Seeing Integrated Sport from a New Perspective
I made my first national team as a visually impaired athlete when I was sixteen and competed internationally for the next eighteen years in athletics and cross country skiing. For much of that time, I trained with other athletes who had disabilities and worked with coaches with expertise in disability sport. But after more than 18 years competing at an elite level, I’ve decided to participate in sport at a more recreational level, giving me an opportunity to try new sports. My first foray into “recreational” sport will be a team sport: rowing. Yup, I’m hoping to be one of eight athletes in a long skinny boat who row their guts out for 2km. It might be recreational but I still want to come in first!
Lucky for me, a friend of mine competed in rowing at the 2012 Paralympics and through her, I met Martin, Rowing BC’s provincial coach for adaptive rowing. Martin has given me a number of opportunities to try rowing, including liaising with the Vancouver Rowing Club so I could integrate into an able-bodied novice rowing program. Why an integrated program? Because there simply aren’t enough adaptive athletes for an adaptive-only program. Kudos to VRC for being willing to accept me as a member and to the coaches who have been great, but I sure am getting a crash course on why it is harder for adaptive athletes to find sport programs!
Challenge #1: Getting to the boathouse. I have a rowing club located just 20 minutes away by bike. With the exception of just 2 blocks, I can bike the entire way in dedicated bike lanes or on urban trails so even though I am legally blind, I feel relatively safe using my bike. I love being able to do this because I get to decide when I come and go, which is a huge bonus for me! Because I can’t legally drive, my ability to get around is always dependent on someone else’s schedule — either that of another individual who is kind enough to give me a ride or that of a public transit system. When I have to rely on others for rides, I have to work off of their schedule. Don’t get me wrong — I am not complaining! I very much appreciate the rides! I get a warm, dry ride home and great people to socialize with but I can’t wait for the day I can jump into my own car, crank the tunes and go wherever, whenever I want.
Unfortunately, this conveniently located rowing club is not interested in integrating adaptive athletes. Even though I paid the full membership fee, I got a less than warm welcome. I now travel an hour and ten minutes each way to get to VRC where they are happy to have adaptive athletes join their programs. The upside is I have a program that is willing to help me out as needed, but the downside is I spend twice as much time travelling as I do training.
Challenge #2: Meeting people. I’m sure that sounds silly given rowing is a team sport — by definition, “team” would indicate a group of people. My problem is I can’t easily recognize faces so identifying my teammates is not easy. I’m quick to pick up on individuals who physically stand out, such as the 6’5” guy who towers over everyone, or who have unique characteristics, like the one with the German accent. But not everyone is quite so unique and eight weeks into the program, I still haven’t sorted out in my mind who’s who… especially the six men (at least I think there’s six) who all seem to be about the same height and shape with dark brown hair. Most people are now greeting each other with things like, “Hey Jeff, how was your weekend at Whistler?” and I’m still at “Do I know this guy?” I’m definitely at a disadvantage. I could be brave and take educated guess at who I’m standing next to and try to be friendly, but if I am wrong, I feel like I am only reinforcing the stereotype that people who are visually impaired are no the sharpest pencils in the box. By not taking a shot at it, I am likely coming across as cold and impersonal. So teammate identification is still a work in progress….
When I first met the team, I was up front about my vision and stated that I would likely make mistakes when trying to identify everyone. Everyone seemed to be understanding, but now that there are still six guys that I don’t know, I’m wondering what I could have done differently to make it easier. Should I be going to workouts with a white cane? That would remind everyone why I am not the most graceful (read: clumsy) person around the boathouse. It would also mean I have a white cane in my hands, making it harder to move oars and boats. Plus, it would make me feel like a hypocrite — I don’t typically use a white cane in my daily life except for crossing busy streets without stoplights so why would I emphasize it at workouts? Having said that, maybe my teammates already think I’m a hypocrite in that I say I am legally blind, but manage without a white cane or guide dog. It sometimes feels that sighted people think there are only two levels of sight in the world — blind and fully sighted — and if you happen to fall somewhere in the middle, well that just confuses everyone….
Challenge #3: Trying to not stand out. I’ve had a couple of people ask about my vision and I am happy to answer questions. However, most of them start with, “So how much vision do you have? 75-80%?” When I tell them no, I have less than 10%, they often say, “Wow, you sure don’t look like it!”. In one way, it is a compliment in that I am exceeding their expectations of what people who are legally blind are capable of. In another, it is frustrating. They have no idea that while it may look like I am simply grabbing an oar and walking it out to the boat, every move I make is a calculated one. It all starts when I arrive at the boathouse and take a casual (or at least I hope it looks casual!) walk around listening to voices to find my group. Once we get the go-ahead to get our gear, I make sure I am never the first one to the oar racks to avoid the embarrassing situation of me whacking the surrounding boats like piñatas as I try to get the oars out.
