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Breaking Ground

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS.COM

Two years ago, when Taylor Roberts became the first para-athlete to row in Philadelphia’s Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta, she had no idea that she would be paving the way for the iconic collegiate contest to add para-rowing events to the official schedule—or that she would be leading the effort.

But the experience—for both Roberts and regatta organizers—has led to just that. For the first time in the regatta’s long history, para events will be offered as part of the program for 2020. And, unlike the past two years, when they were an inclusion, or special exhibition, event, schools will be able to use points earned in the races toward the overall points award—the Temple Trophy. 

“I had no idea that my racing at Dad Vail would be the catalyst for all this change,” Roberts said. “Of course, I had hoped to lead by example and see other athletes join me in the following years, but I never imagined that I’d be in the position I am now in terms of outreach. It’s definitely been the best-case scenario, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”

The idea of adding para-rowing to the regatta had been under discussion among coaches and para community members for a few years prior to Roberts being allowed to row in 2018. One of those folks happened to be Tim Nesselrodt, Roberts’ coach at Richmond Community Rowing in Richmond, Virginia. 

Nesselrodt, who is also the head rowing coach at the University of Richmond, in addition to being a coach and executive director at Richmond Community Rowing, had prior experience coaching a para-athlete. Cole Sydnor, who was rendered a paraplegic when he suffered a traumatic spinal injury in a 2011 diving accident, joined Nesselrodt’s university squad and became the first para-athlete to officially participate in a collegiate regatta when he raced in the 2017 Rocketts Landing Regatta, a collegiate event hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University.

Nesselrodt helped introduce Roberts to para-rowing almost two years after she was severely injured in a car accident in 2015. Under Nesselrodt, Roberts grew to love para-rowing, and with her coaches’ help, embarked on a journey she hopes will lead to a spot on a future U.S. Paralympic team. In looking for ways to increase Roberts’ racing experience, Nesselrodt approached the Dad Vail organizers and was granted permission to enter Roberts in the 2018 event. Roberts, who is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, had seen her school’s club crew team practice and race and was excited about the opportunity. 

“I got a late introduction to rowing, and I watched other college athletes and other college teams and the experiences that they were having, and I felt like I really missed out on that,” Roberts said. “So being able to row in the Dad Vail filled that hole.” 

Roberts was the only athlete in the 2018 event, but her performance over the full 2,000-meter course impressed race organizers. A year later, she was asked to become the regatta’s coordinator of para-rowing and to help pave the way for para events to be added to the schedule. Last spring, Roberts led the effort to have 15 athletes from both club and collegiate programs to row in a first-year exhibition event.

“This is a very big deal,” said regatta president James R. Hanna, who added the hope is that with points on the line, schools will begin to add para-athletes to their rosters.

“This is going to be life-altering for para-rowing at the collegiate level,” Hanna said. “We’re going to let those races count to our overall points trophy, and when schools see that they can get points toward the points trophy, hopefully, those programs will begin to recruit athletes for adaptive rowing.”

Hanna said that having the Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta become the first major collegiate spring championship to have para racing fits neatly into the historic mission of the regatta, which was founded as a way to provide a spring championship for smaller colleges than those that race in the NCAA or IRA championships. 

Hanna said the specific details of events and race format should be ready prior to entry packages becoming available for the 2020 regatta. He said he believes the interest will be sufficient to fill events once the message gets out that the races are being added.

The hope, beyond having para-rowing as a Dad Vail event, is that the effort will help develop the sport collegiately. Nesselrodt is among those who believe that will happen. “I would love to see this be available to other collegiate programs,” he said. “It’s not that challenging to put it together.” 

Among those watching the development and hoping it has an impact on para-rowing internationally is Tom Darling, USRowing’s senior director of national para programs.

“It’s a huge deal,” Darling said. “Philadelphia has always been at the forefront of supporting adaptive rowers in every aspect, and adding adaptive [rowing] to Dad Vails is a huge step. This should incentivize coaches and their athletes to seek out that student with an impairment to be part of their team, and an integral part of the team if the adaptive entries add to the overall success of the team.”

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