A sea change is coming. It’s something you’ve likely seen before, just in a different form. You’ve seen it in the evolution of every new idea, every innovation, and it shifts the paradigm just enough to let a breakthrough happen. For Paralympic rowing, this change is happening now, and when it is over our sport could wind up looking dramatically different than it does today.
When I first met Tom Darling, he was in the middle of a crowd of rowers. I had to wait to introduce myself. Tall and lean, Darling towered over most of the athletes around him, but he did something with his height that made him seem, well, shorter. He wasn’t hunching, rather, he seemed to be making himself a part of the crowd that surrounded him.
That crowd—those rowers—had just finished competing in their events at the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints, the world indoor rowing championships held each February in Boston. Every rower in the crowd had traveled there to race against the stiffest competition in their age group. And in the case of the rowers assembled around Darling, the stiffest competition in their adaptive rowing classification. Many were in wheelchairs, but Darling was a part of them, even as he stood upright.
Darling rowed in the men’s eight that won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics. He was recently named the director of para-rowing at USRowing. Rowing is a Paralympic sport, with four events based on “classification” schemes, which indicate the mobility/ability range of the athletes. The sculling events are the arms-and-shoulder single for women (ASW1x); the arms-and-shoulder single for men (ASM1x); and the trunk-and-arms mixed double (TAMix2x). The fourth event is the legs-trunk-and-arms mixed four with coxswain (LTAMix4+).
Even though the Paralympics started in 1960, rowing wasn’t adopted as a sport until 2008. Since that time, the United States has won a bronze medal in the AS single (Laura Schwanger, 2008); a silver medal in the four (Emma Preuschl, Tracy Tackett, Jesse Karmazin, Jamie Dean, and Simona Chin, 2008); and a bronze medal in the mixed double (Rob Jones and Oksana Masters, 2012).
In each event, the equipment is adapted to accommodate the athlete’s range of motion, hence “adaptive rowing.” One example of an adaptation is to attach a fixed seat with a stable back to the tracks of a single or double to hold an athlete who only has use of their upper body.
The athlete transfers from their wheelchair into the rowing shell, using the seat (which is attached to the tracks in place of the sliding seat) like they use their wheelchair seat. For “trunk-and-arms” rowers, a strap is placed around their waist, for “arms and shoulders,” a second strap is used around their chest. For safety, pontoons are attached to the underside of each rigger.
The “legs-trunk-and-arms” athletes compete in a standard four-person boat, and their classification scheme is based on partial loss of mobility, loss of sight, or impaired intellectual ability, rather than the total loss of mobility their fellow athletes in the arms-and-shoulders or trunk-and-arms categories have.
Darling explains the elements of the sport with ease. For the past four years, he has been one of the many players in the development of adaptive rowing programs at boathouses all across the country. Working from his home base in Boston, Darling helped to get rowers on the water through Community Rowing, Inc. (CRI). He also worked with Concept2 over the past five years and has seen the number of adaptive rowers competing at the C.R.A.S.H.-B.s go from a just a handful to nearly 100 this year.
And then in May 2013, USRowing hired Darling to run its para-rowing program as it ramps up for the 2016 Paralympics.
“My directive from Curtis [Jordan, USRowing’s high-performance director] is to find eight athletes—two for the singles, two for the mixed double, and four for the LTA4. They’re out there, we just need to get them the best support to train for Rio.”
Darling will not coach U.S. athletes at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro; he’s responsible for bringing all of the elements together to ensure he delivers the best adaptive rowers the United States has to offer.
One such element is the investment the Veterans Affairs Administration has made into adaptive sports for wounded veterans. Since 2010, the Veterans Affairs Office of National Veterans Sports Programs has partnered with the U.S. Paralympics to establish over 200 community-based programs that provide opportunities for veterans to use adaptive sport programs—some recreationally, some competitively—to achieve better health and fitness, and to rehabilitate their injuries. Many of these programs are adaptive rowing programs, and Darling’s current role results directly from this investment.
“My position is funded through the VA,” says Darling. “As the governing body for rowing in the United States, the VA and the USOC partnered with USRowing to make this happen. My job is to be a part of the overall development of the programs across the country that are sending athletes to our national team selection process.”
To make this happen, USRowing has also invested in a specialty position for clubs and rowing programs that want to include adaptive rowers. Deb Arenberg, a longtime supporter of adaptive rowing through her work as an equipment expert, FISA adaptive classifier, and consultant to the Wounded Warriors Project, was hired as the Adaptive Programs Development Specialist.
“Adaptive rowers said to us, ‘We want to play too. You get us to the starting line, and we’ll get to the finish line.’” — Mark McAndrews
“My job is to help clubs who want to start an adaptive program. I work with rowing clubs, the military, and coaches. Most everybody is asking, ‘How do we start an adaptive program?’ While Tom is focusing on para-rowing, I work with everybody,” Arenberg says.
I ask her to explain the difference between the two.
“Para-rowing athletes are those athletes that are FISA-classified and rowing in the four specific classification events. But the whole thrust of this is to be inclusive, to get adaptive rowing programs into every club that wants it.”
Arenberg travels the country, helping clubs prepare for adaptive rowing programs. “We start with a facility assessment, the buildings, the grounds, getting out of the car,” says Arenberg. “When the adaptive community benefits from these changes, everyone benefits.”
“We have to build a culture here,” says Darling. “The Paralympic rowers need the support of local programs to get into the sport. So many people never think of trying rowing, and that’s where the local clubs come in. We have to build a culture of opportunities for the athletes.
