About Adaptive Rowing

The following is an excerpt from the second edition of Rowing Faster (Human Kinetics, 2011), edited by Volker Nolte. This excerpt comes from Chapter 15, “Special Considerations for Adaptive Rowing,” written by Karen M. Lewis.

Athletic competition is segmented to provide a level playing field from the moment one enters the playground as a young person to the highest level of sport, the Olympic Games. Parity provides greater opportunity for athletes to achieve the peak level of human performance. Most sports have gender divisions, skill levels, age grouping, and so on. In rowing, there are gender-separated races, lightweight divisions, and masters events, and now there is also an adaptive category for rowers with physical disabilities. Adaptive rowing refers to both the equipment adaptations for rowers with disabilities and the sport as a whole. Let us first look at the history of adaptive rowing.

History of Adaptive Rowing
Philadelphia was one of the birthplaces of adaptive rowing when veterans blinded in World War II competed in an Army-versus-Navy race. Over subsequent years, efforts were made to continue rowing programs for athletes with disabilities. For example, Ted Nash, an Olympic rower and coach for the University of Pennsylvania and Penn AC, worked to bring rowing to people with visual impairments. In 1980, Chris Blackwall, the executive director of USRowing, started the first U.S. rowing club solely for people with disabilities, the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled (PRPD). Other programs were starting up all over the world, and in 1993, adaptive rowing was included for the first time as an exhibition event at the FISA World Rowing Junior Championships in Finland and then again in 1999 at the World Rowing Championships in St. Catharines, Ontario.

In 2002, the FISA world championships began to include adaptive rowing in the regular program. The sport gained momentum in 2005, when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) voted to include adaptive rowing in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games. Achieving this major milestone spurred the growth of adaptive rowing worldwide. There are now 26 countries competing at the international level, which is an impressive increase from 2002 when only seven countries participated. As the number of programs worldwide increased, so did the level of competition. As shown in figures 15.1 through 15.4, the winning times from world championships have improved rapidly. The times are more drastically improved in the fixed-seat boats in some part due to improvements in equipment and rigging. The LTAMix4+ did not need any specialized equipment and standards for rigging were already in place, so its time change was not as large.


Figure 15.1

Development of winning times at the FISA world championship regattas in the arms and shoulders women’s single (ASW1x).


Figure 15.2

Development of winning times at the FISA world championship regattas in the arms and shoulders men’s single (ASM1x).


Figure 15.3

Development of winning times at the FISA world championship regattas in the trunk and arms mixed (women and men) double (TAM ix2x).


Figure 15.4

Development of winning times at the FISA world championship regattas in the legs, trunks, and arms mixed coxed four (LTAM ix4+).

My role within adaptive rowing began as a volunteer at PRPD. With many rowers in wheelchairs, volunteers carried boats and oars and lifted rowers who needed assistance into their boats. Rowers with visual impairments needed to be guided down the dock, and individual rowers were coached from the bow of a double. Giving service to the rowing community can be personally fulfilling. After a few years of working with the athletes at PRPD, in 2005 I was hired as the US Adaptive Rowing national team coach.

When one is new to the world of disabled sport, terminology is one of the first hurdles. It can feel awkward to say “Drive with your legs!” when someone only has one leg. Rowers who are visually impaired will not benefit from the same demonstrative gesturing many coaches use, and a coach needs to develop new ways to verbally illustrate the stroke. When working with athletes with disabilities, everyone becomes more aware of the abilities that we take for granted and the challenges that these rowers deal with on a daily basis. But, people are people and adaptive rowers are quick to show that disability or not, we all share a common love for the sport. After that realization, it is easier to focus on bladework and rowing technique and not on a person’s disability.

Another challenge for me in 2005 was equipment. The recreational boats we rowed at PRPD were finless Alden Ocean doubles fitted with an Oarmaster (a standalone seat, footstretcher, and rigger combo), which was attached to the bottom of the boat with two small clamps. The boats did what they were intended to do—they allowed for a safe and stable rowing experience. But they certainly were not built for speed and were not generally rigged to fit individual rowers.

The available racing equipment also provided many challenges. Single scullers used pontoons that were mounted to the bracket with a pivot and that would tip up or down depending on the water conditions, significantly slowing the boat. Modifications, which included a rigid attachment and a raised tip, eventually made the pontoons safer and allowed them to cut through the water more efficiently. Initially, the fixed seats were attached to standard boat tracks, but the attachments were not always reliable under the great strain of racing. So, even with major diligence, the seat could loosen or come off the tracks during a race, which caused rowers to slow down to avoid serious safety problems. When the new adaptive fixed-seat tracks were developed, the seat attached to the boat safely and effectively, but the force on the seat attachment ripped up the decking. Reinforcing the deck and attaching the tracks using large washers to improve the load distribution corrected this problem. By the time the Paralympics were held in 2008, the technology was safe, reliable, and customizable to allow rowers to attain maximal speed (figures 15.5 and 15.6).


