2 March 2020
By Göran R Buckhorn
The Regatta Director of the 2020 Sarasota Invitational Regatta says that two blind and deaf rowers in a double sculls had an ‘unfair advantage’ using Bob Berry’s Remote Coxswain racing against able-bodied athletes. Göran R Buckhorn disagrees.
Linda and James Mumford might not be familiar names in the American rowing community.
They married in 2005, when they were 52 years old. James had rowed since 2001, while Linda had never touched an oar. Everything changed when they decided to spend their honeymoon at the rowing camp in Craftsbury Common, Vermont.
Rowing didn’t come easy for Linda and James. They are both born with Usher’s syndrome. This is a condition which is characterized by partial or total hearing and vision loss that get worse over time. Both of them have limited hearing: Linda has cochlear implants and James has duel hearing aids.
Being blind meant that while rowing, they needed someone to steer their boat or row in a boat with other crew members. But with no sight and limited hearing, it’s not easy to follow another person’s stroke.
Everything changed when they met Bob Berry, whom the HTBS readers will remember is a rowing coach in Connecticut and the innovator of the Remote Coxswain. Bob has been featured on these pages before when we told the story of how he had coached the teenager Sofia Priebe, who is diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA) at a very young age. LCA is a rare eye disease that can appear at birth or in an early stage of a child’s life and leads to a total loss of vision. Bob developed a ‘remote coxswain’ device, which allowed him to remotely steer Sofia’s single scull from a launch that followed her boat. The device also allowed her to race in a single scull at regattas in New England and in the same boat class as able-bodied athletes.
Last year, Linda and James met Bob at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida. Bob installed a Remote Coxswain on a double sculls that Harvard coach Harry Parker once gave him. ‘Once Harry learned I was coaching adaptive rowing, he was generous with used equipment and gave me the boat,’ Bob Berry told HTBS in a telephone interview from Sarasota. ‘I wish he was here to see the steering system at work.’
Bob let the Mumfords use the double sculls and began coaching them from a launch. Bob has a microphone with which he is in contact with James, who in turn has a microphone with which he is in contact with Linda.
They made great progress and their efforts caught the eye of several media outlets in Florida, which ran features on them, especially since Linda and James, now both in their mid-60s, decided to take part in the 11th annual Sarasota Invitational Regatta (SIR) on 21-23 February. The regatta is hosted by the Sarasota County Rowing Club with support from Benderson Development and Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, Inc. (SANCA).
In time for the regatta, more than 1,600 rowers – youth, masters and adaptive crews from the Northeast, South and Midwest – had gathered to take part in this three-day event at this state-of-the-art rowing venue with an eight-lane course.
A couple of months before the regatta, a friend of Bob Berry, Bob Whitford, who is the director of facilities and operation at Nathan Benderson Park and an old rower and rowing advocate, contacted Norm Thetford, SIR’s director, to ask if Linda and James could race in the able-bodied mixed double event using Bob’s remote-controlled steering system. Thetford said yes.
However, then there was a fly in the ointment.
On the morning of Linda and James’s 1,000-metre race, Thetford had changed his mind. He contacted Whitford to tell him that he was under the impression that only one in the Linda/James crew was blind and that they would race in the so-called inclusive event where one rower is blind and the other is sighted. Thetford added that he had never heard of the Remote Coxswain system. Thetford said that if Linda and James decided to race in the able-bodied mixed double event with the Remote Coxswain, ‘they would not be able to medal due to them having an “unfair advantage”,’ Bob said. ‘I can’t understand his judgement call that morning,’ he added.
Thetford gave the Mumfords the option to race later in the inclusion double sculls, which had all male entries, where they would be able to medal. ‘Linda and James opted to row in the mixed doubles to prove my steering system and prove that blind people can compete against others with vision,’ Bob said.
‘The disadvantage for Linda and James is they are hearing impaired. Linda can only hear James through a microphone that transmits to her cochlear implants and James can only hear me through a microphone attached to my collar. If anything, they have a real disadvantage of being blind, and any use of the rudder will technically slow them down. So where is the “unfair advantage” here?’ Bob asked.
‘It was very windy, and they got a bad start. When it was time to start rowing, James thought he was hearing “don’t row”. They lost approximately 15 seconds at the start. This was a real disadvantage,’ Bob said with frustration in his voice.
Strangely enough, the top modern speaker system with a loudspeaker at every start ponton was not used for the Mumfords’ race.
‘If the race starting official had used the speaker system instead of one single megaphone, Linda and James would have heard the “sit ready” and “row” commands,’ Bob said. ‘These are all lessons we need to pay close attention to – because while we take these senses for granted, Linda and James can’t do that.’
For an event which would like to see itself as, ‘one of the premier regattas to kick off the outdoor sprint racing season and is designated as a U.S. Rowing Nationally Designated Regatta’, the snafu with the speaker system and Regatta Director Norm Thetford’s unexpected U-turn regarding the use of Bob’s remote device for the Mumfords’ race would call that claim into question.
On top of that, the regatta organising club, Sarasota County RC, a masters-only rowing club located at Blackburn Point in Osprey, Florida, is also home to the Sarasota Adaptive Rowing Program (SARP), which mission, according to the programme’s website, ‘is to provide disabled veterans and other disabled athletes with year ‘round opportunities to build physical fitness, self-esteem and community connections through rowing’.
Furthermore, one of SARP’s two primary strategic goals is to ‘provide disabled athletes with the opportunity to learn, practice and compete in the sport of rowing in a safe, supportive and accessible environment with professional coaching and appropriate equipment and facilities.’
The only way to see how SIR acted in the case of Linda and James Mumford is that the regatta miserably failed to support these two blind and deaf master rowers in their endevour to race on equal terms against fellow able-bodied rowers. SIR Director Norm Thetford showed both lack of good judgment and tact. What a shame.