How Athletes Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired Can Make an Easy Transition to Rowing
Feeling Like a Fish out of Water? Not Here!
You’re sitting on the hard wooden seat, four seats from the front of the boat and the coxswain. You’re leaning back from the hip, forming a 45-degree angle. Your hands, gripped around the handle of the oar, tightly without clenching, are pressed firmly against your abdomen, tucked just below your lowest rib. Your legs, outstretched in front of you, secured in their shoes, are in gear, ready to press with all your might when your coxswain makes the call.
This is your first time out on the water as a member of your city’s nonprofit adaptive rowing program. Yes, you know you’re fortunate to be living in a nation that provides over 60 clubs and organizations for adaptive rowing training and racing programs for blind and visually impaired athletes.
This is your third week in the boat. You earned your seat fair and square after a series of endurance tests, and your first race is next week. You listen, waiting to hear the next order from your coxswain, as you complete the drill.
“Arms away… pause,” she calls out.”Bodies over… pause. Half-slide… pause. Controlled slides, and… Row.” Your blade grabs the water, feels the resistance, and then plows through, one long steady press. Your legs burn, but the second you feel the fruit of your labor—the water gliding fast underneath the hull—your body thanks you.
It’s a good feeling, using your body to push your boat and your teammates closer to the finish line with each stroke. You did these drills for many months on land, on the ergometer, before feeling comfortable stepping into a boat. Now, you’re getting the full, hands-on experience. Feel how the boat cuts through the river.
The Benefits of Rowing Without Sight
If you’ve never set foot in a rowing shell (the term used for a boat), it may surprise you to hear that rowing is a sport that lends itself quite naturally to adapt to individuals who are blind and visually impaired. Ironically, sighted rowers, especially those rowing in four and eight-person shells, are very familiar with the benefits of rowing without sight. In fact, one of the most popular drills on rowing teams is called, “Eyes-Closed Rowing Drill.” For many, it’s considered one of the most productive exercises.
The drill requires all rowers in the boat to forget all their bad habits that involve their eyes: looking out at their oar, looking at the oar of a team member’s oar, looking behind them to check the timing of the oars behind them, looking at their coach while they give orders. With their eyes closed, they’re permitted to mute all the visual world’s distractions and just row; just listen to the sound of the blades as they pierce the water; just feel the flow of the water underneath the hull; just sense the momentum of the persons in front and behind you and blend with them. What does this tell you? The widespread appeal and productivity of this drill tell us one thing: you do not need your vision to row well. In fact, sometimes, your vision can be a handicap.
Rowing in a single or double (single rower or two rowers in a shell) is a different scenario, as you are typically without a third party—the coxswain—that is steering. In this case, one of the rowers will need their vision to direct the boat. But, for our purposes, we are speaking of the team sport of rowing, a sport that is growing rapidly across the country and making strides to be quite easily adaptable to individuals with physical disabilities and visual impairments or blindness.
History: Rowing Programs for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
After World War II, in October 1945, veterans blinded in battle decided that they wanted to organize an entry into the Navy Day Regatta. Men from the Army, Navy, and Marines would enter blind rowers into the events, and they would race against one another. The scene was empowering to say the least, as these men made the best of their tragic experience at war and then made history. This milestone, which took place on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia set a precedent for adaptive rowing, and though it would take a while to gain worldwide momentum, the seed was planted there.
When the FISA World Rowing Junior Championships included adaptive rowing as an exhibition event in 1993 and 1999, the adaptive version of the sport was finally on the radar of FISA Paralympic Committee. In 2002, adaptive rowing was included in the regular program of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In Rio, there were 48 male and 48 female rowers participating in the Paralympic Games, seven of which represented the United States. Individuals who are visually impaired or blind, paraplegic, tetraplegic, and athletes with amputated limbs are welcome to train and try out to qualify for the team.
At this exciting time for the sport of rowing, programs designed specifically for the visually impaired have been popping up across the country, especially since adaptive rowing was accepted as an internationally recognized sport. Whether the sport is growing as a new branch to an already existing boathouse or club, non-profits and organizations are funding their own projects—renting or buying their own specialized boats—or one athlete, blind or visually impaired, expresses his interest to train independently with one coach or volunteer, the adaptive sport is growing.
As more get involved, the level of competition and training is also improving. At the same time, training techniques, safety precautions, and adaptive technology for disabled rowers are all becoming more advanced. Visit usrowing.org for a list of key programs where you can get yourself on an erg, and eventually, out on the river.
Tips for Getting Connected
Contact the boathouses in your county or city and ask them if they have a program established for adaptive rowing.
If they do not, don’t be discouraged. They may be able to direct you to a boathouse in the area that does.
Or, they may have the resources and personnel to start a program to provide volunteer coaching or guidance as you start your training.
Remember, all you need to start a program is one rower, a borrowed boat, and one volunteer.
Accessible Training Applications for Land Rowing—Erging
Not all athletes attracted to adaptive rowing are going to feel immediately comfortable going out on the water. This is actually true for all rowers, sighted or visually impaired. The first step of acquainting oneself with the sport is through a machine called the ergometer. You may have seen the machine at your local gym, as it’s gaining popularity as a low impact fitness tool for building endurance.
The “erg” as it’s more affectionally abbreviated, simulates the rowing experience as you will sit, strap into (at the feet), and move through the motions. You’ll learn to love this machine or learn to love to hate it as college rowing coaches often say, but it’ll give you the stamina and strength you’ll need before setting yourself into a real boat. On the erg, however, you’ll have sturdy ground to rely on.
One of the primary manufacturers of the ergometer, Concept2, has created several apps to assist visually impaired and blind rowers with their indoor training. These activities are safe, informative, and keep the sport alive with features such as VoiceOver and easily downloadable audio results from your workout.
ErgChatter uses software with a speech output feature that will announce your times and erg scores in regular intervals.
ErgData for iOS and Android devices is a free application that stores and presents the data—rates, scores, interval scores, and results from your workout. You can easily upload your workouts to the Concept2 Online Logbook. If you are running iOS 7, you’ll have the ability to use the VoiceOver feature to announce your workout data.
Whether you decide to row on your own on your ergometer, join an existing adaptive rowing program indoors, or make the leap to start going out on the water with other rowers, you’ll find that sight is not a necessity for rowing.
This sport is one of the best full-body workouts, it can be an independent or team sport, and it’s without a doubt, a sensational way to exercise. Most importantly, vision is not required to participate, improve, enter official racing events, and succeed. Unlike so many other sports, there is no part of rowing that requires you to see what you’re doing. It’s about listening to an internal rhythm, locking into that pace, matching seamlessly those in front and behind you, dropping the blade at the same spot at every stroke—the point of optimal leverage—and kicking like hell.