Figures 15.5a and 15.5b

(a) Standard fixed seat attached to the tracks for a boat. (b) Clamps attach this seat to a Concept2 ergometer.

For rowers without disabilities, the paths to success have been paved by many. If they dream of racing in the Olympics, they can follow a path many have gone through, such as the structure offered in the United States: Learn to row and then progress through high school or junior programs, summer racing teams, college teams, junior team development camps, under-23 competitions, and senior team selection camps or trials. If they devote 10 years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, they might become an elite rower (Ericsson, 1996). There are many opportunities to do the needed work, and the systems for skill development, training, and racing are all in place.

For adaptive rowers, the path to an elite level has only been traveled by a few. Many programs are recreational, and adaptive rowers only get on the water one or two times a week. A single sculler without disabilities can just head down to the boathouse, get in a boat, and row, whereas an adaptive rower may not be able to carry the boat and must rely on other people just to get on the water. The support required to get an athlete to the Paralympics can be much greater than that required to get an athlete to the Olympics. In addition to the current challenge of creating structures for adaptive rowing training and racing opportunities, issues of classifications, race length, equipment, and rigging are still being discussed and refined.

Outside of the external variables that differentiate adaptive rowers, it is important to recognize that each person with a disability is a unique individual: “Athletes with paraplegia, tetraplegia, or amputated limbs have different preferences, and each person has unique abilities and anatomical structure” (Cooper et al., 2006, np.). Although general guidelines are presented here for adaptive rowing and how to work with athletes with disabilities, the most valuable information will come from the athlete with whom you are working. The way people adapt to their disability is an individual process. Two rowers with the same disability may require completely different equipment modifications, so work with athletes to determine what is optimal for each one.


Figure 15.6

Pontoon and bracket assembly that has bracket options to fit most riggers.

Within adaptive rowing, there are subdivisions called classifications. Currently, there are four categories for adaptive rowers based on a functional classification system: arms and shoulders (AS), trunk and arms (TA), legs, trunk, and arms (LTA), and since the World Championships 2010 the legs, trunk and arms mixed coxed four for intellectually disabled (LTAIDMix4+). Qualified officials assess athletes both medically and functionally. Once classified, an athlete can race in his boat class and also may compete in higher categories than the one in which he is classified (e.g., a TA rower can row in the LTAMix4+, as a woman from Ireland did in the 2009 world championships), but not the other way around. Although many boat classes may be available in local races, a limited number of international events are offered. To compete in the FISA World Rowing Championships or the Paralympics, a rower must be in one of the five specific boat classes: ASW1x (women), ASM1x (men), TAMix2x (one male and one female), LTAMix4+, and LTAIDMix4+ (two male and two female rowers and a coxswain of either gender in both fours). Men and women compete in the same boat due to the concern that separate women’s events might lack participants (because some countries might not include women as readily as men in their rowing programs).

The FISA classification guidelines are still being refined, so changes are likely after the 2012 Paralympics. All five categories will race in the 2012 Paralympics. You can find the latest classification information on the FISA website (www.worldrowing.com). Rowers who can use a sliding seat, such as someone with a visual impairment or with single-leg or single-arm involvement, are in the LTA class. If a rower cannot use the sliding seat to propel the boat and requires a fixed seat, she would likely be in either the TA or AS class. An athlete who uses a fixed seat on the ergometer and who is completely comfortable without any chest strapping may be a TA rower. Rowers in the TA class would include someone with a double-leg amputation, cerebral palsy (CP) class 5, or a low spinal cord injury (L3-L1). An athlete who needs a chest strap for stability because he has minimal or no trunk function is probably in the AS class, which can include rowers with CP class 4 and with higher-level spinal cord injuries (T12 and up).

Adaptive rowers need to be classified if they are going to compete in officially sanctioned adaptive rowing events. It is important for rowers to strive to use all of their abilities when learning the sport and to worry about classifications later. In general, if a rower can use a sliding seat even a little, she should; likewise, fixed-seat athletes should use all of their reach and stabilization abilities.

