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Regaining Life On the Water

PHOTO AND STORY BY ED MORAN

Patrick Kington remembers the day in 2013 when he knew Blake Haxton was going to row on the U.S. para team. 

Haxton had called to talk about what he was doing and let him know that he had purchased a special seat that would allow him to begin training on a rowing machine and working toward competing in Boston at the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championships. 

He told Kington, one of his former high-school rowing coaches, that his times on the erg were good and getting better and asked him whether he could write a training plan. 

It was a moment Kington had been quietly wanting to happen for at least three years—from the time Haxton suddenly and mysteriously contracted necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as “flesh-eating disease,” and lost his legs up to the hips through amputation in his senior year of high school.

“I was on a jog at Mission Bay, near the (San Diego) Crew Classic finish line, when he called,” Kington recalled. “He said I haven’t told people this yet, but I bought an adaptive seat for the erg and I’ve been pulling some pretty good times and I’m ahead of the U.S. rowing standard. I’m thinking about going to C.R.A.S.H-Bs. Can you write me a training plan?”

“I said I’d be happy to. I was very excited because I had been waiting for him to do this, and when I got home, I told my wife, ‘Blake is going to make the national team.’  I might even have said the Paralympics, but I definitely said the U.S. team, because there wasn’t much doubt in my mind that once he set himself to it, that he was a better athlete than the people he was going to face. It turned out that I was right.”

Kington’s confidence that Haxton could make the national team helped launch a nine-year career representing the U.S. in the men’s para single, an event once called the trunk-and-shoulders single but now named the PR1 single.

Kington was so confident that he agreed to be Haxton’s coach and helped put together a team of athletes who either had rowed together at Upper Arlington High School or grown up with Haxton in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. It included, among others, Kington, his friend and high-school classmate Steve Barthelmas, and former Upper Arlington head high-school coach Chris Swartz.

“That was big,” Haxton said. “He was as confident as he could be about that. Then he figured out the training plan, and Chris, my old high-school coach came in. That core squad kind of stepped up and said, ‘OK, we need to unlearn everything we all know about rowing. We need to think of it as a new sport, and we need to figure it out from the ground up.’”

Figure it out they did. The very next season, Haxton and his team went to the U.S. trials for the World Rowing Championships in West Windsor, N.J., and won the para single event.

Since then, Haxton has rowed on seven U.S. teams, including at five World Rowing Championships and the 2016 Rio Paralympics, where he finished fourth. Next month, Haxton will compete in his second Paralympic —this time in two different sports. 

After finishing the rowing event, Haxton will compete in the Paralympic canoe sprint races, a para sport that debuted in Rio and is suited to Haxton. In fact, so suited is Haxton to the canoe event that these Para Games will likely be his last as a rower. 

Haxton wants to win a Paralympic medal, and at 30, he wants to focus his time and energy on an event where he can accomplish that. After nine years trying to medal in rowing, he realizes that changes in para rowing over the last several years, particularly the PR1 single, have all but put that out of reach.

“I don’t plan on retiring from rowing, not formally, because Paris (2024 Paralympics) is just three years away, and it seems silly to say I’m retiring when I’m still going to be training and competing in canoe. But I don’t plan on going to rowing trials next year. I don’t plan on trying out for the 2022 team. I’m doing the canoe, or at least I am trying to.

“I’m excited to be going to Tokyo to row, and I feel pretty good about it. I’m in about as  good shape as I’ve ever been. But looking back at results from (the 2019 World Rowing Championships), I feel like if I have the best race of my life, I’m probably seventh, and if I have a mediocre row, I’m probably eighth or ninth. That’s just how the spread is right now.

“I’m excited to give it a shot, but the race just kind of is what it is. I’ve complained about this before, and it’s not worth a lot of emotional energy at this point. I’m spending a lot more time in the canoe than in the single because I’m not going to medal in the single. That’s kind of where my head is at.”

What Haxton is talking about is that the para rowing distance was changed after 2017 from 1,000 meters to 2,000 meters, and the rules about how a PR1 rower is seated and strapped into a single shell have evolved in such a way that his competitors have an advantage.

All PR1 rowers are strapped to their seats at the chest and legs, and while they do not have the full use of their legs, not all are amputees. Athletes with spinal-cord injuries, for example, have varying amounts of mobility based on the location of the injury. While their legs are strapped down, they have footboards to push against and can still access some of the muscles Haxton no longer has. In addition, the rules governing how chest straps are fitted have been relaxed so that they allow for more reach from the waist.

Because of broad differences in mobility and impairment, one can argue that within the PR1 classification some athletes are at a disadvantage, says Ellen Minzner, USRowing’s Director of Para High Performance.

“For athletes with a spinal-cord injury, where the injury is located dictates the amount of functional movement,” Minzner said. “Whether it’s a condition like Blake’s or a spinal-cord injury, there are significant limitations in the stroke length the athlete can achieve. We need to look at how athletes are classified and what the parameters are, and whether we need to make changes.”

Future plans, then life intrudes

In March 2009, Blake Haxton was an active 18-year-old high-school senior who had rowed on his school team and was looking forward to going to Ohio State University to study finance and continue his rowing career. He was over six feet tall and fit. He had good grades, lots of friends, and firm plans for his future.

It all changed during a weekend that began with a rec-league basketball game and a slight soreness in his calf that became more painful as time progressed.

“I played basketball that Saturday night, and then the following morning, my buddy Allen Chan, who ended up rowing at Penn, was doing his senior capstone project. It was an adult learn- to-row for parents on the team, and I showed up, but my leg hurt,” Haxton said.

