Adaptive Rowing: Removing Barriers

Tim Koch, HTBS’s special correspondent in London, writes about the Paralympic Rowing Regatta which starts tomorrow, Friday:

Rowing will make its second Paralympic Games appearance starting on Friday, 31 August at Eton Dorney. Forty-six men and forty-six women will race 1,000 metres in four events, three of which allow for different ‘functional ability’. All the finals will take place on Sunday, 2 September.

It is likely that London will be the first Paralympic Games to sell out. As of 28 August, 2.4 million tickets out of a possible 2.5 million tickets had been sold. I had earlier assumed that I would be able to pick up tickets to the rowing at any time but this was a big mistake, it looks as though I will have to watch it on television.

The first ‘paralell’ games were held in Rome following the 1960 Olympics. These were inspired by the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ for disabled British war veterans which started in 1948 and held to coincide with the London Olympics of that year. Though it took forty-eight years for rowing to be introduced into the Paralympic programme, starting at Beijing in 2008, the international governing body of rowing, FISA, introduced adaptive rowing to the world championships in 2002. ‘Adaptive’ means that the equipment is adapted to the user rather than the other way around.

The sport is now practiced in 24 countries and Concept 2 and other companies have responded accordingly. In Britain the first rowing club for those with a disability was affiliated to British Rowing in 1998 and there are now twenty-one clubs that offer, or are dedicated to, adaptive rowing. In the years leading to Beijing, UK Sport gave £1.3 million to the Paralympic Rowing Squad and increased this to £2.3 million for London 2012. Eleven rowers are receiving ‘Athlete Personal Awards’ designed to let them focus on their training.

USRowing has twenty-five adaptive rowing programmes currently running in the United States and in 2010 the Head of the Charles in Boston included an adaptive event for the first time.

The four events at Dorney are men’s and women’s single sculls, mixed sex doubles and mixed sex coxed fours.

The single sculls are ‘AS’ class i.e. the rower’s impairment means that they can only use their arms and shoulders to move the scull. Stabilising floats must be attached to the riggers.

Mixed double sculls are ‘TA’ which means the trunk, arms and shoulders can be used.

In the ‘LTA’ mixed coxed four the rowers may use legs, trunk and arms as is usual but they qualify by having an impairment which affects their ability to row. According to the British Paralympic Association website:

All impairment groups except athletes with learning difficulties are eligible (but the latter) look set to compete in Rio after an (International Paralympic Committee) vote in 2009 reinstated athletes with learning difficulties in four sports including rowing.

The cox is not required to be disabled and no more than two of the rowers may have a visual impairment. In the much fancied British four, James Roe and Naomi Riches are partially sighted, Pamela Relph has arthritis and David Smith has a fused ankle.

I do not know what the view of the Paralympics is outside of Britain but the excitement and anticipation here is palpable. In a very short space of time I, like many others, have changed the way that I view disabled people and sport. The Paralympians themselves have brought about this advance by their obvious total commitment to their training and to their ultimate goal. Many people no longer view them as ‘disabled athletes’, but see them simply as ‘athletes’.

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