Navy veteran and amputee Dave Nelson Jr., always wanted to try adaptive rowing, thinking he likely had a natural ability for it.
So when the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games this week in Dallas featured rowing as an exhibition event, Nelson jumped on the opportunity. An avid handcycler, Nelson saw a natural fit.
“I thought rowing would be a good sport for me because I have the upper body strength for it,” he says. “I like the freedom on the water, and because I do handcycling, I like that I can get out on the water and go as fast as I can. I’ve been on rowing machines before, but this is the first time I’ve tried this. It’s definitely something I want to pursue more.”
About 70 veteran wheelchair athletes participated in this year’s rowing exhibition on White Rock Lake on June 22, 2015.
“We’ve wanted to do adaptive rowing for a long time, so to do it in conjunction with the Wheelchair Games has been amazing,” said Belinda McDonnell, president of Dallas United Crew (DUC), which sponsored the rowing exhibition for wheelchair athletes.
DUC member and experienced able-bodied rower Donna Swanson said adaptive rowing differs considerably from the able-bodied version, which in addition to arm movement requires pushing with the legs and upper and lower body.
“In adaptive rowing, everyone’s situation is unique,” Swanson said. “There’s no one piece of equipment that serves everyone’s needs, so we have several experts here to help veterans find the right fit so they can have the best experience.”
The rowing exhibition Monday featured leading coaches in adaptive rowing, including Debbie Arenberg, adaptive programs development specialist for U.S. Rowing, and Tom Darling, three-time Olympian and director of para-rowing for U.S. Paralympics.
For Michael Payne, a paralyzed Army veteran attending his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games, rowing is just one of many sports he’ll be trying out for the first time this week. He believes it’s important to keep active.
McDonnell said DUC’s goal is to build a community boathouse in Dallas that will serve diverse groups, including adaptive communities. The organization is currently working with VA therapists and Paralyzed Veterans in an effort to make the boathouse one of the best facilities for adaptive needs in the country, she said.
“It’s an honor to work toward that goal and serve our veterans,” McDonnell said. “It’s been phenomenal to do this today, but our goal is to do this every day for our veterans.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.