Written on FEBRUARY 11, 2012 AT 12:24 AM by

All About Adaptive Rowing

What Exactly is Adaptive Rowing?

Adaptive rowing is a specific category in rowing that pertains to
rowers with certain disabilities. Just as there are divisions and
competitions that are separated by gender, skill levels, and age,
adaptive rowing refers to the sport of rowing with disabilities. To
create an accurate portrait of adaptive rowing, it is important to
understand the history of this category in rowing.

The History of Adaptive Rowing

Veterans of World War II were essential players in the sport of
adaptive rowing in the United States. Taking place in Philadelphia,
veterans who were blinded from the war competed in an Army vs. Navy
race. This race was a starting point for adaptive rowing, and programs
would continue to emerge for athletes with disabilities. Early
proponents of adaptive rowing include Ted Nash, an Olympic rower and
coach for the University of Pennsylvania and Penn AC, and Chris
Blackwall, the executive director for USRowing. Nash dedicated his
time in helping bring rowing to people with visual impairments, while
Blackwall created the first United States rowing club specifically for
people with disabilities, the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the
Disabled. In 1993, adaptive rowing was demonstrated as an exhibition
event at the FISA World Rowing Junior Championships in Finland. In
1999, adaptive rowing was showcased once again at the World Rowing
Championships in St. Catharine’s, Ontario.

In 2002, the FISA world championships would begin including adaptive
rowing in their regular rowing program, and in 2005, the International
Paralympic Committee would vote to include adaptive rowing in the 2008
Beijing Paralympic Games. This vote helped popularize adaptive rowing
as a sport worldwide. As of today, there are 26 counties competing
internationally for adaptive rowing.

Challenges Faced in Adaptive Rowing:

While I have never participated in planning any adaptive rowing
events, competitors in adaptive rowing often require additional
assistance before competitions. Volunteers are often needed to carry
boats and oars and assist competitors into their boats. Those with
visual impairments may need further guidance to ensure a safe race.

Terminology is an initial hurdle in adaptive rowing. As you can
imagine, it might feel awkward telling a competitor to “drive with
[their] legs” when that same individual is missing a leg. Furthermore,
competitors who are visually impaired need a coach who can verbally
illustrate a stroke, as they would not be able to see any gesturing
motions a coach may use.

Initial racing equipment provided another challenge in the beginning
stages of adaptive rowing. Seats and mounts were unreliable and could
loosen or come of the tracks during a race. Fortunately, through trial
and error, new and adaptive tracks and improvements in load
distributions were developed so disabled rowers could compete with
minimal equipment problems. By the time the Paralympics were held in
2008, rowing technology for disabled rowers were safe, reliable, and
customized to the rowers.

The Path to Success:

For those without disabilities, the path in becoming an elite or
Olympic rower is somewhat fixed and structured. Learn to row and
progress through junior programs, followed by college teams and
under-23 competitions. The devotion of years and thousands of hours is
required for the skill development of success.

However, for adaptive rowers, the path to becoming a master rower is
much different. Many adaptive rowing programs are largely
recreational, and many adaptive rowers are only able to get out on the
water once or twice a week. While an individual without any specific
disabilities can simply head to a boathouse, get into a boat and row,
for those with disabilities, it is not always that easy. Much more
support is required for an adaptive rower, especially one who is
training for the Paralympics. Each adaptive rower is different, and
requires specific equipment modifications tailored to their needs.
Even two rowers with the same disability may require very different
equipment modifications.

Despite difficulties in adaptive rowing, all athletes, disabled or
not, share a common drive and love for the sport of rowing which
drives them to continue training hard and pushing through boundaries
and obstacles.

Classifications in Adaptive Rowing:

In adaptive rowing, there are several subdivisions which are called
classifications. There are currently four categories for disabled
rowers based on types of functional classification system: arms and
shoulders (AS), trunk and arms (TA), leg, trunk, and arms (LTA), and
the legs, trunk and arms mixed coxed four (LTAIDMix4+), for those with
intellectual disabilities. Officials are required to assess athletes
medically and functionally in classifying each athlete. Notably, to
compete in the FISA World Rowing Championships or the Paralympics,
rowers must be in one of the five types of boat classes: ASW1x
(women), ASM1x (men), TAMix2x (one male and one female), LTAMix4+, and
LTAIDMix4+ (two males and two females with a cox of either gender in
both fours). Men and women can compete in the same boat because there
may not be enough participants to separate competitions by gender.

Safety Issues:

Safety is another issue that should be looked after in adaptive
rowing. In standard shells, because the feet of the athlete are
secured to the boat, heel ties are necessary to ensure that the rower
can free themselves from their shoes in case their boat flips. In
fixed-seat rowing, it is much more dangerous for the rower if their
shell capsizes, as each athlete is held in place with up to three
straps. It is this reason that every effort is made to make fixed-seat
boats very difficult to capsize.

While adaptive rowing is a relatively new sport, as technology further
improves, and its popularity continues to spread around the world,
this sport will continue to flourish with the same drive as any other
sport. For all of you adaptive rowers, keep practicing hard and doing
what you are doing, because this article is for you.