Friday, April 12, 2013

Rowing: An Adaptation

I feel it is necessary for me to preface this post by expressing how excited I am about it. See, I joined Portland State's crew (rowing) club in January, and it has gradually—yet rapidly—taken over most of my life, replacing movie nights with optional practices, dreams of flying with dreams of rowing, and, most predominantly, replacing everyday words and phrases with crew calls and boat terminology. I guess I should have expected sooner the day I would write a post on this blog relating to crew. Friends, that day has come.

But it's not entirely because of the way crew sucked me in like the Blob to a frantic bystander that I am writing on such a subject. Last weekend, I was in San Diego competing in the San Diego Crew Classic, and I was walking around, I saw a blind man wearing a competitor shirt. I started thinking, as I am wont to do, about the technicalities of rowing with a disability. In this man's case, I could understand how visual impairment might actually be a sort of advantage, it forcing one to focus on hearing and feeling the other boat members' movements to synchronize movements. But it seemed to me certainly impossible to row with most other physical disabilities, since rowing requires constant use of arms, body, and legs along with uniform movements from all members in the boat in order to keep the boat from tipping (as mine did the other day. Good morning, Willamette River...). However, to my shock and delight, adaptive rowing actually exists!

First, let me give you a quick rundown on non-adaptive rowing. I am most familiar with four- and eight-person boats. In these, there are four or eight rowers, respectively, and one coxswain (that's me!) who faces in the opposite direction of the rowers, steering the boat and making calls. There are also Each rower has one oar that sticks out either to port (which is the left side of the boat if you are facing the front of the boat, referred to as the bow) or starboard (the left side facing bow). The oars alternate, with one going port, then starboard, then port, etc. There are also sculling boats, where each rower has two oars, but I am less familiar with these. The rowers strap their feet to stationary shoes in the boat and sit on impossibly small seats that slide back and forth along a track. This allows them to generate power with their legs as they drive their oars through the water. There is a lot more to it than that, but I think that will be a sufficient introduction for the purpose of this blog.

An adapted boat with a stationary seat and pontoons to create better balance.

Adaptive rowing began in Philadelphia when veterans blinded in World War II competed in an Army versus Navy race. Since then, many programs have been developed to improve and increase opportunities for people with disabilities to row competitively. The first rowing club created solely for people with disabilities, the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled, was created in 1980, and in 2002, the FISA world championships included adaptive rowing in the regular program. Adaptive rowing was also included in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. The sport continues to grow and evolve today.

With adaptive rowing, changes can be made in equipment, technique, and various other aspects of the sport, like the calls made by the coxswain. There are also different classifications of rowers. There are currently four adaptive rowing classifications based on different functionalities: arms and shoulders (AS); trunk and arms (TA); legs, trunk and arms (LTA); and legs, trunk, and arms mixed coxed four for intellectually disabled (LTAIDMix4+). This last one means men and women can be in the same four-person boat with a coxswain. This one is particularly interesting because it allows rowers with intellectual disabilities to compete, too.

People who can use the traditional sliding seat are likely to be in the LTA class, and those who cannot would use adaptive stationary seats and would be in either the TA or the AS class. Members of the TA class might have something like a double leg amputation, cerebral palsy class five, or a low spinal cord injury. The AS class might include athletes who need a chest strap, like people with cerebral palsy class four or those with higher-level spinal cord injuries. Regardless of classification, it is extremely important that rowers, able-bodied and physically impaired alike, push themselves to do the most that they can using all of their abilities. Rowing is extremely physical, but it's truly a mental sport. If you get past the metal blocks that tell you you can't possibly keep going, then you're golden.

I could keep going on, but this post is getting a little lengthy. I shall end with this: Give rowing a try if you are in the mood to push yourself harder, physically, mentally, and emotionally, than you ever have before all while having an amazing time and getting to know people you ordinarily might not meet. That's what PSU crew has done for me and my crew mates. (And, when you think about it, joining a crew team shares a lot of qualities one gets out of MHKC: a new experience, great people, insanely close relationships, physical activity, and the wonderful outdoors! Who could ask for more?) So check it out, my friends! Head over to the US Rowing website's section on adaptive rowing. It's amazing stuff.  

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