning of his story, and I find myself looking forward to the soft chuckle that often ends his sentences. “I figured out that the formula wasn’t complicated. The more work you put in, the faster you’re going to get.”
In 2011, while still at the University of Ottawa, Todd tried out for the under-23 lightweight pair. “I’d gotten through selection, but my time trial wasn’t fast enough.” No longer eligible as an under-23 athlete, Todd stayed in school and continued training.
“I took 2012 to refocus my training. I knew it would take at least a year—maybe a year and a half—to get to the level I needed to be at to even try out for the senior team. Partway through that year I started communicating with Al Morrow [the Canadian lightweight men’s coach].” Todd shares his story freely, but like all of the elite rowers I’ve spoken with, he is cautious when it comes to the details of his training.
“I got added to his mailing list for the training program of the guys at the [national training] center. I was in school, I started doing what they were doing.” He draws his thoughts back from the edge of memory. “I ended up doing more training and less racing that year to make sure I got myself to where I needed to be.”
That spring, after the national development trials, Todd received his invite to join the squad in London. This was the path he knew rowers took to a get a chance to make the national team. This was his path now. “To be honest, I don’t remember how many days after arriving at the center the accident happened.”
After the accident, Todd spent three months in the hospital. His pelvic bone had healed, but it left him with diminished power and range of motion. His right ankle mobility was all but gone. He was put on a waiting list for a bone transplant for what remained of his right knee.
While he waited, he made up a small training program that he could do in his hospital bed. Gord Henry, the founder and owner of Fluidesign, visited Todd in his room. “I knew this kid wasn’t done,” Henry told me. “I told him I’d give him a boat to train in when he got out. He wasn’t done rowing.”
Todd’s soft laugh again captures my attention, as if he’s shy about the details, “I’d wake up every morning and try to make sure I was one step closer to getting back in a boat. After the first month, I didn’t need the nurses to help me roll over. After six weeks, I could get into a wheelchair with help. I spent the first year just trying to get moving again.” He hesitates for a moment. “Sitting up for the first time was probably one of the hardest parts of the entire recovery. After lying down for that long, when you first sit up, it feels like you’re upside down.”
After his release from hospital, Todd continued his recovery at an assisted living home. A full year after the accident, in May 2014, he met with a prosthetic manufacturer who designed an “off-loader” brace for his right leg to divert the load from the medial side of his right knee.
“I still hadn’t gotten the bone donor surgery, but my surgeon cleared me to row.”
I stop him here. “Wait, how mobile were you at this point?” I ask.
“I was able to start walking. I’d started training in the eight and pair. I’d lost power and mobility in my knee and my right ankle, and my quadricep was—still is—partially detached from my knee, but I could row.”
Like every elite athlete, if he could row, he did the next natural thing: he entered a regatta. “I went to the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia in July 2014 to row the lightweight single. I wanted to feel it, to test it a bit. I was about to bring my boat down to the river when I got the call.” Telephone calls seem to figure prominently in Andrew Todd’s story. “The call came from Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. I had 24 hours to get back to Toronto for my bone transplant.”
Todd’s surgery would be, he knew, a potential game-changer: it would rebuild a portion of his knee. “The medial femoral condyle, the tibial plateau,” he ticks off the details. “My surgeon tried to put some of the meniscus in, tried to give me the MCL from the donor.” He trails off, then breathes in deeply.
“Dr. Alan Gross, my surgeon—if he wasn’t around to do this kind of surgery I wouldn’t be able to row. My knee would be fused straight or I would have lost the lower half of my leg. As far as I know, those were the two options.” In the short term, however, it started his recovery all over again.
“I’ve had lots of experience with recovery. Each time after a surgery, my knee has absolutely no bend and I always think it may never bend again. But with hard work and physical therapy, it does. It always does.”
It’s here that I begin to see how the next chapter unfolded. Todd recovered from the bone transplant surgery, resumed training, went through selection for the adaptive four that was headed to worlds, and stroked the crew onto the medal stand.
I ask Pelham for more details on Todd’s journey from the hospital bed to the podium. Pelham has been with Todd every step of the way. The two met in the novice program at Ottawa two years before the accident. It was Pelham who got the first call from the hospital, who has been with Todd throughout each surgery, and who now heads out in a double with him as he continues his remarkable return.
