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finding resilience

Finding resilience: Para rowers upend notions of ability

Community Rowing Inc. in Brighton, Massachusetts, is the largest public-access boathouse in the country and has a highly resourced, competitive para rowing program. CRI also hosts the Paralympics National Training Camp.Pearl Outlaw, whose vision deteriorated over the course of her childhood, rows at CRI.  Why We Wrote This Fortitude, courage, patience, persistence – all sorts of…

Community Rowing Inc. in Brighton, Massachusetts, is the largest public-access boathouse in the country and has a highly resourced, competitive para rowing program. CRI also hosts the Paralympics National Training Camp.

Pearl Outlaw, whose vision deteriorated over the course of her childhood, rows at CRI. 

Why We Wrote This

Fortitude, courage, patience, persistence – all sorts of individual qualities fuel resilience. But for these para rowers, success depends on more than themselves.

Leading up to that, her coach at Ithaca College pushed her to use all her abilities, moving her from the stern, where she could employ her strength but faced no one, to the bow where she could learn to hear the boat.

“Soon I could listen to everything: the click of an oarlock, the blades hitting the water, the wheels on the seat, the sound of blades coming out, squaring, and feathering,” she says. “Then there is the feeling of how everyone feels in front of you, the pickup of the boat, its weight in the water, and its movement under you. If you practice, you can just feel how everyone is moving.”

“There are always those who look at you like your disability is the entire definition of what you are capable of,” she continues. “Saying ‘I’m on the Para National Team,’ or ‘I do competitive rowing’ – it makes people stop and take me seriously.”

Boston

“Cut the cake, then power 10s to Boston Latin, then we’ll do 3x3s!”

This is the pre-dawn reveille of the Charles River: coded commands shouted at scullers through megaphones by coaches steering miniature sleigh-like motorboats, or peppered with expletives from the microphones of coxswains deep in sweep boats.

Boston takes pride in its iconic rowers. These masters of balance and strength skim the river from spring thaw until the hectic boat traffic of fall that precedes the Head of the Charles, when nearly 2,000 boats race a notoriously winding 3-mile course.  

Why We Wrote This

Fortitude, courage, patience, persistence – all sorts of individual qualities fuel resilience. But for these para rowers, success depends on more than themselves.

Few observers are aware that some of the athletes gliding by may normally use a wheelchair, prosthesis, or guide dog to aid their movement on land.

On the water, para rowers bear less of the weight of societal assumptions about disabilities and fewer of their myriad daily living challenges. As a result, they can focus on honing the resilience needed to compete in an exceedingly difficult sport that requires both explosive power and endurance. Behind their performance on the water lies a similar combination of day-to-day strength and grit – tested by years of facing obstacles and persevering – that keeps each of them pursuing a personal best. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Pearl Outlaw (left) holds onto Johanna Beyer as they head down the ramp to the dock for training on the river on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. Ms. Beyer rows for the Austrian national para team. Along with rowing at CRI, Ms. Outlaw is pursuing a master’s degree online in sports psychology from Ithaca College.

Community Rowing Inc. in Brighton, a neighborhood in Boston, is the largest public-access boathouse in the country and has a highly resourced, competitive para rowing program. The training offered includes a development program and the High Performance Group (HPG) for those competing to reach the national team. CRI also hosts the Paralympics National Training Camp.

Nationals and Worlds are the big competitions elite rowers face on the way up to the Olympics. It’s similar for elite rowers aiming for the Paralympics, but besides their ability level, these rowers must also prove they belong in one of several classifications of disability. The typical rowing sequence of “arms, body, legs” – a reference to how a rower moves into position to take a stroke – has a different meaning.

James Bond has Q, and CRI has Tom West, who is an engineer as well as a coach. He modifies foot plates, changes seat shapes and oar grips, and makes boats and ergometers (rowing machines) work better for individual athletes. Thanks to his inventions and adjustments, rowers can develop their natural assets despite their physical limitations. 

Many coaches say, “If rowing hurts, you know you’re doing it right!” But Mr. West points out that “a lot of para athletes are used to being in pain from the equipment not working for them.”

Then he grins, adding, “I want them to be in the right kind of pain.” 

Mr. West works closely with Para HPG Coach Beth Noll, who is also a neuroscientist. “He’s boats. I’m bodies,” she says.

Their athletes also have access to personalized attention from numerous other coaches, physical therapists, and sports psychologists, for a mind-body support team offering a holistic approach to training.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Jen Fitz-Roy chats with Coach Tom West before a training session on the river on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. Mr. West also outfits the boats for the para athletes, most of whom need a special setup.

