Universities are probably the strongest source for recruiting and resource for nurturing the highest standard of rowing talent in the world, and yet, pararowing at universities is virtually non-existent. Years ago, the boats that went onto row for their country in the Olympics were essentially the top university crews plucked wholesale. University was where I was introduced to the sport as was so many of my colleagues in the sport.
Also, as adaptive and pararowing grows and the younger generation starts picking it up in the junior ranks, the enthusiastic and successful ones will need a rowing career path to progress to. Private training and club training is an option, but the top university programmes offer resources and an environment of intense training and camaraderie that is hard to match. At Marlow RC, I am working with pararowing junior star Georgia Walker who is in the middle of her A Levels preparation and looking to continue her rowing at university so I am especially interested in the area.
One of the trailblazers in university pararowing is Pearl Outlaw, a PR3-VI athlete who rows at Ithaca University (she is in her final year there) in New York, USA. I reached out to her to learn more about her experience and help start my broader research. She shared the following reflections.
First, I believe I am the first para rower to come through Ithaca College, but I am not sure if other sports teams have had disabled athletes. I definitely think my being on the team raised their awareness and support of para sports as I have shown them a lot of adaptive tech (like the Concept2 app that I can connect to the erg screen to audibly hear splits, meters, stroke rate, etc).
Second, they pretty much treat me like any other athlete, adapting things if needed but not singling me out or giving me special treatment. So I really feel like an equal member of the team. One of the adaptations they have been providing is a one-on-one coxswain during tests and particularly chaotic sprint workouts. They have also added some raised areas on the edge of the dock ramp so it is easier to use my cane, and they have provided me with a one-on-one launch when I am rowing a single. Most of the time there are so many athletes in small boats compared to coaches, so I do not row a single often, but they also have not discouraged me and are all for it on days with less traffic on the lake. They have kept me in stroke seat or seven seat most of my freshman/novice year, but have pushed me to row in different seats and I’ve learned to follow. I can now confidently row in any seat of a boat and follow the other athletes by sound as well as train on sliders with no trouble. I can also rig and load/strap boats alongside my teammates, so no special treatment on race day which contributes to my feeling like any other team member.
The advice I would give to someone coming in to a collegiate program is:
- Meet the coach before making a final decision. Meet the team as well if you can. I chose Ithaca after having lunch with some of the women and my coach. I felt so comfortable and already a part of the team right off the bat. They were so welcoming, and that is why I committed to the school.
- If you do not have this opportunity and a coach is doubtful of your ability, just advocate for yourself. All you have to do is state clearly what you need to succeed and execute the best you can. Over time they will see that you are just a capable as a sighted or able person. It is definitely scary. For example, I ran to our tryout run freshman year without a guide and got lost. I had to find my way back to the boathouse all because I was too nervous to ask for someone to stay with me for the run – ha ha. A lot of times, people doubting you just comes from an uninformed place. You might be the first person with an impairment they have ever interacted with and most of the time they are more worried about you hurting yourself than being un-inclusive or mean. Long story short, find a place you feel at home where the people are supportive, and advocate. There is nothing wrong with simply telling someone what you need to perform at your best.
Over the next couple of months I will be doing extensive research into the top UK and USA rowing programmes and the degree to which they do or might support pararowers. If you are a university which would like to be included, please drop me a line at email@example.com.