BY SOFIA SCEKIC
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Of all the physical feats in outdoor adventure, one of the most difficult is summiting Mount Everest. Only 700 to 800 people climb the mountain successfully each year. But there’s another feat that fewer people know about, and even fewer people complete: rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.
In early December, 44 teams—a total of 131 people, or less than 20 percent of the number who climb Mount Everest—will attempt to complete the 3,000-mile Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, an annual row from La Gomera in Spain’s Canary Islands to Antigua. Among the teams is Fight Oar Die, a group of United States Air Force veterans who are hoping to inspire other veterans to live their lives after the military—instead of taking them.
Chad Miller, William Janssen, Nicholas Rahn, and Thomas Hester, the four members of this year’s Fight Oar Die team and the first all-Air Force veteran team in the history of the race, all joined the Air Force shortly after high school. Janssen, Miller and Rahn were stationed together in the United States and met Hester when they all deployed to Iraq in 2008. Rahn, Miller, and Hester worked as heavy-weapons operators, while Janssen worked in detainee operations. All four admit that they struggled with mental-health challenges after serving between six and 16 years, a common story for veterans. Studies have shown that between 10 percent and 30 percent of returning service members suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while numerous others are afflicted by depression and psychological ailments. “Getting out was pretty rough,” Rahn said. “It got to the point where I had gotten into some drugs and pretty much destroyed myself, and my marriage was imploding. I actually attempted suicide in 2015. I was one of the lucky ones.”
That moment was a wake-up call, Rahn said, that motivated him to begin practicing mixed martial arts, working his way up eventually to the fifth-ranked welterweight in his home state of Minnesota. “From there, I just kept building my program and eventually created a program that helped me with mental health whenever I started to struggle,” Rahn said. “I began to realize that my program was actually helping other veterans, too.”
In 2019, this inspired Rahn to start Warriors Next Adventure (WNA), a nonprofit that aims to help veterans overcome PTSD through recreational therapy. Miller reconnected with Rahn around the time WNA was launched after dealing with his own mental-health challenges. He had spent 16 years in the Air Force, but unlike the other three, he separated active and joined the reserves before coming back active later and joining a gunner unit based in his current hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. He separated again in July 2022 after he and the Air Force “could not come to terms with rowing for veterans’ mental health.”
Rahn took Miller and several other veterans to climb Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks after Miller reached out while he was in a “dark place,” and Miller eventually joined WNA as an ambassador. Hester also got involved with WNA as an ambassador and led several mountain-climbing trips for veterans in Colorado. “All of us use [WNA] as a therapeutic way of getting back to where we need to be,” Miller said. As part of WNA, Rahn hosts the “Warriors Next Adventure” podcast. “What I do is interview veterans who have done awesome things to help spread the word and let other veterans know there are many different avenues we can take when we get out of the military, and I just want to show them some,” he explained.
One veteran he interviewed in 2020 was Bryant Knight, the founder of Fight Oar Die, a four-person, all-American, all-military veteran team that competes annually in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. The organization’s mission is to send teams of United States veterans to participate in extreme challenges to demonstrate what it means to reach one’s full potential as well as to raise awareness and support for the cognitive, behavioral, and physical health of veterans.
The first trans-Atlantic race took place in 1997 as 30 teams left Tenerife in the Canary Islands and 24 teams reached the finish line in Barbados. In 2012, the Atlantic Campaigns organization took over race management, and participation in the race since has grown steadily. “These races are a platform to shine a light on the sport of ocean rowing and the inspirational human beings who face the impossible to achieve their dreams,” Carsten Heron Olson, the director and CEO of the race, has written. “Every year, lives are changed. It’s a transformative experience; the rowers we wave goodbye to in La Gomera are not the same who step on land in Antigua. On top of this, an astonishing $3.5 million was raised last year for charities across the world.”
Miller listened to the interview with Knight and, Janssen said, reached out to Fight Oar Die to ask whether he could participate if he put together a team. The organizers from Fight Oar Die said yes, so Miller contacted Rahn immediately to ask whether he would form a team for the 2022 race—despite the fact that neither one of them had any rowing experience. “I watched the videos for the Atlantic Campaigns for probably two or three days nonstop and I couldn’t shake the idea of doing it,” Miller said.
Rahn’s initial response was no, partly because he and Janssen were planning to row more than 150 miles down the Saint Croix River in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. “Will called me and he’s like, ‘Dude, we’re freaking out about 155 miles, and these guys did 3,000 miles across the Atlantic?’” Rahn said. “I’m like, ‘Let’s just start with the St. Croix and we’ll go from there.’”
“At the time, I listened to [Rahn’s] podcast, and I’m like, ‘Man, [Knight] is crazy,’” Janssen said. “We’re doing 155 miles down a river, it’s not that tough. Maybe in the future we should do something a little more exciting. This guy is super-inspiring, but there’s no way I’m ever going to row an ocean. That’s just dumb.”
Miller wouldn’t give up on the idea, however, and called Rahn again a couple weeks later to convince him to participate. “He’s like, ‘How is your slogan [at WNA] going to be “explore everything” and you’re not going to do this ocean row with me?’” Rahn recalled.
That was enough to convince Rahn, so he gave Hester and Janssen calls to try to convince them as well. Although neither of them said yes outright at the beginning, each of them asked several questions, which was enough to convince Rahn and Miller that they had a four- person team to enter the race. Neither Hester nor Janssen had any rowing experience either, so after entering the race, all four set out to learn how to row, nearly two years before the race was scheduled.
On top of learning how to row, the team had to secure sponsors to fund their two-year journey. Fight Oar Die already had a boat because the organization had fielded teams in previous years, so this year’s team of four was tasked with raising $80,000 to cover the race entry fee, the cost of shipping the boat to Europe, and more.