A new challenge 

Jennifer Fitz-Roy is one of CRI’s elite-level athletes in the HPG. She was born with severe limitations to the use of her lower body, and after a lifetime of surgeries rows with her arms and trunk only. She transfers to the boat from a wheelchair and uses footplates designed by Mr. West to balance her uneven legs. 

Ms. Fitz-Roy grew up on the tree-lined streets of a small town in New Jersey. Her parents and grandparents were involved and supportive, taking turns driving her three hours to specialized doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

With using a wheelchair, being one of the few Black students in school, and having her family engaged in a prolonged struggle to get the high school to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the teenage Jennifer felt overly conspicuous.

Eventually the school installed an elevator that enabled her to go between floors without having to wait for a mandated escort, exit the building, and wheel up a steep hill. It also raised her up in other lasting ways. “All of [my parents’] actions demonstrated to me that I am worthy and I deserve equal access,” she says.

Ms. Fitz-Roy’s dad died before she graduated from high school. She moved on to Boston College, braved traveling and speaking at conferences, and explored various adaptive sports outings. “This was all way out of my comfort zone, requiring a lot of creative adaptation,” she says. “But you know, I got addicted to that feeling.”

Finding balance

When Ms. Fitz-Roy found CRI, she realized rowing was a sport she could participate in regularly, not just on weekends. She joined the program in winter, using a fixed seat on an ergometer to train. Soon after, she won her race at the biggest indoor rowing competition in the U.S. It felt amazing.

Rowing on the water presented a different challenge, though. She was strong, but she had a hard time finding her balance. As a new athlete, she was also unprepared mentally for the commitment and motivation needed to put up with that level of difficulty and discomfort. So she quit.

Around this time, one of Ms. Fitz-Roy’s surgeries resulted in chronic pain – and a dependence on prescription painkillers. Then, while she was visiting home, her mom died.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Para rower Jen Fitz-Roy sits in the boathouse after training on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts. This fall, Ms. Fitz-Roy became the para and military program manager at CRI.

Off the water, Ms. Fitz-Roy began to sink, as her addiction to facing the unknown was replaced by an urge to retreat from her pain and depression.

It took a few years, but Ms. Fitz-Roy came up for air – and managed the daunting double-challenge of finding wheelchair-accessible treatment programs and detoxing.

“I was speaking with a counselor, and I thought about the last time I felt empowered, connected, and happy. That’s how I came back to CRI,” she explains.

Ms. Fitz-Roy was soon back afloat and rowing so well that she was invited to join the HPG. She began with assistive pontoons on her boat and a bad case of imposter syndrome.

There are few steppingstone competitions to prepare high-level para rowers for the stress of races like the national team trials. Yet in 2019, even though she knew she was unlikely to win, Ms. Fitz-Roy needed the experience. She lost by more than a minute. 

“Those are the ones that make you,” says Ellen Mizner, USRowing’s paralympic high performance director. She points out that while para rowers have skills from dealing with disabilities, they still must develop toughness as athletes. “You have to see a big loss as information. If you stay home on the couch, you have no idea how far off standard you are. Once you know, you can keep going … or make changes.” 

Ms. Fitz-Roy made changes, rowed more regattas, and was invited to special training camps. 

Then the pandemic interrupted her progress, bringing stress and isolation. The constant wait-and-see status, or outright cancellation, of most major rowing events was brutal for athletes in training.

With the isolation, her plans to train abroad canceled, and the loss of her grandmother, Ms. Fitz-Roy faced another mental health crisis. She fell hard, but it was short term. She had strong support from her rowing family to help her bounce back. 

“Rowing saved her life,” Ms. Noll, the HPG coach, says of this rebound. “She wants this badly, so she was willing to make the changes she had to in order to come back and row.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Beth Noll, lead coach for the Para High Performance Group at CRI, gives pointers to her para rowers on Sept. 28, 2021, in Brighton, Massachusetts.

In 2021, Ms. Fitz-Roy rowed in the same race she had lost two years earlier, facing the same competitor. She was ahead until the last 150 meters, the spectators holding their breath watching the boats race bow-ball to bow-ball. She lost by a mere second and a half. Ms. Noll says that race has been called the “single best para race in the U.S., ever.” 

This fall, Ms. Fitz-Roy became the new para and military program manager at CRI.

Learning to listen

Pearl Outlaw is a fellow rower in the HPG whose identity and resilience as an athlete came earlier, but whose identity as a person with a disability develo

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