I joined DC Strokes Rowing Club in 2007 to meet people and hopefully find a boyfriend. Instead, I fell in love with rowing. I never considered myself disabled. What’s a little paralysis? After my car accident in 1994, I learned to adapt and live with it. Rowing was added to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. With a lot of encouragement from DCSRC Coach Patrick Johnson, I joined Capital Adaptive to see what it was like to row with other rowers with disabilities. I’m classified as an adaptive rower with functional use of my legs, trunk and arms — LTA.
At the start of 2011, I received an email from USRowing Coach Karen Lewis asking me to submit erg scores for consideration for the national team in the LTA mixed 4+ event. So, with Coach Patrick, I pounded out my first erg scores for submission to USRowing. We then went to the CRASH-B Indoor Rowing Championships. Upon my return from Boston, I received an e mail from Coach Karen inviting me to a development camp at the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center. I went to the camp and upon its conclusion was invited to Selection Camp in Charlottesville, VA in June, 2011.
I went to camp, lost my seat race and left discouraged. Thankfully, I kept racing with DC Strokes. My teammates have no idea how much they helped me overcome disappointment and recommit to making the team in 2012. I also rowed in adaptive sprint races at the Quaker City Regatta, the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta and the Bayada Regatta.
In early July, I received an e mail from Coach Karen asking me to consider moving to Oklahoma City. I pondered it for several weeks. I returned to Oklahoma City with DCSRC for US Master’s National Championships and it felt right. I told my friends about my invitation. Over the course the fall season, with inspiration from my coaches, I realized I had to go for it. My life and career were headed in the wrong direction.
Rowing had become the only thing that brought joy and happiness to my life. I had to see where it would lead. In October, 2011, I was stroke at the Head of the Charles Regatta and Capital Adaptive successfully defended its course record in the LTA 4+ event set in 2010. In early November, I officially applied for residency at the Oklahoma City National High Performance Center and was accepted.
The point of no return came on December 15, 2011 when I quit my job. It was hard to say goodbye but I did. Jump and the net will appear. On January 1, 2012, I packed up my car and left Washington, D.C. I arrived in Oklahoma City on January 2.
I am now in residence with 25 High Performance rowers at the OKC-NHPC. I am currently training twice daily, six days a week, averaging 24 km a day. Those of us, who can, squeeze in work around our rigorous training schedule. Team USA finished 6th in the LTA 4+ at the 2011 World Championships in Bled, Slovenia, eleven seconds behind Great Britain. The boat was prequalified for the Paralympic Games in London. Selection will be May 28-June 10 in Charlottesville, Virginia. All of my efforts are focused on winning my seat race and winning the gold medal for the USA in London.
My training in Oklahoma is overseen by Coach Matt Muffelman. Matt competed in World Rowing Championships from 2005-2010. Bryan Volpenhein, stroke from the 2004 Olympic gold medal winning men’s heavyweight 8+, is the head coach. Jeremy Ivey is the assistant coach and has many small boats qualified in upcoming international regattas. Under their tutelage, I strive to get faster.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that at 37, I am an old fart compared to the other high performance rowers. Most of the time, I feel this is a huge plus. My theatre background taught me the reality of being in a performance based environment. There are no entitlements. I must earn everything. There is always someone smarter, stronger, faster, wiser, and cuter. Once I accepted that, I could let go and just focus on my performance. I happen to believe that the future I am living into determines who I am today. I am working to develop mastery because of what lies ahead, not because of the past.
Living and training at the National High Performance Center is a life altering experience. The focus is physical performance on the water but I cannot ignore the mental shifts that come from this experience. In order for me to be a champion I must think like one. I also have to be myself and to allow myself to be molded by the work I am doing at the NHPC.
A typical day starts at 7 a.m. My first weeks were spent in the double with Andrew Johnson, an adaptive rower from the 2011 National Team. Coach Muff’s focus was correcting my drive. We focused on push-swing to maximize the power in my legs and connection to the boat. We were joined in February by Emma Preuschl also from the 2011 World Championship boat. Our training focus shifted to volume. Our goal by the end of February was to qualify for invitations to Selection Camp by meeting the erg standards set by Coach Karen and USRowing. For men, the standard for 1000 meters is 3:20.0 (min:sec). Women must row 3:45.0 to qualify.
As the winter progressed, my splits started dropping. On February 25, I pulled a 3:16.8. I received a verbal invitation to camp on Sunday, February 27. That was a PR (personal record) for me. Now the thing about a PR is it lives in the moment in which you set it. After that, it lives in the past. I posted it to Facebook and enjoyed my glory for a brief moment. I then set my sights on 3:03.7. This world record was set by US National Team member, Eric McDaniel at the 2012 CRASH-Bs on Sunday, February 19, 2012. Is it possible to drop 13 seconds? Yes, one stroke at a time.
In March, I spent a lot of time in the high propulsion tank breaking down the stroke and using mirrors for instantaneous feedback. Let’s face it, my front end connection (catch) sucks. I battle this demon constantly. On March 23, we had another erg test. This time I pulled a 3:14.8. I was two seconds faster and 5.2 seconds under my standard. As I finished the test, I didn’t feel right. My legs were shaking and my back was sore. When I stood up I could barely walk. Being done for the day, I gathered my things and left the locker room. As I got to the stairs, I clutched the railing with both hands. Pain was radiating from my back all the way down my legs. I had thrown out my back. I would not row for two weeks.
Whenever I injure my back it is around the 3rd lumbar vertebra which is just above my spinal fusion. What I learned from the experience was to seek treatment for an injury immediately. Secondly, and most importantly, is the importance of core strength. I always thought of the rowing stroke as legs then back. In reality, it is legs then abs. The power of the drive created by the legs is transfers through my body to the core and into the arms. My goal is to have kayaker abs!
I got back in a boat on Monday, April 9. We rowed the maiden voyage of our brand new Hudson 4+ that Thursday. I climbed aboard the erg on Friday. This was my first time getting back on the horse after the fall. I started out tentative. By the last seven minute piece, I was pas pulling 1:35.0 splits. It was a mental victory over fear.
Last week, I also learned to row the pair. I love this boat! Low and behold, by some miracle, I learned to feel my connection to the boat and the water. My catches don’t suck anymore! Well, at least not all the time. I intend to build muscle memory this week. I am looking forward to applying what I’ve learned to the 4+ over the next 6 weeks leading up to selection.