May 29, 2019

Going forward backwards - A rowing adventure

I've been fairly quiet (here on the blog, at least) about something that has been occupying A LOT of my time in the last eight months. 

Despite my life-long passion and love for kayaking, in all its bow-facing (err, forward facing, for you land lubbers) magnificence, I've recently started going backward in a rowing shell. 
Pretty proud, and feeling very fortunate, to
'Rep the Leaf' for Rowing Canada

And I've recently had the opportunity to represent Canada to do it, too, at the 2019 FISA International Para Rowing Regatta in Gavirate, Italy!

This is somewhat of a surprise, given that as recently as: 
  • Seven weeks ago, I’d never been in a pairs rowing shell, and that's what I was going to have to race!
  • 17 weeks ago, I’d never been in a rowing shell, of any sort, period.
  • Eight months ago, I hadn’t even approached anyone at Rowing Canada about their para program.

The super strong young guy doing all the work in the boat
is named James. He's my pairs partner! 
All in all, the timelines to go from nothing to representing Canada appear pretty short. And I suppose in many ways they are. But the truth is, I’ve had my eye on a moment like this for around seven years, having spent many hopeful seasons gearing up for canoe/kayak, only to have upper limb classifications slowly but surely stripped out of the para disciplines of that sport. I was never able to make a leap to international competition. Hence, a switch to rowing. I feel I still have some high-performance effort to give, and this time, the only thing that will dictate how far I go is how much effort I am willing and able to put into it, rather than a board/executive decision to axe my classification from the competition. 

So, in summary, I've decided to look backward to go forward. 

I’m tall, and I’ve always been involved in sport, which means I’ve spent a lifetime of being told I should try rowing. Still being a little obsessed with boats, I decided to cold-call Rowing Canada, as the summer of 2018 came to a close, to inquire about para-rowing.

The timing was good.

They were hoping to identify a potential crew member to pair with a big, young guy in Ontario named James, who himself had only taken up rowing at the start of 2018. He was tall, like me, And enthusiastic, like me. Oh, and he’s mostly blind. If pieces fell into place fast enough, perhaps we could be ready to race together in the spring of 2019.

I won’t bore you with the details of everything that went on to turn this kayaker into a potential rower in the space of eight months. It did involve a lot of time at the gym, though, to develop some decent leg muscles for the first time in my life, and yet more time sitting on a rowing erg, building up stamina and working on technique from the safety of dry land. 

One thing I was always resistant to with the thought of rowing, was the exceptionally regimented learning curve. Start with an eight-person crew boat. Learn the terms, understand the processes, row in that crew as a beginner for a time. Then, if you’ve proved your worth, progress to a quad or a four. Develop more skill there, and then perhaps move into a double. Hit the elite level, and row in a single.

Yeah, I didn’t have time for any of that.

I have a slight 'rowing hands' problem at the moment' 
I literally rowed three times in a coxed fours boat (four rowers, one oar each, and a fith person, the coxswain, sitting in the boat guiding the way and calling out commands) before shipping off to Victoria for a week-long para training integration camp with Rowing Canada para athletes. There, I met the current team and my prospective future partner, James, as well. Still, fours was the name of the game. Fair enough. It was icy February water, and balance was still a small issue. 

It still took until late March to get me into a pairs boat (two people, one oar each, no coxswain), and it was a shaky, steep learning curve. What's more, everyone I've met that knows anything about rowing whatsoever always says the same thing: "OH. Pairs. that's the hardest boat to row!"

THANKS for the info! 

Prior to our departure for Italy, James and I were only in a pairs boat together across the space of three days. Arriving in Italy, we had five more days to train together before spending a couple of days racing. 
I will say this: the outcomes of the racing were not the main point of this trip. International classifications take place at this regatta, and so both James and I had to go through our own classification processes to be cleared for international competition in the PR3 class. 
That was the driving factor behind attending this particular competition. With that checked off the list, it was time to race. 
The week in Italy and the racing marked MANY firsts for me: 
  • First time rowing on an actual 2000m course 
  • First time racing a rowing shell, period. 
  • First time racing in--at times--VERY challenging wind conditions
  • First time wearing the maple leaf! 

The 'Spirito de Lago  / Spirit of the Lake' watched over  the
racing venue (you'll see more of her in the videos linked below) 
Dealing with the wind was exceptionally challenging for me, steering a boat that I'm still very much learning to row, with an incredibly strong partner in James, and trying to match his ability. But it was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to more (except for the punishment my nubile rowing hands are experiencing. I am slowly but surely building up some good callouses, but I have suffered to get to this point). 

It's by no means a clear shot to the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020, which is the longview on this whole rowing experiment. The one and only boat I would qualify to race in is a 'PR3 Mix 4'... two men, two women. There are two other PR3 men racing in a pair and both have deep experience, so there are four of us guys competing for two seats, and one alternate slot. The point is, of course, to put together the fastest boat for Canada. It's not all about me, at all. 

Anyway, that's the stretch goal. for now, I'm just keeping up the training, gaining more time on the water, and enjoying the new experiences. 

It was my first time in Italy, ever, and you can be damn sure I ate
alllll the pizza and pasta and drank the coffee. 
For some of you who follow my YouTube channel already, you may have caught a few episodes of my trip diary. For the rest of you, here's the whole playlist! I did one video each day in Italia, and it will give you a sense of what we got up to while we were there! 

To all those who have offered their wishes of Good Luck to me, I thank you. Your support is greatly appreciated! There's a lot of work ahead and it's still unclear how the chips will fall, so stay tuned!