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The Roadmap of Her Life

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

The evening before the 2016 Paralympic final in the PR3 mixed coxed four, Ellen Minzner, then head coach of that crew, discovered one of the profound inequities of Paralympic sport in the United States: If you won an Olympic gold medal, you got $25,000; if you won  Paralympic gold, only $5,000.

These bonuses were awarded by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to American Olympians for podium finishes. Before an inflation adjustment in 2018, Olympians received $25,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. The fact that U.S. Paralympic athletes received just 20 percent of what their able-bodied teammates got for a gold medal triggered in Minzner something that has been a driving force her entire life: a demand for equity.

“I couldn’t believe it. I knew that if you win a gold medal in the Olympics, you’re awarded $25,000. Why wouldn’t that be the case for Paralympians? I looked it up myself, and it was true,” Minzner said.

When she returned from Rio, Minzner and her crew began asking questions, generating discussions, creating awareness, and challenging USRowing and the USOC (as it was then still known) about why Paralympians and Olympians did not earn the same payout for medal performances. At first, there was resistance, with some arguing that the money would be better spent on athlete development than medal bonuses.

“They asked me, ‘Why would we put it toward medals?’ and I told them, ‘The medal is the message. The money for the medal is the message.’” Minzner urged the USOPC to change its policy and make the payouts equal, and she called on USRowing to make up the difference if the Olympic committee balked.

“We were told, ‘Well, that’s really good, but it will never happen in your lifetime.’ And it happened a year later.”

Minzner has a way of making things happen.

Earlier this year, she was appointed full-time director of Para High Performance after a decade at Community Rowing Inc. (CRI) as Director of Inclusion and Advocacy. At CRI, Minzner and her team of coaches and staff pioneered a model for serving people with disabilities, military veterans, and underserved youth that has become a national standard. In addition, Minzner coached the PR3 mixed coxed four, consistently reaching podium finishes, including a silver medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games.

In her new role with USRowing, Minzner will continue to oversee USRowing’s Para High Performance program, which she took over on a part-time basis in April 2019. Her intent is to build a program of sustained excellence for U.S. para rowing across all para disciplines, while keeping her sights set firmly on Los Angeles 2028.

“It’s going to take more than a year-to-year view, and even more than a 2024 view, to get where we want to be. I’m most excited about building a roadmap to L.A. 2028,” she said.

As someone who has lived life one milestone at a time, Minzner has a natural ability to envision. What’s remarkable is the way she realizes every roadmap she conceives. Minzner is about more than setting goals. She decides to do something, and then she does it. It’s been that way since she was young.

Growing up in the old Massachusetts mill town of Lawrence, Minzner was not exposed to rowing until her sophomore year at Villanova University. As a walk-on, she fell in love instantly with the sport and the hard work required. Returning to Lawrence that summer, Minzner was excited about training locally to prepare for the fall season. Since the Merrimack River runs through it, Lawrence, she believed, must have a rowing program.

The town did not (it’s “a prep-school thing,” not “a Lawrence thing,” she was told), so Minzner got into her car and did what any rational person would: She drove along the river until she saw a boathouse.

Eventually, she spied a hand-painted sandwich-board sign that read “ROWING.” It led her to the Lowell boathouse that became Minzner’s home that season. “It was an incredible summer–the kind everyone needs to really be indoctrinated into the sport.”

That summer, Minzner trained alongside Shelagh Donohue, a graduate of UMass-Lowell, who went on to win a silver medal in Barcelona and today leads the University of Rhode Island women’s rowing program as head coach. Donohue will coach the PR3 mixed four in Tokyo this summer.

“We shared our national-team aspirations at the time,” Minzner said. “We had no idea that it would actually become a reality.”

She may not have known it at the time but Minzner was quietly building her most important roadmap, the one that would change the course of her life. After that summer in Lowell, she went on to make the U.S. national team five times, twice as a world champion.

“That summer opened up so many doors for me, doors that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to if I hadn’t just decided that day: ‘I’m going to go find something.’”

Despite her success, or perhaps because of it, Minzner never stopped thinking about her Lawrence roots and the kids back home who may never have the chance to find their own sandwich-board sign.

 “It was always in the back of my mind to keep creating opportunities for people wherever I was,” she said. “I got to see the world; I became a world champion. It was just an incredible path for me, and a lot of it just happened by chance.”

After Minzner retired from competitive rowing, she pursued coaching, taking her first full-time role at Kansas State after earlier stints at Wellesley College and The Winsor School. After a few successful years as an assistant coach at Kansas State and, later, Cal-Berkeley, Minzner came back home. Her mother was ill, and she wasn’t sure collegiate coaching was her calling. She decided to take a coaching position at Girls Row Boston (G-Row), which was the first time she was able to marry her passion for coaching with her need to give back.

“That was the kind of coaching that truly brought together all of the things I loved about coaching,” Minzner said. “Those formative high-school years are so important, and this idea that, in addition to rowing, we helped influence other aspects of these athletes’ lives: academics, personal growth, and the ability to learn about other opportunities outside of rowing. It was a big part of why the program existed, and I loved working on it.”

