Coaching Para-Athletes to Overcome Adversity and Perceived Barriers in Rowing

by Ed Moran, | Oct 14, 2015
Ellen Minzner is not easily intimidated. Fact is, trying to tell her she is incapable of doing something is a little like poking a stick at a cornered Wildcat. It’s not a good idea.
ellen12Ellen Minzner is not easily intimidated. Fact is, trying to tell her she is incapable of doing something is a little like poking a stick at a cornered Wildcat. It’s not a good idea.

Minzner was a Wildcat once, as an undergraduate at Villanova University – an undersized, underweight Wildcat who fought her way to the top of her rowing program, became team captain and led her varsity eight to a silver medal in the Dad Vail Championships. Then she went on to become a two-time world champion, rowing in the U.S. women’s lightweight pair.

“I love being the underdog,” Minzner said. “I was a lightweight rower trying to earn my chops against open weight competitors when I could. I was even small as a lightweight. So I don’t mind being an underdog.”

And now she is a leader of underdogs.

As the Director of Outreach Programs at the Brighton, Mass. based Community Rowing Inc., one of her main focuses is teaching disabled athletes that barriers can be torn down.

Since stepping into the world of para-rowing in 1988, Minzner’s inner drive to overcome apparent, or perceived, adversity has been the guiding force for dozens of disabled rowers who wanted nothing more than an opportunity to succeed.

ellen6Over the last two summers, Minzner has run the USRowing selection camp for the legs, trunk, and arms four with coxswain that competes at the world championships. Her crew of coxswain Jenny Sichel (Clifton, N.J.) of Community Rowing Inc., Ricky Vandegrift (Cincinnati, Ohio) of CRI and Cincinnati Juniors, Zachary Burns (Ann Arbor. Mich.) of Skyline High School, Dani Hansen (Patterson, Calif.) of University of Washington and Jaclyn Smith (Williston Park, N.Y.) have won back-to-back silver medals.

In recognition of her work in para-rowing, Minzner has been awarded the USRowing 2015 Isabel Bohn Award, which is presented to an individual or organization achieving measurable success in expanding rowing opportunities for those with physical and intellectual disabilities.

Minzner will be recognized at the Golden Oars Awards Dinner on Thursday, November 19, 2015, at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.

“I’m completely honored and completely humbled, especially since I did not pull a single stroke,” Minzner said. “I am very proud of all we do at Community Rowing, which highlights every other level of rowing, Paralympic or adaptive. Coaching the four this summer is really the icing on the cake and this honor is a tremendous award for all we have accomplished,” she said.

“But I also think the main thing about this award is that it highlights some of the work that still needs to be done. We still have people sitting on the sidelines that could benefit from the sport. And we all could benefit from having them be part of our rowing community.”

Following her career in rowing at Villanova and the U.S. national team, Minzner has coached extensively in at nearly every level. In 1988, while early in her coaching career, Minzner was hired at CRI to coach in the adaptive program and has since shaped it’s success.

"Ellen has never met a person in the world who isn't, in some recess of their soul, a rower.  From the teenager with a rare form of cerebral palsy, to the class of kids from the local school for the deaf, to the 75-year-old rower recovering from a stroke,” said CRI Executive Director Bruce Smith. “Ellen has created an environment, a process, a staff and a community that takes people out of their disability and into a world of success and accomplishment," he said.

Minzner began at CRI in 1988 when adaptive rowing was still under the “very broad banner of rowing for all,” she said. “Back then it was just a lot of creativity, ingenuity and duck tape to get people on the water. And there were a lot of courageous people like Isabel Bohn and others who just said we have to do this and we have got to figure it out.

“That’s the basis of what we have now. We have an amazing sport that needs to be shared and we need to figure out how to do it.”

What Minzner has figured out in her time in adaptive sport is that the barriers of adversity in para-rowing are not just shaped by physical disabilities.

ellen1“Adversity takes so many different forms,” she said. “For me, I have to be able to coach an athlete and push an athlete and challenge an athlete. I want to be supportive and empathetic about the adversity that they have encountered in their lives. But when I think of the adversity they face, I think about the possibility of not being taken seriously enough in the rowing community.”

What Minzner means is that while para-rowing is an established world level sport, and has been since 2008, the events are held separate from typical regatta programming times. At the world championships, races are scheduled either early or late in the day, before of after able-bodied events are run.

That is typically a factor of having to set up a shortened course, from two thousand meters to one thousand, and having to move start platforms into and out of place.  She said she hopes – and believes – that will change in her time as a para-rowing coach, but she also believes that change is needed on a more universal level in the rowing community.

“I feel as though whatever affects the athlete’s performance, I want to help them deal with it, to make sure they are appropriately challenged and pushed to reach their goals because when they come to sport, they come with the same passion and desire and dedication as an able bodied athlete. Yet, sometimes their opportunity is lacking, or not where it could be.”

There are programs with coaches that see adaptive athletes as people capable of competing as full members of their programs. “I really have to tip my hat to coaches who automatically say to these athletes, ‘Hey, you can move a boat. You can do it for me. You can do it at this club. I don’t mind if you don’t have a leg or a foot or whatever. That is what has made them champions.”

In the para-crew Minzner coaches, four of the athletes row in able-bodied programs. Hansen rows at the University of Washington. Burns rows for Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. Vandergrift rows for Cincinnati Juniors and Clermont Crew in Bethel, Ohio and Smith rows at Sacred Heart University.  

“What has inspired them is the opportunity to compete on whatever terms they can and earn their own seat,” Minzner said. “They may be the only kid with a disability in their program, but they’re making a second or third boat. That says something about not only the character and determination of that athlete, but the open-mindedness of that coach.

“I wish they were as common as you might think, but there are not enough. I had a kid at selection camp that is not that old of a guy but was told by his college coach, ‘You can’t come out for the team, you’re blind.’

“The missed opportunity to shape athletic development in a college or high school system where everyone is just pursuing national championships or working towards goals regardless of a disability, is an opportunity missed for athletic development and that’s very, very hard to regain and something we have to acknowledge in the sport.

“In some ways, we need a little bit of special accommodation to make sure we can legally compete and be in the same category. But, it is just so fun to see what you can do against a goal that’s probably bigger than yourself or beyond your grasp.”

ellen11Minzner said she is working toward placing para-rowing athletes in the position to compete in able-bodied races. “If I tell an athlete ‘I know you only have one leg, but we’re going to put you in a standard racing single and see how you do. And when that goes well, we’re going to actually enter you in races against able bodied athletes and see how you do.’ That is very, very exciting and motivating for the athletes and it’s a fun position to be in.

“We are at a point in the development of para-rowing where we are pioneering some things and most of the athletes that I work with are very aware of that fact, and that it is very exciting. The young people we have here today, within their lifetime, para-rowing events may go to two thousand meters. Within their careers, boats will change and they are going to able to look back in history and say I was part of that movement.

“I find that very exciting and maybe it does fit with myself being an underdog in my athlete career. It’s pretty fun. What I see that changes the athletes I coach is the opportunity to prove themselves. And like anything else, they feel good as people when they do something they didn’t think they could do before.

“When you break down a barrier within yourself, doing something you didn’t think you could do before, that’s pretty much what sport is all about and what brings people back to the water everyday.”

Tickets for the Golden Oars Awards Dinner are on sale now. Go ticket sales and full event information go here.
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