In a standard shell, there are safety issues because an athlete’s feet are secured to the boat and therefore heel ties are required to ensure that the rower can get out of the shoes should the boat flip. For fixed-seat rowers, escaping from a flipped shell is a much more daunting task since they may be held securely in the boat with up to three straps. For that reason, every effort has been made to ensure that fixed-seat boats are extremely difficult to capsize. Both the standard single and double are recreational hulls and thus are wider and more stable. In addition, pontoons attached to each pin of the rigger are required in the single. Pontoons may also be affixed to the double to aid novice rowers. As with any novice rower, a safety launch should accompany them at all times.

Be sure to do a safety check before a rower shoves off the dock. Make certain that the pontoons and all seat connections are securely attached to the boat. Also, check that the feet can release easily from the shoes or clogs. If there are any straps or aids binding the rower’s hands to the oars, be sure that the rower can release the bindings with her mouth. Have the rower practice quick release of any strapping around the legs and chest as part of each lesson. Because AS rowers put great strain on the strap around the sternum, most of them prefer a wide strap that distributes the pressure better. Some have chosen weightlifting-style belts because they are strong and sufficiently stiff. Whatever straps a rower chooses, it is crucial that they all release in the same direction and that the pull tab is easily found.

Another element of adaptive rowing safety is skin protection and the prevention of pressure sores and chaffing. Even a simple cut or scratch on a lower leg can take a long time to heal for a rower with a spinal cord injury. After an initial row, the rower must do a self-check for any red pressure areas or chaffing spots so that proper adjustments can be made before participation in longer training sessions. Fixed-seat athletes should row with a cushion of their choice to alleviate this issue.

Safety should be the primary focus when setting up an athlete in a boat for the first time, but it is also important to make sure the rower is comfortable with the boat and oars. Once the rower has learned the fundamental parts of rowing and is ready to progress, he will want to get faster, and you can then make adjustments accordingly. A properly rigged boat will make it easier for an athlete to learn the correct rowing stroke. However, proper rigging in adaptive rowing will be unique to each athlete.

With the advent of fixed-seat rowing, it was immediately clear that because of the shorter stroke, there was no need for overlap of the handles. The first thing that was changed was to increase the spread on a standard rigger as much as possible and move the collar on the oar to get the shortest inboard allowing for noncrossing sculls. Depending on the equipment, this could mean a spread of 163 cm, inboard of 78 cm, and overall oar length of 285 cm. Though it makes for an extremely heavy load, rowers are able to have longer strokes instead of a quick drop in the water.

For AS rowers, the goal is to increase the arc that the oar follows through the water. AS rowers have a short stroke, so a short inboard is needed. They also require a smaller spread, so custom riggers can be made with spreads as low as 125 cm. The angle of the rigger out to the pin is smaller, allowing the rower to reach further through the pin and achieve a larger catch angle. Without crossover, no differential is needed, so the oarlock heights can be the same. With standard oars, this type of rigging is generally not possible without moving the sleeve, and because of the length of the oar, it is too heavy for racing. We opted to purchase shorter oars with larger blades to create a lighter load and thus achieve higher stroke rates to race the 1,000 m (see figure 15.7). An AS or TA rower using a noncrossing oar would want at least 8 cm space between the ends of the handles. For example, 140 cm spread would require a maximum of 66 cm inboard (see figure 15.8).


Figure 15.7

ASM1x at entry.


Figure 15.8

ASM1x at release.

Starting a Program
What does it take to start an adaptive rowing program? In the beginning, it just takes two people: an athlete and an advocate. Open your doors and see who comes in. PRPD in Philadelphia began its first year with only one boat, one rower, and two volunteers. Today, it has over 60 participants per week and teaches rowing to athletes both with and without disabilities. Many adaptive rowers do not need fixed seats, so you may be able to include rowers without added expense.

When starting an adaptive rowing program, many clubs alter the equipment that is already available because this is the quickest and least costly approach. Some adaptive programs consist mainly of sliding-seat athletes and so they have not needed to change much in the way of equipment. For new fixed-seat rowers, it is relatively easy to adapt the Concept2 ergometer with a fixed seat and to start athletes on the indoor training machine. Once they develop the strength and endurance needed to propel a boat and are ready to get on the water, you can decide whether to adapt the equipment at your club or to purchase new adaptive boats. If you have limited funding, start by adding pontoons to a recreational shell before purchasing a new boat. As explained before, though, customized equipment and proper rigging will best allow rowers to improve their technique and will result in greater boat speed.
For the remainder of the chapter on adaptive rigging, equipment, technique, training, racing, and starting a program, see the second edition of Rowing Faster, published by Human Kinetics. According to three-time Olympic gold medalist Kathleen Heddle, Rowing Faster “manages to capture not only the sport of rowing but also the elusive qualities of the art of rowing.” The book is now available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at HumanKinetics.com.

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