From listening to people putting the oars away after we row, I know they are put away in pairs — one port and one starboard — so I make it my mission to grab an oar right after someone makes a comment like “Okay, this makes four port oars so all we need now are two more starboard oars.” working off the assumption that whomever is handing out the oars will logically hand out a starboard oar next. I have to be fast though so I can follow the person who got an oar just before I did out to where we will launch our boat from. While I am training, anywhere from three to six boats can be launched and not all of them are part of the novice program. I would be so embarrassed to find out I had put my oar in the wrong spot and another team had counted it as theirs, leaving my team short an oar and everyone knowing it was me who goofed. Way to go, blind girl.
As I walk my oar out, I focus on not hitting anyone on my way — to date, I’ve only had three near-misses! I also know that right where the white railings start, I need to take a wider step to avoid tripping over a soft piece of rubber — I almost bailed twice on it my first day there. Once I get to where we’ll launch from, I try to put my oar somewhere I can easily find it when we come back down because I am still struggling to find a quick way to identify starboard oars from port oars. Apparently there are marks on them, but I can’t see them easily.
Once my oar is out on the dock, I go back to find my team and bring out our boat. Again, I have to be quick so I don’t end up at either end of the boat —I don’t want to be the one leading the parade. I also have to cross my fingers that everyone around me is watching that the riggers on the boat don’t hit something or someone as we move around. Once my hands are on the boat, I just follow along and can finally take a short sigh of relief. That is, until we get the boat in the water and I have to go back and get my oar (hopefully no one has taken it!) to put in the boat. Once I get seated, I have to adjust my shoes, which I now do by feeling the number of grooves to make sure they are in the right spot. The first day out, I didn’t think to do this and ended up pulling the shoes right off the tracks. Luckily, Martin was there and quickly came over to fix the problem. I was so thankful because if it had been up to me to sort out, we likely would still be sitting at the dock….
Once we launch, things get a little easier. Rowing is a very repetitive sport and when things are going well, there is a predictable rhythm to follow. But this is a novice program and all of us are still working on technique so being consistent is not our strong suit just yet. I do my best to stay in sync as I can see the blade of the oar of the person two seats up and key off of that for timing. I can’t, however, see the fine details of things they are doing, which often leaves me playing catch up. I also don’t get the benefit of watching other rowers go by while listening to coaches’ comments about the good, the bad and the ugly. I know this will get easier as I improve and that I likely will take longer to learn the techniques because I don’t get to see as much as my teammates do, but it’s a struggle at first. I’d love to be able to blindfold my teammates (though I realize this is an exaggeration of my lack of vision) and say “There, NOW what do you think?”
Challenge #4: Proving adaptive athletes are capable athletes. I think it’s human nature to want to feel you belong and are accepted in whatever group you are in — be it at work or play. When I trained with other people who had disabilities, I felt accepted for just being me with nothing to prove. Out in the wide, wide world of able-bodied sport, however, I feel I am constantly fighting the shadows of disability stereotypes. More than once I have experienced or witnessed an able-bodied person talking or acting in a way that suggests they assume that a physical or sensory disability must also mean a lack of intelligence – after winning a silver medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, I had one woman congratulate me and then say, “It’s so nice you’re doing something with your life.” Uh, thanks?
A few comments made by my rowing teammates have also led to me believe they don’t think I am as capable as they are. I know my inability to recognize everyone on sight, my strategies for moving around the boathouse and my being slower to learn proper technique is all working against me in the sense of being “normal” in the sighted world.
However, this experience has also brought to my attention how adaptive athletes new to sport might feel being integrated into able-bodied program. I am fortunate enough to have a background in sport so I have an idea of what my body can handle, which has helped me succeed. Our team’s recent 20-minute erg test is a perfect example. I can’t read the monitors on the ergs (those rowing machines you see in gyms) so at all the workouts before the time trial, I just rowed in time with the team. I had no clue what my stroke rate or split time was — I figured I was working hard enough if I was keeping up with everyone else.
Then on time trial day, the coach said, “Pick a 500m split time that would be average for you over the last few workouts and try to stick with that.” Uh, hello? That strategy would work if I had any idea what my average had been. Given I had nothing to go on, all I could do was pick a pace I felt I could hold for 20 minutes. Someone who had a physical or sensory disability and had little to no background in being physically active would not have had this experience to draw on — what then?
As the time trial started, the coach, remembering I couldn’t read the monitor, loudly started calling out my splits. Though I really appreciated the feedback, all I could think of was “Ack! Now everyone know’s my split! Oh, please let it be good, please, please let it be good!” Talk about pressure not to crash and burn! I did survive. When it was over, I could see all my teammates casually peeking at their neighbour’s scores. Me? I can’t do that subtly — my nose pressed to their monitor would be a dead giveaway.
Despite all of this, my score ended up being better than those of all the girls — and two of the guys as well! My performance relieved some of the pressure I have been feeling to prove that athletes with disabilities are capable of integrating into able-bodied programs and to earn the respect of my teammates for my rowing abilities.
I look forward to working within a team concept and though I know it won’t be smooth sailing all the time, I also look forward to meeting the challenge of becoming a more proficient rower. Oh, and kicking a little bit of able-bodied athlete butt along the way!
(photos courtesy Alex Leask – to see more of her photos visit UBC Rowing on Facebook)