“I had two Marines in a training camp recently. One was a trunk-and-arms athlete and the other was an arms-and-shoulder athlete. I never asked how they were injured—that’s not my position—but they had trained together and they used to run against each other. In boot camp, they had three-mile running races, and each of these guys had beaten the other one, once. It was one-and-one. They didn’t get to run a deciding race before they were injured, but here they were, racing against each other again, this time on the erg. They wanted to see who was the stronger athlete. They were motivating each other.” Darling pauses. “That’s the culture we’re building.”
Darling’s work runs parallel to the development of the under-23 and senior national teams, but doesn’t yet have the structured camps those programs have. “Right now, we’re relying on the existing programs who have the athletes. What’s really exciting is that a lot of the athletes on the senior national team are training with the adaptive athletes. That’s the best motivator: to be training next to someone else at your level, regardless of their abilities.”
Darling explains that it’s not just local rowing clubs that are contributing to the growing number of adaptive athletes who will vie for berths on the 2016 Paralympic team. “Erik Kroeker at the University of Illinois is working on developing an intercollegiate adaptive rowing program.”
Indeed, this spring season brought new athletes to the docks of the University of Illinois boathouse as the team held learn-to-row days for adaptive student athletes. The sessions combined members of the current rowing teams with adaptive athletes in an eight-person shell, with the four adaptive athletes sitting in the middle four seats of each craft.
The University of Illinois seems to be ahead of the curve, but the NCAA is currently studying how to expand adaptive athletic programming as a means to provide equitable opportunities for adaptive student athletes.
I ask Darling if my feeling of déjà vu—that these developments mirror the programmatic changes that Title IX brought to schools and universities after its passage in 1972—was out of place. “Not too far off,” he says. In fact, the Rehabilitation Law of 1973 guarantees equal access to extra-curricular opportunities for all students, regardless of physical ability. Several state and federal lawsuits in recent years have challenged the lack of equity for student-athletes that would need adaptations to participate in school sports.
Darling keeps telling me stories, and I can barely keep up with him. “We’ve got to change the culture in rowing,” he says. He tells me the story of a commercial he saw recently, with “four guys in wheelchairs playing basketball.” At the end of the clip, three of the guys get out of the wheelchairs and walk off the court while the fourth athlete rolls off.
“Everybody’s got to work together. It’s not just ‘able-bodied’ and ‘disabled,’” Darling interrupts himself. “I jumped in a double with a trunk-and-arms rower the other day. You get an appreciation of what they go through every day,” he says.
“One of the military rowers, Collin Raaz, had been a sniper in the military, and now, after he got out, he was a composite engineer. He was at one of the adaptive camps and we started talking about equipment.”
Soon, Darling and Raz took a road trip to Ted Van Dusen’s office. Van Dusen is a renowned boat builder, and the three of them began talking about hull changes to make adaptive shells faster and more responsive, while still maintaining the safety factor of the rigger-mounted pontoon.
“I asked Ted, ‘Would you help us design a boat for arms-and-shoulder rowers? Think outside the box.”
Even though FISA standards for adaptive boats set limits on hull design, Darling is beginning to consider what it would be like for the adaptive programs if an adaptive athlete could move a shell from the boathouse to the water on their own.
“Think about it, it’s what we all want,” he says, “to be independent. What if we could design a 20-pound boat with collapsible riggers?”
I think back to the redesigned bobsled the United States used in the 2014 Winter Olympics. They took their old equipment and challenged renowned designers to make it faster, all while staying within the constraints of the design standards.
“The 10,000-hour-rule still applies,” Darling continues. “I was working with a single-leg amputee recently. He was six-foot-two, a powerful rower on the erg. He won his event at C.R.A.S.H.-B.s. He wanted to get on the water, to see how far he could go. I feel like a matchmaker sometimes,” Darling smiles. “‘I’ll help you find a partner,’ I told him. ‘Train near where you live. You don’t have to take time off work. Just get in the boat.’”
Darling reminisces about another time. “I remember rowing at my first national team training camp. It was 1979, and this Marine showed up. He kicked it on the erg, and I thought…” Darling trails off, lost in the memory. “It was scary, for a second, but he couldn’t put it together in the boat.” I can hear the relief in Darling’s voice, even after 35 years. “These guys have to learn that. This sport can hammer you. But they’ve got to learn to relax, to ‘get’ the rowing stroke.”
I ask Mark McAndrews, who leads Concept2’s adaptive rowing program development, about the evolution of adaptive programming in the United States.
“For Tom it can’t happen fast enough. He’s developing programming to be the base of the pyramid. Adaptive rowing was struggling until it became a Paralympic sport in 2008. That was the same year the bill to fund the development of community-based adaptive programs for disabled vets was introduced.” That’s the bill that created over 200 local adaptive sports programs.
“That was landmark legislation. They were wise enough to make the programming community-based— focused on veterans, but open to all adaptive athletes. That’s one stream, but I don’t know that it will find all of our elite athletes. The other way is through the use of the indoor rowing machine. The machines were developed completely outside of adaptive rowing, but they’re great training tools for those athletes. Adaptive rowers said to us, ‘We want to play too. You get us to the starting line, and we’ll get to the finish line. So now we work to include adaptive events in as many indoor regattas as possible.”
I ask Tom Darling how he’ll know if he’s been successful with the development of para-rowing in the United States. “Oh, it’s very clear. I’ll be judged by the number of medals we bring home.”
From inclusion in the Paralympics in 2008 to the advent of support for returning veterans to the culture of inclusion in local clubs and indoor regattas and, in the future, possible NCAA programming, adaptive rowing is experiencing a boom that will ensure the U.S. not only brings home more Paralympic medals, but that it offers opportunities for every athlete at every level to train, race, and develop.
I ask Tom Darling how he’ll know if he’s been successful with the development of para-rowing in the United States. “Oh, it’s very clear,” he says. “I’ll be judged by the number of medals we bring home.”