After Miller separated from the Air Force for the first time, he went to school for an automotive degree and later worked for West Herr Automotive Group in Buffalo. He approached the owner and asked if he wanted to sponsor part of the boat. The owner asked what other sponsorships were available, and after Miller told him a full sponsorship could be had for $80,000, the owner of West Herr decided to foot the entire bill. The team has now raised close to $115,000, much of which will be donated to Fight Oar Die.
Hester and Miller both learned to row at the Buffalo Scholastic Rowing Association in Miller’s hometown, and the group has been doing most of their training on Lake Superior. The boat, which looks different from a typical rowboat, has been stored primarily at Janssen’s cabinet shop in Webster, Wisc. The team also traveled occasionally to Mobile Bay, Ala., for ocean rowing, and between the two locations has completed more than 120 hours of training. They have trained together for about 10 days a month since February, Janssen said, and have completed numerous online safety and training courses offered by the Atlantic Campaigns. Each rower has developed his own personal training plan to prepare for the race. Several are doing yoga and stretching to cope with the cramped quarters on the boat, while others are focused on adding pounds in anticipation of the inevitable weight loss. On average, rowers lose about 18 pounds during the race, as they burn nearly 5,000 calories each day.
Training on Lake Superior has been helpful, Jansen said, because on both Superior and the Atlantic the weather changes suddenly. “One day we went out, it was evening, and it was like glass out there,” he said. “We were doing our two-hour shifts, because that’s what we’ll be doing on the ocean in pairs. I had crawled into the cabin to take a nap and I woke up to Tommy banging on the hatch. I got up and we went from glass to five-foot waves in a matter of six hours.”
The boats used for the row are designed to right themselves if they capsize, so although the team may experience up to 30-foot waves, they can hunker down in the cabin safely and wait out heavy seas.
Poor and rapidly changing conditions are not uncommon, and all teams that participate face weather-related challenges. Mat Steinlin, one half of the pairs team Row4Hope that completed the 2021 race for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, said 2021 was one of the slower years because the weather changed halfway through their race. While everything looked perfect on the surface, with the wind and the waves coming from the back, there was a current just under the surface that was working in the opposite direction. Sometimes called “concrete water,” it makes it extremely difficult for rowers to make much progress.
“Normally you’re doing somewhere in the area of 60 to 70 miles per day,” Steinlin said. “And we were just scraping 50 miles per day.” He and his partner, Ben Odom, rowed solo for most of the race, Steinlin said, alternating between rowing and resting to keep the boat moving at all times.
It’s precisely that unpredictability, though, and the race’s other supreme challenges, that make it appealing to many of those who participate. “Everything that I experience out there is going to be new,” Hester said when asked about what he’s most looking forward to once the race begins. “I have never been on a 30-foot wave. I’ve never been in total absolute darkness when I’m outside at night. I’ve never been scared of sharks. I live in Nebraska.”
“What is my limit? How do I find it? And then how do I overcome it?” Rahn added. “I think I’m also trying to find what scares me.” All four members of this year’s Fight Oar Die team know that awareness of the mental-health challenges of veterans—and particularly suicide among veterans—is crucial. Each day, 22 veterans on average kill themselves, and while numerous organizations in the United States have been successful in publicizing the problem, the members of Fight Oar Die recognize the need for action and hope to set an example of how to live a post-military life.
“The four of us are showing what we’re willing to do to make a difference,” Hester said. “When we hear other people say, ‘Man, somebody should do something about that!’ well, this is us doing something about that, and kind of putting it all on the line by going to row the ocean. If a guy who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, and has never rowed before can go do this, you can go row your own personal ocean and overcome anything that you might be battling right now.”
While training for the race in October 2021, Rahn faced a unique personal challenge: He was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “We all decided that no matter what, I’m rowing with these guys,” Rahn said. “A week after my surgery, they did a scan and they found a large lump in my lungs. So after that, these guys are like, ‘I don’t know, man, you’re still rowing?’ I’m like, ‘Listen, I don’t care if I have to do chemo in the middle of the ocean, I’m doing this.’ Now I’m rowing for people who have suffered with testicular cancer.”
After several scans, the lump in Rahn’s lungs disappeared, so he was able to avoid chemotherapy, and his training remains on track.
Each team that participates raises money for a chosen charity, and the four men from Fight Oar Die are doing so for their parent organization. Fight Oar Die not only tries to raise awareness about veteran mental health and suicide but also offers a Mental Health First Aid program that helps people recognize when veterans are experiencing mental-health and substance-abuse problems so they can help. Miller is an instructor for Mental Health First Aid after becoming certified several months ago.
Steinlin’s advice to this year’s rowers is to “just enjoy it. Just really take it in,” he said. “It’s not about records because you don’t have any influence on the weather. Just enjoy the time, because as soon as you arrive, you start feeling like you would love to be out there again.”
Steinlin enjoyed the Atlantic race so much that he has entered the inaugural Pacific Challenge scheduled for next year as part of a mixed team of four. All three of his teammates also participated in the 2021 race. He called the row a “life-changing experience” that reduces daily existence to the basics. “You’re eating, sleeping, rowing, and that’s about it,” he said. “You really have time to take all that in.”
The men from Fight Oar Die, along with 43 other teams, will embark on their row from the Canary Islands on Dec. 12. Until then, the team will focus on finishing their safety courses and personal-training regimens before beginning the journey of a lifetime. “I’m really excited to see how far my body and mind can go and the feeling of accomplishment of the other three when we get to the other side,” Miller said. “Knowing that we did this together is something we’ll all share for a long, long time.”