BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
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It was a warm and seemingly quiet night on July 19, 1998, when the life of Dwayne Adams changed forever. Having just pulled up to his mother’s house in North Philadelphia minutes before, Adams was sitting outside on her steps to take in the summer air when a stray bullet entered his left eye and lodged behind his right eye. Adams was caught in the crossfire of a shooting, and the incident would leave him with only one eye, partial sight in his right eye, and no sense of smell. That’s how it started, but that’s not how it ends.
In fact, that’s not even the story Adams tells me at the beginning of our conversation. When I ask about his life and the series of events that led him to become the founder and executive director of Breaking Barriers Rowing & Fitness in Newark, Del., Adams inhales and tells me a different story: about the moment he fell in love with rowing.
“I was watching the Olympics, track and field, and right after that, they showed a rowing event. I thought, ‘What is this?’ The boats were lining up, they named the countries, and then pow! the boats took off. My eyes opened up, and my heart started racing. I found myself swaying back and forth. When they got to the finish line, it was like a drug. I wanted more. The coverage switched back to track and field. and I just wanted them to show more rowing. That was it for me.”
This happened well before his accident, but as fate would have it, that glimpse of rowing would profoundly change his future.
“I spent a month in the hospital after my accident. And when I got out, I had to go to rehabilitation to help me learn how to use a cane, because, at the time, they didn’t know how much vision was going to come back.
“They also wanted to teach me braille, how to type so I could continue to use a computer, and how to cook safely.
“One woman came to talk to us about fitness programs for people with disabilities. She said they had tandem bike riding, but I didn’t want to be on the back of someone else’s bike. She said they had tandem roller skates, but I didn’t want to be on the back of someone else’s roller skates. Weightlifting? Eh. And then she mentioned rowing. ‘Rowing!’ I said, ‘What kind of rowing?’ And she said, ‘Have you ever watched the Olympics?’ and it just clicked.”
Adams’s life was about to change again, and this time his altered path would enable him to change the lives of over a thousand inner-city kids in Philadelphia and Delaware.
Adams begged his mother to take him to the boathouse where the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled trained on the Schuylkill.
“The coach explained what we were going to do, and I got into the boat and just started pulling like crazy. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’m just pulling. And he says, ‘Hold on, Adams. Slow down! We’re going to get you there, but first, we have to teach you the basics.’
“I said OK, so we rowed up the river and back, nice and slow. I got out of the boat and into my mother’s truck and I said, ‘Mom, I love this. I want to keep doing this.’
“As a member, you could go down to the boathouse only a few times a week. I was going down four. And so they got to know me. The coach would see me on a day I wasn’t supposed to be there and say, ‘Okay Adams, we don’t have a lot of people today. C’mon.’ Nine months after I got out of the hospital, I had my first race.”
Adams was 40 at the time. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you start when you were younger? And I say: ‘God didn’t have me row at that time. It wasn’t time for me.’”
The way Adams approaches racing is the way he approaches everything (it’s the “Michael Jordan syndrome” he explains, referring to Jordan’s refusal to be beaten). In his first race, which was 1,000 meters, he and his doubles partner finished second.
“It bothered me. My uncle, a police officer, said, ‘Congratulations!’ and I remember just standing there pissed off. He said to me, ‘What’s wrong with you!’ and I told him ,’ I got second place.’ He said, ‘You’ve never done this before! That means you’ve won.’ and I said, ‘No, I got second place. One of my teammates beat me.’ I looked him in the face and I told him: ‘From this day forward no one will ever beat me. And if they beat me, no one will ever beat me twice.’ That started the burn and desire to better understand the sport and how to get my body prepared to compete with both disabled and able-bodied athletes.”
Adams would go on to row on both adaptive and able-bodied teams in Philadelphia, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. National Adaptive Rowing Team. In 2002, Adams won a bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in Seville, Spain. Coaches from other countries took an interest in him, charmed by his curiosity, and took time away from their own teams to teach him more about the sport.
Adams would go on to row on both adaptive and able-bodied teams in Philadelphia, eventually earning a spot on the U.S. National Adaptive Rowing Team. In 2002, Adams won a bronze medal at the World Rowing Championships in Seville, Spain.
“They would talk to me. They would teach me stuff and tell me things, and I loved it. It was an education. When I came back to the States, I was able to help others with disabilities because I understood rowing in that context. But I could also help able-bodied people as well. And that was a blessing right there.”
After the world championships, Adams coached for various nonprofit programs, including an organization in Philadelphia called The Bridge that helps adolescents and their families decrease substance abuse and live healthier lives.
“They gave me eight boys, so I made two quads,” Adams says. “I would sit with them, talk with them. One day, a Spanish boy said to me, ‘I don’t like him.’ I said, ‘Who?’ and he pointed to a Black kid. I asked him why, and he said, ‘I just don’t like him. If I see him outside, I’ll kill him.’