“I told him, ‘I can row, but this thing really hurts.’ I was walking on it, and I was fine walking. But when we went to lunch, they were all saying, ‘Man, you look bad.’ I was really hurting. That was noon on Sunday, and then Monday morning, I went to the hospital. It was strange how quickly it developed.”

Haxton spent the next three months in the hospital, the first month in a coma. He lost both legs up to his hips. The infection spread to his bloodstream and his right arm. His heart, liver, and kidneys failed, and he was placed on life support. At one point, his family was hoping he could stay alive long enough to gather everyone to say goodbye.

But he survived, and Kington was there when he finally woke up. As Kington recalls, Haxton had been slipping in and out of consciousness and had to be told repeatedly what had happened.

“It was like talking to someone who was sleeping and waking up and sleeping.  You could never be sure what he remembered. But he finally woke up.”

Haxton spent the next three-plus years coming to grips with what had happened and getting on with his life. He enrolled at Ohio State and kept in touch with former teammates and then began doing a bit of coaching.

His friends were encouraging Haxton to find a way to get fit again, but none pushed him to resume rowing. “They told me they would be there to help if I wanted to.”

When he was ready, he got a special seat that he could attach to an ergometer and he began getting stronger until he finally called Kington and told him what he was up to.

“It’s hard to believe that was all 12 years ago,” Haxton said. “You know that old cliché, ‘Life happens when you are busy making other plans.’? Well, it’s true.”

From C.R.A.S.H–B Sprints to Tokyo

Not long after he called Kington with the news of his developing fitness, Haxton signed up to row in the para event at the erg competition in Boston. He not only won but also set a new American record.

The next step was buying a boat and getting ready to row in the U.S. trials for the 2014 World Rowing Championships, which, again, he won.

Haxton’s first world-championships experience took place in Amsterdam. He placed fourth, just out of the medals, but the event and the rules were relaxed over the next few years, especially when the race distance was extended to 2,000 meters.

He was fifth in 2015, fourth in Rio in 2016, sixth in 2017, fourth in 2018, and seventh in 2019, where he qualified the boat class for Tokyo by winning the B final.

“There are a couple of big differences from when I started in Amsterdam,” Haxton said. “The first was switching from 1K to 2K. That gives a greater relative advantage to the longer-limbed athletes with more reach, but the bigger thing was that they deregulated the strapping.

“They used to have all kinds of rules around that—how loose it could be, where it had to hit you. People gamed it, but at least, ostensibly, there were rules around it. Now there aren’t any.”

For Haxton to race, he must be strapped to his seat tightly across the chest so he can leverage the stroke off his chest. It is difficult and often painful. At the 2015 World Rowing Championships, while racing to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics, Haxton fractured a rib.

“Once you’re classified into arms-and-shoulders, you can basically do anything you want from a seating perspective. You can look at this year’s last-chance para-qualification races. It looks nothing like the finals in 2014 in terms of stroke rate, stroke length, and seat height. 

“If you’ve got your lower extremities, you can use them, and that’s all there is to it. You can’t push off, but you can engage your hamstrings and your back. Secondly, you’re not anchoring off your chest, so it’s easier to breathe.”

Eager to win a medal in Tokyo, Haxton turned to the canoe sprints and rowed in and just missed qualifying for Tokyo at the 2019 Canoe Sprint World Championship in Szeged, Hungary. That was just a week before traveling to Austria to qualify his para single for Tokyo at the World Rowing Championships, where he finished seventh and claimed a spot for these Games.

This spring, Haxton went back to Hungary for the canoe final-qualification regatta and earned a spot in the para canoe for Tokyo.

Now he is the first para rower to compete in two different events in the same Paralympics. And he is excited about both.

“The canoe last-chance regatta went better than I could have hoped, so that was pretty exciting. And we’re still early enough on the canoe learning curve that there are simpler gains to be had. I’m working with a new paddle and a bit of a new rig—things of that nature that might help a little bit. I was only a quarter of a second out of the medals at the last-chance, and that was the entire field. I’m excited.

No regrets 

While Haxton hopes that some day the rules governing para single rowing will change, he has no regrets about having participated in rowing nor is he disappointed by his results. Para rowing gave him back his athletic career and confidence in every other aspect of his life.

After earning his undergraduate degree at Ohio State, Haxton enrolled in law school there and after obtaining a law degree, pursued a career in finance, working as an investment analyst at Diamond Hill Capital Management in Columbus, Ohio.

How big a part has rowing played in his life?

“It’s been amazing. The places I’ve gotten to go, and the things I’ve gotten to do have just been wild.

“Because I’ve gotten to row, and because I got to be on the para team, it really pushed me outside my comfort zone, and it really pushed me to see I could physically accomplish things. If I hadn’t had that pushing me, I probably wouldn’t have tried.

“And because it pushed me in that way, it gave me a lot more confidence in figuring out where the boundaries were of what I could get done. The first time I got on a plane since I was sick was going to Amsterdam. And then all of a sudden, doors kept opening, and I kept improving and getting better and understanding physically what I could do. It really changed the trajectory of my life.”

His disability has not been the restriction he feared. 

“I’ve gotten to compete. I’ve gotten to test myself. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of great people and make a lot of good friends on the team. 

“No one thought I could compete at this level for this long, or start and finish college and go to grad school. If you leave the amputations, the disability, the illness out, it’s a very rewarding life, which is amazing, given how it started. Twelve years later, I am talking about going to Tokyo. I am just so grateful.”

* Paralympic coverage brought to you by Hydrow.

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