My time here in Princeton, New Jersey has come to an end. I have been here since last Wednesday in order to train and prepare my boat for the World Championship Trials, which took place today at Mercer Lake. I feel very fortunate to be having the opportunity that has been presented to me since I was invited earlier this year to be part of the Oklahoma City rowing program.
In a nutshell, here’s the deal:
Rowing made its debut in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. It was a relatively small sport and the U.S. had a full team, which was competitive, but not deep. Now going into London, U.S. Rowing is taking a proactive approach to building the team so that we (as a country) have increased medal opportunities in 2012. Some of the athletes have retired since the 2008 Games and U.S. Rowing is rebuilding. So, through this talent identification program (see my previous blog) I have been presented with the opportunity to test my abilities in this new sport.
It has been, and continues to be a learning curve for me, but I love an athletic challenge. My job in today’s race was to show the promise and potential I have to be competitive Internationally. Even though the Paralympics are next year, the United States must compete on the world stage to qualify boats in each of the classifications for next year’s Games. The best and most efficient means for doing this is to send a full team to the World’s this year and place in the top 8 in order to earn those slots. My goal today was to be one of the lucky athletes to be named to the World Championship team to help the U.S. earn a slot in the women’s AS division.
That’s what brought me to New Jersey a week ago today. For those of you who have read my Ironman reports, this one has significantly less drama. First of all, I didn’t have to travel with any equipment, which made the trip much less stressful. Getting the boat to the competition site, seems to be the responsibility of the coach. In my case, Coach “Muff” aka Matt Muffelman, a 2008 World Champion gold medalist and 2009 silver medalist in the men’s lightweight eight. My teammates and I are also learning, that he is somewhat of a rock star as he seems to know absolutely everyone and everything to do with rowing. In that case, a good guy to have coaching you.
And although I had a lot of work to do on the water this week, it was Muff who spent hours getting my boat dialed in so that it would not only be set up legally, but also efficiently. So while I sat around socializing and watching, he was busy at work tweaking this and that, and working his magic so that I could have the best race possible. Then he, and whoever else was coming along for the ride, would follow me on a motorized boat to watch my practices, critique my technique and make sure I was doing what I was supposed to. Usually when we practice in OKC, there aren’t too many boats on the water at a time, but here the lake was really jumping with action. The seven lanes were set up when we got here and so I learned the traffic pattern and when to stay out of the way of the fast guys or when to tell them to move around.
I had two teammates here with me, Jacqui and Tony, who also train at OKC, and they row in the TA classification. Just for a little background, here’s how the adaptive division shakes out. There are four classifications:
1) ASW1x: Arms and Shoulders Women Single. This is my classification. What this means, is that I have no core strength/function. I row on a fixed seat, not using my legs, and I wear a chest strap around me and the back of my rowing seat so that I literally can only row with my arms and shoulders. The type of rowing I do is called sculling. My division also rows with pontoons on the boats because of balance issues.
2) ASM1x: Same thing for the men’s side
3) TA Mixed double: TA stands for trunk and arms. These athletes can have a variety of disabilities from a low spinal cord injury, to amputation, to who-knows-what. But they have use of both their trunk and arms. They do not row using their legs. Also, they row sculling. (If they were to row what’s called ‘sweep’, they would each use one oar and would be called a pair. But they are a ‘double’, which means two people rowing with two oars each.)
4) LTA coxed four: This is a boat with four rowers, is mixed gender, each rower uses one oar, (which is called sweep) and they have a coxswain (the person who steers and coaches the boat). LTA stands for legs, trunk and arms.
OK…so to the race. My event was just a time trial. Me against the clock. Looking for a race of seven minutes. I raced alongside Ron Harvey the men’s AS rower and he was doing the same. Having raced many cycling time trials, I knew what I needed to do, but my main worry was rowing out to the start which was 1500 meters away, and then getting backed into the dock and not miss my start time. As it turned out, that was all fine and good. We got the two minute warning and, to be honest I was getting a little dizzy as I was trying to hold my boat straight at the dock and having the waves rolling underneath me. Then the starter got on the microphone and said, “Mr. Harvey, Ms. Downing” and I freaked out a second because I had thought we’d get a one-minute warning, but now it was time for the start. As soon as he said, “Ms. Downing” he followed it with “attention” and then the buzzer and we were off. Of course, Ron’s start was like lightening compared to mine, and that was the last I saw of him. Since in rowing you are moving with your back forward, you only see your other competitors when you are in the front, or winning. Unlike in cycling or triathlon, when you’re winning, you’re competitors are behind you and you have little or no idea as to what they’re doing. But, I tried to watch the buoys and meter markers, my stroke coach (the computer that tells you your strokes per minute), my time and my technique, all while concentrating on the job I had to get done. I was shooting for a seven-minute race and when I finally crossed the 1000-meter mark, I had done a 7:04. Good enough to show that, with a lot of hard work, I should be able to be competitive internationally. Now, I have my work cut out for me. I have only two months until I travel with the World Championship team to Bled, Slovenia, to place in the top eight and earn a Paralympic slot for the U.S. (this, by the way, does not qualify ME for the Paralympics, rather the U.S. I will still need to race for a Paralympic berth next year at the Trials). It is not a given that I can or will do it. I have watched past World Championships videos and those girls look like animals. However, I will spend as much of the next eight weeks as I can in OKC and when I’m in Denver, it means all the hours I put into Ironman last year, will now be spent in the gym lifting weights or rowing on the ergometer. I know I have the talent, it’s just a matter of time. I think you could call this getting thrown into the fire, but I am lucky to have a great coach and training center and plenty of race experience to get through it without getting burned.
And with that, a new adventure begins…