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Sociologically significant sports (and class assignments)

Adaptive rowing debuts at Head of the Charles Regatta

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She doesn’t even have a disability, but entering the Head of the Charles Regatta’s first-ever adaptive race, Katherine McMackin might have faced the greatest handicap of anyone. The Capital Rowing Club coxswain was charged with navigating a three-mile stretch of river that many consider the most challenging head course in the world, in a four boat whose members had rowed together exactly once.

“Well, we rowed up to the start line,” clarified Natalie McCarthy, who manned the shell’s third seat.

Alright, twice, counting that.

“Everyone comes in knowing that they’re gonna have to change their stroke, which is a great thing because that’s not always the case,” said McMackin, somehow flipping her crew’s nice-to-meet-you status — in a sport that rewards team coordination in the extreme — from negative to positive. “Everyone comes in thinking, ‘OK, how can I get my stroke to match everybody else’s stroke?’ We were just really able to do that on Friday [during practice].”

Two days later, Capital won the 46-year-old regatta’s inaugural adaptive event — open to people with verifiable, permanent disabilities, who have functional use of their legs, trunks and arms for rowing — in 21 minutes, 44 seconds. Two of its rowers, Kathy Byington and Jason Beagle, are from the Washington, D.C. area, where Capital is based; the other two, McCarthy and Aerial Gilbert, are from the West Coast.

The crew needed a couple rowers; a couple rowers needed a crew. The U.S. national adaptive program facilitated the partnership — Gilbert was a national team member from 2002-07, and McCarthy has trained with the team at development camps for five years — but the foursome arrived in Cambridge without so much as a single synchronized stroke.

Consider it one more obstacle overcome.

“I was paralyzed in 1994 in a car accident, in my right leg, so I relearned how to walk,” Beagle said. “I’m not a runner — it’s not something that I do,” he added, laughing at himself. “But I found that I could row. So, for the last four years, I’ve been competing at U.S. masters, nationals. … This year, I saw [the Head of the Charles] as an opportunity to compete on a level playing field with other adaptive rowers.”

Two other crews, from the Philadelphia Rowing Club and the Cambridge-based Community Rowing Inc., entered HOCR’s adaptive race, bringing first-year athlete participation to a dozen. While the teams rowed for victory — “Next time, we’re gonna win,” said Lisa Boron, who coxed Philly’s second-place four — they also rowed for inspiration.

“For me, to get to be a part of the very first team that gets to row at the Head of the Charles [is special],” said Gilbert, who rowed collegiately before losing her sight as an adult. “I was hoping for years that they would include adaptive events here, and this opens the minds of people in boathouses all over the country, all over the world. And it also gives people the idea who have a disability that, ‘Hey, there is an opportunity for me.’”

Already, more teams are expressing interest in the 2011 event. Many elite adaptive rowers were unable to compete in this year’s Head of the Charles because they were in New Zealand, preparing for the World Rowing Championships, Oct. 30-Nov. 7.

HOCR expects some of those teams, as well as new club teams, to come to Cambridge next autumn, when there will be no scheduling conflict.

“Next year, we’ll definitely have more of a national team presence and Paralympic presence,” HOCR Adaptive Organizing Committee member Rachele Pojednic said. “We’ve gotten calls from Three Rivers, Austin, Canada, California. We’ll have a nice blend of elite and club rowers, and that’s what the spirit of the Head of the Charles is all about.”

Pojednic added that the regatta may expand its adaptive offerings to accommodate a range of ability levels. The mixed-gender, legs, trunk and arms event was the only adaptive race this year.

Whether expansion comes next year or in 10 years, adaptive rowing appears to be entrenched in the Head of the Charles. While the original participants are proud of their pioneering, they are also looking forward to future regattas, when they won’t be such novelties.

“I’ve always been one to appreciate the just-go-and-row [mentality] and set aside all the things that make it different or unusual,” said McCarthy, who went blind at age 10 but rowed with the varsity eight at Pacific Lutheran University. “So, I am pretty excited that they have this event now, and as the years go on, it’ll become more and more part of the event, part of the normal procedure.

“We’re just like every rower here; we’re respected just as much and in the same light.”

From now on, adaptive rowing won’t be new to the Head of the Charles, and Capital’s rowers won’t be new to each other. Not that unfamiliarity — or anything else — ever held them back, anyway.

“It went so well on Friday that we knew that when Sunday came, we were gonna have a great race,” McMackin said.

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Written by callumborchers

October 29, 2010 at 10:59 am

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