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Freedom on the Water

March 04, 2013

On a ludicrously blustery Thanksgiving Day in 2010, a tree toppled in front of a home near White Rock Lake.

Elizabeth Daane and her sons were returning to their house after feeding the neighbors’ cats when they heard the crack.

“Run,” Daane demanded as she instinctively pushed her children toward safety.

When it struck, the tree punctured Daane’s lung, fractured a vertebrae and left the young mother’s lower body without feeling or functionality.

Daane survived her injuries, endured physical therapy, began adjusting to her new limitations and resumed life as a busy professional, wife and mother, but she missed the aerobic activity that she previously had found in running and cycling at White Rock Trail, a hub of outdoor recreation less than a mile from her home.

Over the past several years, Mary Condon researched ways in which to combine her experience as a physical therapist and her love of rowing. The result was the collaboration with the White Rock Boathouse, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, and the emergence of an adaptive rowing program last May. Mary explains that “adaptive” means adjusting the sport to meet the needs of people with physical limitations. Adaptive rowers might include folks with spinal cord injuries, paraplegia, someone who has lost a limb or someone who is sight or hearing impaired.

“We had (in the spring adaptive rowing class) a man with brittle bone disease — or Osteogenesis imperfecta — who never let it stop him from becoming an athlete,” Condon says. “He is a paralympian whose ice hockey team won the gold. There are a couple of people with amputations, some spinal cord injuries. Some of them have had disabilities since birth and others sustained their injuries as an adult — one was in a car accident. Another was hit by a bus.” On the first day of class last spring, during which enrollees would learn rowing fundamentals on machines called ergs, Condon had eight students.

Elizabeth Daane was one of them.

“I signed up because it was there, right near my house, and I wanted to exercise.” When you don’t have use of your legs, she explains, finding an effective form of cardiovascular training is tough. Though Daane herself had never rowed, she says her sister is a rower and her brother-in-law was a crew coach at Princeton. “When they came to visit me, my brother-in-law was very impressed with the (White Rock Boathouse). He said ‘do you realize that one of the biggest boathouses I’ve ever seen is half a mile from your house?’ And he has visited a lot of boathouses.”

No matter what your bodily restrictions, being in a boat on the water makes you feel free, those involved with the program attest.

“In the boat,” Condon says, “they look just like any other athlete out here at the lake. One day, one of the women, with tears in her eyes, told me that it is just so nice to see everyone out of their (wheel)chairs.”

For Daane, being on the water is freeing and fitness boosting, but, also importantly, it helps give her sons, ages 11 and 8, a positive perspective on circumstances.

“One of the main reasons I took this up, other than to stay in shape, is because I want them to see me as normal, not impaired.”

The pumping of the heart, the flowing of the blood, the strengthening of the core, shoulders, triceps and biceps all make the rowers feel resilient, alive and healthy, but camaraderie among the participants provides a psychological sort of healing that is arguably equally important, says Toni Collins, a mother of 11-year-old twins who sustained a debilitating spinal cord injury in an accident eight years ago. She says she had re-learned how to exercise — she rides a hand cycle and has worked with trainers at the local gym — but that being with a group of people, all of whom share a common bond, was especially motivating and comforting.

“There are just things you can’t share with others who don’t have similar disabilities,” she says. “If I joke with an able-bodied person about falling out of my chair, for example, they won’t laugh!”

While she still engages in other sports, Collins says “it is easier to go to a workout when you are not the only one in a chair.”

Learning at their own pace, adaptive rowing students are free to “piddle around on the water or bust out an intense workout,” as Collins puts it. It is an activity from which participants derive physiological and psychological benefits that increase their quality of life, the women agree. They repeatedly use the word “free” to describe how it makes them feel. They also insist that without the dedication of unpaid volunteers Condon, and assistants Lisa Henry and Michael Lutz, the opportunity would not exist.

Collins chuckles as she describes how “easy” the adaptive rowing team has it. “A big part of rowing is getting the boats, carrying them to shore, putting them back up when you’re done. The volunteers take care of all the hard stuff for us,” she says. “When we are done we are off in our cars as they are putting back all the equipment.”

The women hope to spread the word about the program, which so far, has only been publicized via word of mouth.

“What a joy it is,” Collins says, “I mean, what a gift Mary has given us.”

Visit whiterockboathouse.com to learn more about the adaptive rowing program or to enroll. The program is open to any person with a physical disability. An $80 enrollment fee includes 10 sessions with a coach.

Christina Hughes Babb, photos by Danny Fulgencio and Mike Daane

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