Glide along like a Swan

Tom Aggar of Great Britain will compete in the men’s adaptive single sculls event in the upcoming Paralympic Games at Eton Dorney. He will defend his championship title from the 2008 Paralympic Games. Aggar is also a four-time World Champion in the boat class (2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011). Photo: British Rowing.

A week from today, on Friday, 31 August, the Paralympic Games are starting in London, with the rowing at Eton Dorney. Read more about the athletes and the regatta on FISA’s website here. Adaptive rowing has been around for quite some time now. Here is an article about a ‘disabled rowing’ regatta held in Oxford almost three decades ago. Author is Chris Dodd, famous rowing historian at the River and Rowing Museum, rowing journalist and writer, who had this piece published on 19 September, 1984, in his newspaper at the time, The Guardian. Thank you to Chris for allowing HTBS to re-publish it.

19 September, 1984

Chris Dodd

Rowing is a sport that could offer much to the disabled. Here Christopher Dodd reports on a British initiative to grant them freedom of the river:

Trevor Cox was penalised for using his leg to move his sliding seat during a recent sculling race on the Isis. It’s the only leg he’s got, but his two-legged opponent had no power in either of his. They were taking part in Britain’s first regatta for the disabled at Oxford, a remarkable day of courage and enjoyment. No one bar Bob Glendinning, who is partially blind as a result of multiple sclerosis, had been in a boat three months before the event.

A rowing club has been set up by Oxford and District Sport and Recreation Association for the Disabled (Oxrad) and Richard Yonge, a researcher at the Radcliffe and past president of Oxford University Boat Club. Two years ago Yonge helped out at the United States Rowing Association’s [now called USRowing] all-Disabled regatta in Philadelphia, where he saw amputees, paraplegics, the blind, victims of spina bifida, cerebral palsy, and the mentally handicapped propelling twin-hulled Rowcats. One of the athletes told him: ‘The good thing about rowing is that on land we are so ungainly when we try to get about, but on the water we just glide along like a swan. Nobody knows you are disabled. In fact, you sometimes forget it yourself.’

Yonge realised that a programme could be run easily in Oxford, where there is water on the doorstep and an army of able-bodied rowers to help out. Last May sculling began for those who can swim in Westminster College’s pool using a single hulled Playboat, a stable learning craft developed for beginners and loaned by the Amateur Rowing Association, ARA [now called British Rowing].

Graham Jones, another past president of OUBC, did some of the coaching. ‘They learned to manoeuvre the boat much quicker than most able-bodied oarsmen,’ he says. ‘There’s only room to take three strokes in the pool before you have to turn round.’ Most are out on the river after three sessions in the pool. At the regatta two of the competitors were using regular sculling boats, and there was a crew event in coxed tub pairs in which able-bodied oarsmen teamed up with disabled rowers. The blind were steered by towpath runners with megaphones, ARA officials officiated, Blues and college oarsmen provided extra manpower, and the watermanship on display was better than that showed by most of those trying their hand at punting nearby.

The Americans have been running programmes for the disabled for some time, and it is to them that we can look to see what can be done. Doug Herland was born in Oregon in 1951 with four broken ribs, a broken collarbone and pelvis. He suffered brittle bones and lived with almost constant breakages until he grew to 4 ft. 8 in. The Catch 22, he says, is that when his bones solidified in puberty there was no muscle to protect them.

A particularly serious swimming accident in his late teens left him in a wheelchair and walking with sticks for five years. But in August he won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games, wedged into the bows of a boat on his back and steering two giant oarsmen in the race of their lives. Herland walked from his boat to have his medal hung round his neck – after seven attempts to get a US team place. His high school baseball coach had suggested coxing to him. Later, he took up weight training and sculling, and he hasn’t used sticks to walk since then.

‘Rowing is excellent for the disabled,’ Herland says. ‘It causes no jarring in the joints.’ After working as a janitor while unpaid rowing coach at the University of Michigan he set up a programme for mobility impaired people called Freedom on the River.

‘If you want to organise something, get a paraplegic,’ he says. ‘If anyone is an expert on organisation, it is a quadriplegic. He has to be, just to go somewhere or do something.’ He has been trying to get Rowing in the Mainstream afloat as a countrywide programme for the able-bodied and the disabled, so far without success. But the schemes that have started have worked wonders for some of the participants.

Herland has sat on a Rowcat with a quadriplegic with no use in his arms and helped him twice up the pool by doing the puling. ‘On the third trip I took my hands off the oar. He realised that I wasn’t helping him. His eyes were full of wonder. “I’m doing this,’ he said. That guy has rowed three miles by himself and no longer has weights on his oars to get the blades out of the water.’

Richard Yonge is blessed with an able body and an enthusiasm for jarring people into joining his project. Oxrad has raised about £500 of the £700 they need to buy their own Playboat, and Falcon Rowing Club has offered them a roof. They hope to stage a demonstration at Stoke Mandeville’s pool soon, and Yonge wants other places with water, pools, a boat, and sympathetic rowers to get started so that they can come and race at Oxford next year.

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