“He was in rough shape,” she says, recalling the first time she saw him in the hospital. “Maybe not immediately, but I quickly switched to, ‘Well, it is what it is, and we have to move forward.’ We tried to approach it as,” she pauses, searching for the right word, “logically as possible. It was easy for me to have a positive attitude because Andrew’s attitude was out of this world.”
I had noticed this. Not once in my conversations with Todd had I ever detected even the slightest hint of negativity. It was as if he knew what he had to do, and he went about getting it done. At the end of one conversation with him, he shared with me that, after the world championships, an infection had developed around some of the hardware of the bone transplant. As we spoke, he was receiving an intravenous course of antibiotics. He’d been restricted from upper-body training because of the drip bag he had to keep attached to his arm for six weeks. “On the bright side,” he says, “it’s been four-and-a-half weeks. And I’ve been cleared for the spin bike.” He laughs again, that sincere laugh of a man who has seen the best of himself and yet still seeks better.
And it was here that I wanted to dig deeper. Andrew Todd had been at the height of his rowing career when one moment changed it all. The success he’d had racing against his peers had won him an opportunity to try for a seat on the Canadian team. When it changed, and he found himself as a fully-classified para rower, did it feel the same to him?
“Ever since I started rowing, I’ve preferred [rowing] port. Most of my results, however, pre- and post-accident, have been on starboard.” I struggled to see how this was answering my question. “Now the fact that my left leg is stronger than my right, it makes sense to row starboard, to rely on the inside leg, which has better compression.” Leg press tests of his injured leg show it has 70 percent strength. “Port still feels more comfortable, but biomechanically I’m stronger on starboard.”
This was an elite athlete talking. I ask about a life-changing event—a near-fatal accident—and he answers with an analysis of port versus starboard.
Amanda Schweinbenz, the coach who took the Canadian para four to worlds, watched Todd as he trained in an adaptive boat when, after his bone transplant surgery, he couldn’t walk well, but he could row trunk-and-arms.
“He has an ‘I have nothing to lose’ mindset. He finds ways to get around the problems.” – Jenna Pelham
I ask Schweinbenz about Todd’s injury manifests itself in his rowing. “You notice Andrew’s injury when he’s standing beside you. They shaved off a bit of his knee and that gave it a different angle, so he stands on the side of his foot to relieve the pressure. But in a boat, no, you don’t see it when he’s rowing. We lowered his foot stretchers a bit, to get him more reach at the catch, but we didn’t change anything else.”
Todd talks about rowing ‘para’, referencing the Paralympics he hopes to qualify for. “I got into it to show people that para-rowing should be taken seriously. It’s why I compete against able-bodies in regattas. This is a sport to be taken seriously. My intent is to make the four for 2016 Rio Paralympics. Moving forward, if my body will allow it—if my knee will allow it—I’ll give able-bodied rowing another go. But I have to give Amanda a lot of credit. She understands people with disabilities. She doesn’t back off. She says, ‘We’re going to tackle the necessary training.’” He smiles, “You get some coaches—through no fault of their own—who are hesitant to push para-athletes because they don’t want to hurt them or make their disabilities worse. She knows when to push people and when to back off because of their disabilities.
“I’ve learned how to train through recovery. When the surgeon says I can hit it hard, I hit it hard. When he tells me to ease off, I listen. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that when you can hit it hard, make it count.”
I ask Pelham if the accident changed Todd’s rowing. “One thing changed,” she says. “Before the accident he wasn’t afraid to take risks. Now he has an ‘I have nothing to lose’ mindset. He finds ways to get around the problems.” A beat passes. “He has no fear now.”
I ask Todd one last question. Where does he get his resolve, his tenacity? He answers it as most rowers probably would.
“The stubborn part of me is one of the few cards I have. I’m not the fittest guy. I’m not necessarily the strongest guy. It was just the training mentality I took from Day 1. Just battle it out. On the Ottawa River, where we started rowing, you row down 12 kilometers, spin, and row another 12k back. I learned there what ‘battle paddle’ really means. It’s supposed to be steady state, 18 to 20 strokes per minute, but you go all out to make sure your bow is one foot in front of all the others.”
Maybe that’s what defines this rower. When everything is taken away, fight to take it back.