“So the next day, I put them in the quad together. We had three races. Each boat won one race, and they tied the last. At the end of practice, we’re waiting for the van to come. I’m talking to my rowing coordinator and I see the Spanish boy walking up behind the Black kid. I froze. I couldn’t move. As soon as he got up to him, he put his hand on his shoulder. The Black kid turned around to him and said, ‘You know what? Tomorrow, we’re gonna get them. I got your back.’ A tear fell down my face. Right then and there, I knew that my dream of having my own nonprofit, what would become Breaking Barriers, was going to work.”
“I see the Spanish boy walking up behind the Black kid. I froze. I couldn’t move. As soon as he got up to him, he put his hand on his shoulder. The Black kid turned around to him and said, ‘You know what? Tomorrow, we’re gonna get them. I got your back.’”
Adams eventually took the same group of eight high-school boys to Boathouse Row, so they could learn how to row on the water after months of training indoors at the local YMCA. He recalls a day when the boys were outside the Y and yelled to some young women across the street.
“I said, you’re with Breaking Barriers. You’re a reflection of me. So what you just did? I’m not going for it. You have to control yourself. When you go to Boathouse Row, you’ll have to control yourself there, too.’
“When we got to Boathouse Row, they conducted themselves well. And that’s what these kids need. You cannot take a kid, regardless of race, from the streets right down to the river. It won’t work. When they come to my facility, they’ll get stronger, they’ll learn technique, but they’ll also get the discipline they need for when they go out there. They’re not a Black kid, they’re a rower going to row.”
In 2004, Adams formed his business plan for Breaking Barriers, and by 2005 it was officially established as a nonprofit. Over the next several years, Adams would work tirelessly to secure grants and donations to fund the program, which enabled him to buy equipment and rent space in a building in Philadelphia.
For assistance, he hired and worked with several trainers. Typically, they’d join, then leave for another opportunity, which took a toll on Adams and the program.
“I started working with a local gym teacher who had always wanted to train on his own. He asked if we could work together, and I said, ‘Sure.’ He would help me with the kids and train clients on the side using our equipment, which was a source of income for me and, in turn, the program.
“I had been going to the building every day, and one Saturday when we didn’t have practice, I decided not to go. Around that time, this trainer had stopped paying me. I had told him that if he didn’t pay me, we would have to dissolve the relationship.
“That Monday, I walked into the Breaking Barriers building, clicked on the light, and the only thing I saw was the quad I had purchased on the floor. They took everything. This trainer and his friend took $175,000 worth of equipment that belonged to me, that I had funded over the years through grants and donations. The only thing they left me with were a few rowing machines, spin bikes, and computers.
“The police came and dusted everything. I told them to speak with the council members, state reps, politicians, parents, everyone who had donated over the years to validate that the equipment was mine. Eventually, a detective working on the case told me, ‘It’s his word against yours. It’s a matter of going to small-claims court.’”
He and the building owner mutually decided to break the lease, Adams says, which meant that by the end of its final day he was required to remove all his remaining equipment.
“I needed to get all of my stuff out before they closed the building, because once they put that door down, whatever is in there is theirs. I’m sitting in front of this building, and the U-Haul truck is late. People were walking by asking me if it was a yard sale. It was one of the lowest points of my life. I wasn’t going to do Breaking Barriers anymore. I was that boxer who went for the championship, got beat up, and you never hear from again. That was me.”
But Adams got back up. He eventually moved to Delaware and, encouraged by a good friend and college rowing coach, began rebuilding the program in Wilmington, Del. He reached out to new council people, state representatives and senators, but this time, Adams says, no one stepped forward to provide funding.
“No one wanted to give me money–and this is my opinion–because I’m a Black man from out of state and ‘we don’t know you.’ I can understand and respect that.”
Unsurprisingly, he found another way. With a grant from the state Division for the Visually Impaired, he opened Breaking Barriers again, first in Wilmington, and then, after a move, in Newark, where it operates today.
The mission of Breaking Barriers is to help children, adults, and seniors lead better, healthier lives through education and hard work. His fitness plans involve a thoughtful mix of rowing and cardio with a foundation of strength training customized to each individual’s needs and goals.
“I’m trying to help that kid move onto the next step,” Adams says. “It brings so many challenges, and there are nights I don’t sleep. But there’s a drive within me that tells me to keep going. You have to consider, especially when you don’t see immediate success, all the lives you wouldn’t be able to touch if you stopped. You have to continue to do that. You have to. I have to.”
July marks the 16th anniversary of Breaking Barriers, and next December, Adams will celebrate his 62nd birthday. While Covid has been challenging, he remains committed to his vision and intends to expand to another three to five cities.
“That’s the future of Breaking Barriers. Stay alive now, stay open, fight through COVID and grow.”