Minzner laughed when asked if she keeps in touch with the women of G-Row from that era.

 “Yes,” she responded, followed by, “That team was very funny.”

 After back-to-back college coaching posts and her experience as an elite, highly competitive athlete, Minzner approached the team with the kind of intensity they weren’t accustomed to. “I thought, ‘We’re going to go fast. We’re going to do all of that good stuff and go fast.’ And then everybody quit.”

She soon learned that for these young women, who had a deep connection with their former coach, her arrival was a big adjustment. Furthermore, before Minzner began, there had been a coaching gap of several months. In time, she and the girls learned to work together well (and go fast). Today, many of the G-Row women from that era come back each year for an event at CRI founded by Minzner and her colleagues called “Grace, Grit, and Glory,” which highlights the accomplishments of women rowers and the personal and professional success the program’s alumni have achieved since graduation.

“We sometimes think of athletes that come from a program like G-Row [known today as ROW Boston] as the beneficiaries of this amazing program. This event flips that on its ear and says, ‘No, we are the beneficiaries of these amazing athletes who happen to be with us for a short moment during their teenage lives. And look, they went on to do amazing things.’ We need to highlight that and put them in front of those who we hope will be the next generation of a diverse group of rowers.”

At G-Row, Minzner developed a passion for program design, recognizing early on how impactful something like G-Row could be at scale. It drove her to pursue a degree in urban planning part-time at Tufts University and eventually back to Lawrence, where she left coaching for a full-time job managing the community-development department. For over two years, Minzner helped Lawrence elevate the role of sport in community development, but eventually the pull of coaching was too great.

Minzner returned to Lawrence and took over an up-and-coming program called Greater Lawrence Rowing. It was there that she got the call from Bruce Smith, CRI’s executive director at the time. Smith was looking for a director of outreach and he wanted Minzner, specifically, to fill the role. Excited by what it was and could be, Minzner packed her bags and headed back to Boston. It’s where she’s been ever since, and where she will now lead the U.S. para program, based at CRI as USRowing’s Para National Team Training Center.

Minzner’s focus is on developing the depth and breadth of the U.S. para program over the coming years as para rowers work toward Tokyo 2021, Paris 2024, and  Los Angeles 2028.

“My vision for how we will build and professionalize the U.S. para system will be to continue to leverage the collegiate and high-school systems to identify and develop PR3 athletes. For PR1 and 2, we will need to create new pathways for athletes to find our sport and to gain competitive experience. In order to do this, we will rely on the club system across the country and continue to develop para racing at the local and regional level.”

(In para rowing, the equipment is adapted to the abilities of the athlete, and there are three classifications: PR1, for those with arm and shoulder function; PR2, for those with arm and trunk function; and PR3, for those with arm, trunk and limited leg function, and the visually impaired.)

“Competition is an important step, both physically and psychologically, to help athletes prepare for the intensity of racing at the international level,” Minzner continued, “and we need more opportunities for our PR1 and PR2 rowers.”

In addition, Minzner is focused on the multi-sport championships that already exist to attract top PR1 and PR2 athletes to para rowing. As national and regional para events continue to garner interest and excitement, she sees the opportunity both to introduce rowing as a new sport to existing para championships and to recruit crossover athletes from other disciplines.

“PR1 and the PR2 athletes already have a lot of sport options in front of them, and so the crossover can be quite good. Oksana Masters won the first-ever U.S. medal in the PR2 mixed double. She is now a top para Nordic skier and a para cycler. We also have Maddie Eberhard, who’s a young, up-and-coming PR2 rower. As a high-school athlete, she made the USA sled-hockey team. We need to capture these athletes as best we can. We have to.”

It’s a goal, but Minzner’s voice makes it clear that it’s also more: It’s a decision.

What is it that impels her to go after what she believes in with such passion and conviction, fluidly moving from one milestone to the next, methodically creating and following every roadmap? Is it fearlessness?

“I definitely would not say it’s fearlessness. Every time I went to the starting line as an athlete, I would say to myself, ‘Why do you do this? This is insane.’ But I knew that I had no choice but to go full speed ahead. I suppose that, yes, the fear exists in a lot of ways, but when your mission is compelling and important, it doesn’t matter.”

Minzner is quick to acknowledge as well the influence of her upbringing in Lawrence.

“My whole life, people have said to me, ‘You’re from Lawrence? That’s too bad.’ But honestly, I had the best childhood, a wonderful family. People would often try to put down the place I was from for no reason. They weren’t from there; they didn’t know it. And so I think there’s maybe a toughness in me. It’s not that I’m fearless, but there is something to that. To just have an edge about you. To make sure you prove people wrong.”

Minzner’s edge–her belief in herself–has shaped not only her own life but also the lives of the hundreds of athletes she’s coached along the way, as well as the U.S. para team she has committed to lead, now full time.

“It’s the expectation that you should tolerate the status quo. That you should tolerate the fact that Lawrence has less than, you should tolerate that para rowing has less than, you should tolerate that lightweight rowers have less than. The status quo expects you to tolerate that you’re given less. And I don’t like that.”

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