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Gabriel Gerbic and Wendy Benz pull hard at the oars of their training boat.

Rowing in the Desert

Online Exclusive posted Friday, April 13, 2012 - 11:31am

Athletes are finding the sport of rowing to be a beneficial training tool as well as an exciting sport.

A solitary wheelchair sits idle on a dock, its owner now pulling at the oars that power his boat across a shimmering Arizona lake. While the sport of competitive rowing dates back to 1756, adaptive rowing is still in its infancy, having events added to the World Rowing Championships in 2002 and first appearing in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing.

While not a vast barren desert, Arizona isn’t typically associated with the sport of competitive rowing, but the folks at Rio Salado Rowing Club (RC) are inspiring athletes and novices alike by offering a variety of rowing programs.

Rio Salado RC was first acquainted with the adaptive side of rowing after attending the 2009 U.S. Rowing Annual Convention. There, club members got to meet athletes and equipment suppliers and felt it would be an interesting addition to their program.

ASU student Maegan Clark enjoys rowing as part of her workout routine.

“We connected with community partners, Arizona Bridge to Independent Living (ABIL), Arizona Disabled Sports (AzDS), and Arizona Spinal-Cord Injury Association who all helped sponsor our program,” says program director Wendy Benz. “Now in its second year, we have connected with other adaptive rowing programs across the country who share information back and forth.”

Along the way, Rio Salado RC wrote grants in cooperation with indoor rowing machine manufacturer Concept Two, who provided the club with eight machines to use as trainers. The club wrote and developed a research study with the help of Arizona State University (ASU) Center for Adaptive Neuro-Systems that measured balance and how rowing would impact an adaptive athlete. They record a host of variables based on the individual athlete and level of injury and adapt the boat to their needs.

The athletes trained for 12 weeks under the watchful eyes of volunteers from the rowing club and ASU. “Rowing is interesting in that we adapted the equipment, not the sport,” says Benz. “With some simple modifications we can accommodate virtually any athlete. It’s a lot of engineering and some creativity.”

As news of the program got out curious rowers made their way to Tempe Town Lake for a chance to paddle a competitive boat. Some for the first time.

Joining the band of rowers, the Phoenix Banner Suns wheelchair basketball team took advantage of the program and cross-trained their athletes to help work muscles not normally used during basketball games. The team reports rowing on the lake and using the stationary trainers helped build stamina and endurance during games.

Rio Salado RC connected with Paralympic rower Scott Brown, who volunteered his time and experience, performed water clinics, and helped in training for certification to classify athletes interested in competing in rowing.

Competitive classification for any sport has specific criteria based on national or international competition. Certification  in the sport of rowing requires a medical classifier and technical classifier. The medical trainer could be a physical therapist (PT) or doctor. The rowing club connected with therapists from Banner Good Samaritan who volunteered their time to the program. The technical person is simply an individual who is versed in the sport of rowing.

When an athlete is classified, the PT will consult with him/her and perform a series of tests and interviews looking into such things as range of motion, resistance levels,  and pushing or pulling movements. The athlete then gets onto an indoor rowing machine, where performance is scored into three possible classifications based on ability to maintain a prolonged rowing cadence and technique.

Three levels of classification:

Leg-trunk-arms: Athletes with visual limitations or amputees. No boat modifications.

Trunk-Arms: Athletes who are able to “hinge” at the hips. Requires seat modification and the athlete to wear a lap belt.

Arm-Shoulders: Requires seat modification and the athlete to wear a lap belt and shoulder strap.

“In non-adaptive rowing, the seat slides as a rower generates power using the legs,” explains Benz. “In adaptive rowing, the seat is stationary, and based on the athletes level of injury, they would be belted in. The seat is adjustable to a variety of athlete sizes, which is all recorded to see what works best.”

Since the program’s inception, 30-40 athletes have come to give rowing a try. With the recent opening of the Virginia G. Piper Sports and Fitness Center (SpoFit), Rio Salado RC has launched a rowing program at the new 55,000 sq.-ft., facility.

“The rewarding part is seeing those who believe they couldn’t do this sport actually find they can,” says Benz. “It’s been very thrilling to get someone from their chair and onto the water. It must be so liberating.”

Many wheelchairs sit idle on a dock...

For more information, visit Rio Salado Rowing Club online.


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