Despite the rain, there was a bustle of activity and excitement Wednesday morning at the James Madison Park boathouse. It was the last day of a four-week adaptive rowing course, and participants and volunteers were too busy setting up the boat shells to let a little rain slow them down.
The adaptive rowing group consists of 10 participants and approximately twenty volunteers. The participants have varying physical disabilities, including spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida, and most are in wheelchairs.
The course is a joint effort between the Mendota Rowing Club and the UW Adapted Fitness Program under the department of kinesiology. The collaboration is unique, Mendota Rowing Club coordinator Cayte Anderson said, because it allows UW-Madison students and faculty to assist the participants while other volunteers assist with rowing instruction. "We really couldn't do it without each other," Anderson said.
First-time rowing participant Noah Hershkowitz said his wife was apprehensive about the program. "She didn't think they could get us in the boats," Hershkowitz said. "But they managed well. We enjoyed it a lot, and it was only the weather that didn't cooperate."
In fact, weather was the only complaint many rowers had about the program. When hot weather or storms prevented rowers from getting out on the lake, the group practiced inside on ergonomic rowing machines. "It was good exercise, even inside," said Jane Schmieding, a rower with multiple sclerosis.
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"I joined because I wanted to be challenged, and I wanted to be healthier," said Betty Merten, a rowing participant with spina bifida. Though getting in and out of the boats can be a challenge, Merten and other participants looked comfortable once in the shell. "I am very able," Merten said. "I just happen to bring my seat with me wherever I go," she said, pointing to her wheelchair on the boat dock.
The group uses two boats, and experienced rowers share the boat with participants. Ben Blair, a high school volunteer from the Mendota Rowing Club Juniors group, had been out with the group on Tuesday morning. "They are very smooth, and their timing is great," Blair said.
Standard shells are adapted for use in the program. An initial concern was stability. "They can be tippy," Anderson explained. Small pontoons are affixed to the side of the boats to act as outriggers and add stability. In a typical shell, the seats slide. The adapted boats have stationary seats to allow some rowers to use their arms and trunk only. Similar equipment was used on boats at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, Anderson said.
The rowing club has had an adaptive program in the past, but it was small, and activity had lapsed in recent years. "We really expanded this year. It's a fully-integrated program," Anderson said.
Will the adaptive rowing course take place again next year?
"Absolutely," Anderson said. "We have resounding support from this particular group."